Counsel for the phone-hacking victims David Sherborne appeared to think he was ambushing Piers Morgan with a terribly incriminating smoking gun when he cross-examined the former Mirror editor at the Leveson Inquiry.
But Morgan was ready for the accusation that the Mirror suppressed information about phone-hacking in 1998 and then used it for its own heinous means. And Sherborne ended up, it must be said, looking like a bit of a wally.
Here is their exchange (taken from the official transcript):
Sherborne: Mr Morgan, you said in your book, and you confirmed in your evidence to the inquiry earlier, that the first you ever heard of the practice of phone hacking was on 26 January 2001. Is that correct?
Morgan: Yes, that appears to be the case, judging by the entry in the book, yeah.
Sherborne: And you still maintain that, do you?
Sherborne: You were the editor of the Daily Mirror in August 1998, weren't you?
Sherborne: And you remember, no doubt, Oonagh Blackman, who was one of your editors; is that correct?
Morgan: A. Yes. She was a reporter, actually…. …
Sherborne: Were you aware, Mr Morgan, that she was contacted by someone in August 1998 with a major news story about how mobile telephones could be hacked?
Sherborne: The story came, we've heard, from someone called Steven Nott, a Welsh lorry driver. That's a fairly memorable story, isn't it?
Morgan: I don't remember it.
Sherborne: Mr Nott gave evidence here, evidence which wasn't challenge by Trinity Mirror, that Ms Blackman, when he telephoned her, was very excited about this story and told him it would be one of the biggest headlines that decade. Do you not recall that?
Morgan: Well, given that decade included events like the death of the Princess of Wales and other major events, I find that incredibly hard to believe. I have to say, I watched his evidence. I've studied this man's website since then, and he seems to me one sandwich short of a picnic.
Sherborne: So you're well aware of his evidence then, Mr Morgan?
Morgan: I watched a bit of it live, actually, yeah.
Sherborne: A story such as this, you would have expected Oonagh Blackman to bring to you, wouldn't you?
Morgan: Well, I just think the idea this is the biggest news story of the decade that he said is complete nonsense.
Sherborne: And you then, having heard his evidence, will know that he said that after chasing Ms Blackman for days and days, finally 12 days later she came back and said that the newspaper wasn't interested in the story at all.
Morgan: That happens every hour of every day on a daily newspaper. We are offered thousands of stories like this, a lot of them from people like Mr Nott, who are slightly barking. And we clearly rejected it, I would imagine, on that basis. I had nothing to do with him.
Sherborne: Barking, you say, Mr Morgan? But he was right, wasn't he, because mobile telephones could be hacked in precisely the way that he said they could?
Morgan: That's true.
Sherborne: So he wasn't really barking, was he?
Morgan: Well, I watched his testimony. I'd say fairly barking, yeah.
Sherborne: And when Mr Nott complained that the Mirror had spent 12 days checking out his story and then decided that, despite the fact that this practice worked, they weren't actually going to publish anything, he was very concerned, wasn't he, that you were going to use it at the Mirror for the purposes of obtaining stories about well-known people? Do you remember he gave that evidence?
Morgan: Yeah, I saw bits of it, I didn't see the whole thing. I just think, honestly, this is a complete non-event. I knew nothing about this. It was never going to be a huge story in the Mirror. It never got suppressed for the reasons he's trying to insinuate. I think it's nonsense, the whole thing.
Sherborne: If it's such a nonsense, why he was he sent a cheque for £100 out of the blue in September of that year?
Morgan: Well, loads of people would be paid for offering stories that then don't get used. It happens all the time. Nothing unusual about it whatsoever. …
Morgan: As I've said, thousands of stories are brought to the attention of my journalists at the time on a weekly basis. I think we worked it out once: we get offered 2,000 stories a day and we publish 100 to 120, so …
Sherborne: Stories about a mobile phone scandal that we know has now caused such an outrage that it has led to the start of this Inquiry?
Morgan: I think you are massively self-inflating the importance of this particular character and his almost psychotically obsessive campaign to make people think this was the catalyst for all this. It had nothing – from my view, from what I've seen of him and his website and his testimony, absolutely nothing to do with him. I believe his story then got published in a local newspaper at a later date, I don't know that for a fact, but that's what seems to have happened. It's probably where it belonged at the time.
Sherborne: But the point is, Mr Morgan, that no one, none of the tabloids, wanted to publish this story because they didn't want to reveal this practice which they were using for the purposes of obtaining stories about precisely the celebrities and well-known people that they wanted to fill their newspapers with; that's correct, isn't it?
Morgan: No, it's your supposition and I think it's total nonsense.