The U.K.’s Leveson inquiry into media practices and ethics is broadcast live and available online, giving the public the chance to witness the kind of questioning and back-tracking that usually takes place behind closed doors. For months now, finger-pointing, accusations and justifications have been lobbed back and forth as editors, reporters, photographers, celebrities and experts have testified about the quality and slant of British press practices. And as the witness numbers climb, so do the number of differing accounts. It’s like watching a less-violent episode of Law & Order, and the result is as riveting as any tabloid front-page scoop.
Spectators of Thursday’s session, which marks the end of the first part of the inquiry that began on November 14, 2011, saw the culmination of warring words as former model Heather Mills testified and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was recalled.
First up was Mills, ex-wife of Sir Paul McCartney and a woman whose name has previously been tossed around during the inquiry. Back in December, when current CNN host and former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan testified, he was adamant he never condoned or was aware of any phone hacking during his time at the British tabloid. He was asked about his claim, in a 2006 article in the Daily Mail, that he listened to a voicemail McCartney left on Mills’ phone back when the two were still a couple. Morgan didn’t deny hearing the message; instead, he invoked his journalistic ethics to protect his source. “I am not going to discuss where I heard it or who played it to me,” he testified. “I don’t think it’s right. In fact the inquiry has already stated to me you don’t expect me to identify sources.”
At the time, Lord Justice Leveson was quick to point out that the only person who would have legally been authorized to play such a message to Morgan would have been Mills or someone to whom she’d given explicit permission. Leveson added, “I am perfectly happy to call Lady McCartney to give evidence as to whether she authorized you to listen to her voicemails.”
It seems that “Lady McCartney” was perfectly happy to testify — she volunteered to do just that after Morgan’s appearance. Mills has regularly provided fodder for the tabloids, especially during her relationship with McCartney and their highly publicized divorce, though she couldn’t be characterized as a popular figure among the British public. On Thursday she appeared levelheaded and straightforward as she recounted the 2001 episode in which her former husband had left her many voicemail, asking for forgiveness after a fight. She testified that though she hadn’t listened to the 25 new messages, they were all marked “saved” in her mobile phone. Mills recounted the messages, noting that “one of them said, ‘please forgive me’ and sang a little ditty of one of his songs on voicemail,” which was precisely the message that Morgan had earlier recounted hearing.
Mills then testified that a journalist later contacted her, saying he or she had heard the message. Though the inquiry lawyer pointed out that the journalist was neither Morgan nor one of his employees, he did ask Mills if she’d ever authorized Morgan or anyone else to listen to her voicemails. She answered, simply, “never, ever.”
There’s certainly no love lost between Mills and Morgan – he once described her as a “monster” – and Mills’ testimony casts doubt upon Morgan’s source. It’s unclear how damaging the former model’s statement will be. Her testimony, after all, was likely what many were expecting to hear.
Tensions ran high later on Thursday, as Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail and the Associated Newspapers group appeared before the inquiry for the second time. The editor has been embroiled in a high-profile battle with actor Hugh Grant, who testified last year and repeatedly stated publicly that he suspected that an Associated Newspaper publication was guilty of hacking his phone due to a story on the actor that referred to “late night phone calls with a plummy-voiced” woman.
Dacre retaliated during his own testimony on February 6, saying that he had helped draft a statement from the company, which accused Grant of “mendacious smears.” (It was this statement that had Dacre recalled to testify once more.) He said that Grant was guilty of a “highly calculated attempt to wound my company” – an accusation that led him to be asked to testify again. And despite appearing several days later, the tension was still palpable as Dacre took to the stand days later, belligerently defending his position. He reiterated that his paper was in no way guilty of phone hacking. He also refused to shy away from his assessment of Grant, saying that the actor was “obsessed with trying to drag the Daily Mail into another newspaper’s scandal.”