LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It was a reversal for CNN celebrity interviewer Piers Morgan yesterday. He had to answer questions about journalists in Britain hacking into phone messages and bribing police. A scandal about press practices has struck at the heart of Rupert Murdoch's media empire in the UK and has led to more than 20 arrests.
NPR's David Folkenflik reports that Morgan insisted he had no involvement in or knowledge of any of it back when he was a high profile tabloid editor in London.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: It was a singularly uncomfortable session for Piers Morgan. He was testifying yesterday by live video uplink from Los Angeles, the beating heart of the American celebrity machine. He sat alone wearing a suit in his lawyer's offices as he faced questions from the UK.
ROBERT JAY: The issue of phone hacking, which I am obliged to ask you about...
FOLKENFLIK: That's Robert Jay, the lead counsel for a broad ranging government inquiry into the British press. Jay read aloud Piers Morgan's past remarks and passages from his memoire, "The Insider," in which he wrote that voice mail hacking was a common practice in British newsrooms.
JAY: When were you first made aware of this little trick?
PIERS MORGAN: Well, according to this, Friday, 26 of January, 2001.
JAY: Were you aware of it before?
MORGAN: Not as far as I'm aware. No.
JAY: Who made you aware of this little trick?
MORGAN: I have no idea. I'm sorry. It was 10 years ago and I can't remember.
JAY: But can you assist at all with the context? Can you help us at all?
MORGAN: Well, if I can't remember who it is, then obviously, I can't narrow it down to a genre.
FOLKENFLIK: Piers Morgan earned his spurs as a young show biz columnist and editor for Rupert Murdoch's tabloids in the UK, but Tuesday, it was Morgan's infamous decade as editor of the rival Mirror tabloid that came under toughest scrutiny, such as the curious case of the overheard serenade.
Back in August, Heather Mills McCartney, the ex-wife of the musician Paul McCartney, told the BBC she was called by a senior journalist for the Mirror's parent company.
HEATHER MILLS MCCARTNEY: He said, oh, I heard you had a big argument with your boyfriend - before I married him - and I said, and why would you know this? And he started quoting verbatim the messages from my machine.
FOLKENFLIK: The journalist, not publicly named, is believed not to be Morgan, but Morgan has bragged in a 2006 column for the Daily Mail that he had listened in to a tape of a message McCartney had left on Mills' cell phone. The ex-Beatle was tenderly wooing her by song during a rough patch. Morgan wrote, it was heartbreaking to hear, though he never said how he came to hear it.
Yesterday, Morgan sought to deflect Jay's suggestions he might have done something wrong.
MORGAN: It doesn't necessarily follow that listening to somebody speaking to somebody else is unethical.
JAY: But on the tape of a voice mail message, you didn't think that was unethical?
MORGAN: Well, it depends on the circumstances in which you're listening to it.
JAY: But can you tell us something about the circumstances which might lead us to think that it was not unethical?
MORGAN: I'm afraid I can't. No. Because I'm not going to do anything that may identify the source.
FOLKENFLIK: As the day progressed, Morgan's tone shifted from jaunty to sullen. At the end, he complained that he felt like a rock star, confronted with a CD containing only his bad songs and not the good ones.
CNN's international channel carried Morgan's testimony live, though its U.S. channel did not. For now, CNN executives say their prime time star's testimony speaks for itself.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.