A striking moment this morning when Harriet Harman vowed that Piers Morgan had “questions to answer” over alleged phone hacking at the Mirror group of newspapers in the past. The Mirror is Labour’s most loyal media ally.
Heather Mills, former wife of Paul McCartney, told BBC 2’s Newsnight yesterday that a senior Mirror Group journalist allegedly admitted to hacking her phone when she was in a relationship with Paul McCartney in 2001.
She said that after quoting lines from a voicemail she had been sent by Mr McCartney, the journalist admitted he had accessed it through hacking. The BBC declined to give the name of the journalist, but said it was not Piers Morgan.
Conservative MP Therese Coffey has called for Morgan to return to the UK to help the police with their inquiries.
Ms Harman told Sky News this morning:
“It’s not good enough for him to say I’ve always complied with the law and the PCC code of conduct. He’s got to answer – it’s no good people chanting a mantra ‘I’ve always obeyed the law’.”
Piers Morgan issued a statement last night fervently denying the claim.
“Heather Mills has made unsubstantiated claims about a conversation she may or may not have had with a senior executive from a Trinity Mirror newspaper in 2001,” he said. “The BBC has confirmed to me that this executive was not employed by the Daily Mirror.”
“I have no knowledge of any conversation any executive from other newspapers at Trinity Mirror may or may not have had with Heather Mills.
“What I can say and have knowledge of is that Sir Paul McCartney asserted that Heather Mills illegally intercepted his telephones, and leaked confidential material to the media. This is well documented, and was stated in their divorce case……
“And to reiterate, I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from the hacking of a phone.”
But Harman repeated her line this morning. Labour even put out a press release in which she said:
“It’s not good enough for Piers Morgan just to say he’s always stayed within the law. There are questions about what happened with Heather Mills’ phone messages that he needs to answer.”
The intervention is striking because the Mirror is not just loyal to the Labour party. This is the newspaper which criticises the coalition’s cuts programme, NHS strategy and Libyan war with vehemence. It portrays Cameron as a Bullingdon Club champagne-swilling “ruthless” toff. Its default position is supportive of Labour. And it sells over a million copies a day.
Yet the current leadership of the Labour party does not take the same view of newspapers as the Tony Blair/Alastair Campbell era; that they were the crucial vehicle through which to get across their message.
We interviewed Peter Hain (a key Miliband ally) soon after the leadership contest, and he told us that newspapers’ power was waning – and that blogs, Twitter and other new media were increasing in importance. The message was that Labour no longer needed to pander to the views of newspapers and their proprietors. This is of course part of a wider debate about whether newspapers influence readers’ political views or simply echo them.
Last months’ Hack-gate will have reinforced that opinion within the party, that the political class has now weakened the media stranglehold. It is a view that may yet be premature.
Harman’s criticism of Morgan still seems risky. David Cameron and the Tories did ultimately turn on the News of the World but only at the point where widespread wrongdoing was clear – the hacking of Millie Dowler’s phone messages being the final straw. Harman appears to have entered the Mirror debate at a rather more preliminary stage.
If her intervention prompts the newspaper to turn against the Labour party, or dilute its support, that could turn out to be a high price to pay.
Labour will have calculated that the damage to its reputation would be worse if it turned a blind eye to the Morgan row; the allegation would be made that it had attacked the News International papers because of their right-wing political leanings – and ignored the Mirror because of its left-wing views. And that was a risk it didn’t want to take.