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Tuesday, December 20, 2011 

The fading memory of Piers Morgan.

There are many unfathomable things in life. Sandwich toasters spring to mind. Robbie Savage. Mariah Carey. Jack Whitehall. How Nick Clegg keeps managing to get up in the morning. None however are quite as inscrutable as the success of Piers Morgan. Imagine for a second that a newspaper editor in the United States had published photographs purporting to show US soldiers urinating on an Iraqi, images that anyone with the slightest nous would have been deeply suspicious about; how many detainees after all were likely to have been wearing a top with the Iraqi flag on it? One suspects that they would not then have gone on to be on the panel of a number of talent shows, or to take over from Larry King as the host of CNN's flagship nightly chat show.

Such though are the benefits of the friendships and deals you make while deciding who is and isn't making the news on any given day. Nor does there seem to be any limit to the number of full of themselves Brits our pals across the Atlantic can, if not exactly take to their hearts, then at least tolerate when their homegrown smarm merchants would be quickly shown the door.

Having transplanted himself into his new role as the man no one watches, you can't exactly blame Morgan for not being too keen to dredge over his past life at the News of the Screws and the Mirror before the Leveson inquiry. After all, there was that unpleasantness involving the shares he bought in Viglen before his City Slickers team at the Mirror tipped the company in their column, as well as the time Keith himself had to rebuke his young turk for printing photographs in the Screws of the then wife of Earl Spencer at a clinic where she was receiving treatment, let alone the hoax abuse pictures.

This doesn't however explain the memory loss he seems to have suffered since he left what used to be Fleet Street behind. In the introduction to his first witness statement to the inquiry he sets out just how little he now recalls, especially of his time at the Screws, where he can barely remember his day-to-day activities. His powers of recall must have been better a mere 6 years ago when his "diaries" in the form of The Insider were published, as he admits in his statement that rather than being a "historical record" they were collected together and written up "in a manner designed to entertain the reader" at the time, as has been long suspected. This is rather different to how the book was marketed, although Private Eye at the time pointed out a large number of glaring inaccuracies, including an entry in March of 1997 recording a visit to Downing Street where Tony Blair was holding court, a couple of months before Labour won the election.

Perhaps back then his memory was jogged along by his then partner Marina Hyde, "my best friend and unpaid but razor sharp proof reader" as he described her in his introduction to the book. Either way, sitting in a hotel at 5:30 am his time giving evidence via satellite link seemed to make his grasp of past events distinctly hazy. Having been one of the first to draw attention to phone hacking, as detailed in The Insider, he now couldn't remember who it was that had informed him of how to do it. Anyway, as he insisted, everyone seemingly knew about it and how to do it: apparently members of the public used to do it to their friends as a "bit of a lark". These members of the public most certainly didn't include hacks on the Mirror, and if if it did, then they most certainly never used these "dark arts" to obtain stories. At least he "doesn't believe so", as he said twice when asked.

Throughout it seemed as though Morgan had been exceptionally well schooled in deflecting the most uncomfortable questions concerning his knowledge of wrongdoing. This didn't seem as though it was the interviewer using his personal knowledge of the tactics of a interrogator to his advantage, rather that of a man deeply nervous of incriminating either himself or others. In the past he used bluster when confronted with such criticism, complaining of having to turn up to the parliamentary media committee's "ritual bollocking" back in 2003. His tactic of knowing nothing, having served the rest of News International so well when called before parliament, did for the most part pay off: his only really nervous moment came when quizzed on another time he put his foot in it, writing in the Daily Mail of how he listened to a voicemail left on Heather Mills's phone by Paul McCartney. Falling back on protecting a source, the implication seemed to be that Mills herself had played it to him; not inconceivable considering Mills' thirst for publicity, but doubtful when it's alleged he played it back at a party at the Mirror. Leveson suggested he might well call Mills to ask whether she did play it to him, which should be interesting if it happens.

And it's as an interviewer, even if hardly one on the Paxman level, that Morgan should be judged. He might only go as far as the celebrities he guides through their past on Life Stories allow him to, but if they started resorting to the evasions he displayed today then he would soon pick them up on it and inquire about the inconsistencies. He was joking when he said to Kate Winslet that you don't become the editor of the Daily Mirror without "being a fairly despicable human being", but you also don't become the editor of a tabloid selling millions of copies without being prepared to really scrape the ethical barrel. He might well have held his ground, with the inquiry team failing to land a killer blow, yet it'll be difficult for Lord Leveson to reach a conclusion other than that he was an "unreliable witness". CNN might yet have something to say should that happen.

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