NEW: The former British tabloid editor bats back questioning based on quotes from him
A lawyer presses Morgan over listening to a Paul McCartney message
Rupert Murdoch's newspaper group settles 7 hacking claims
Earlier testimony has focused on how much James Murdoch knew about hacking
Piers Morgan, the former British newspaper editor who now hosts a CNN show, tenaciously defended himself Tuesday from accusations that he knew more about phone hacking than he has admitted in the past.
Morgan was testifying at a government-backed probe into British press ethics and behavior, prompted by public fury at the hacking of the voice mail of a murdered 13-year-old girl by the News of the World tabloid.
Robert Jay, the top lawyer for the Leveson Inquiry, repeatedly tried to use Morgan’s own words against him, citing his books and interviews in print and on the radio.
But Morgan, at times clipped and at times testy, deflected line after line of inquiry, saying the quotes did not mean what Jay implied they did.
Morgan said he did not believe phone hacking had taken place when he was editor of the tabloid Daily Mirror, prompting Jay to follow up: “You don’t believe so or you are sure?”
“I don’t believe so,” Morgan responded by video link.
Jay pressed Morgan particularly hard about a story based on a voice message Paul McCartney left for his then-wife Heather Mills, trying to make up after a quarrel and singing to her.
Morgan refused to say who played the message for him or where, but admitted under sustained questioning that he believed it was a voice mail.
“Did you know that was unethical?” Robert Jay demanded.
“Not unethical, no. It doesn’t necessarily follow that it was unethical,” Morgan said.
Brian Leveson, the judge leading the inquiry, threatened to call Mills as a witness to get to the bottom of the incident, prompting Morgan to insist he would not “go down a trail that will lead to the identification of a source.”
Morgan, the host of CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight,” is a former editor the News of the World, but left in 1995 – about seven years before the Milly Dowler hacking – and went to the Mirror, which he edited until 2004.
He ended his testimony with criticism of the inquiry itself, saying it had ignored “a lot of the very good things that newspapers were doing in that period.”
Leveson cut him off, saying he believed firmly in the freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
In the past, Morgan has vigorously denied ordering phone hacking at any point during his career.
Also Tuesday, the publisher of the defunct News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, announced that a subsidiary had settled with seven people who accused his newspapers of phone hacking.
The claimants included James Hewitt, a former lover of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The newspaper group “has agreed to pay appropriate sums by way of compensation and costs and have expressed regret for the distress caused,” News International said in a statement.
Testimony by former staff of News of the World and News International last week focused on how much News International chief executive James Murdoch – Rupert’s son – knew about hacking by his employees.
The former top lawyer for the News of the World tabloid is “pretty sure” Murdoch knew about damning evidence of phone hacking known as the “for Neville” e-mail, he testified December 14.
The lawyer, Tom Crone, said he held up a copy of the e-mail – a transcript of messages obtained by phone hacking – in a meeting with Murdoch on June 10, 2008.
Parliament published correspondence a day earlier showing that Murdoch was warned in writing about the potential damage the “for Neville” e-mail could cause if a hacking victim made good on his threat to sue the company.
“Unfortunately it is as bad as we feared,” the editor of the tabloid e-mailed Murdoch about the case.
The e-mail from Colin Myler appears to undercut Murdoch’s repeated testimony that he did not know details about phone hacking by his employees.
Murdoch concedes in a letter to lawmakers, also published December 13, that he replied to the e-mail, but he does not admit having read it in full.
Murdoch is at the center of a scandal over illegal eavesdropping by the newspaper, which he shut down in July in the face of public fury at phone hacking.
Police investigating the practice by journalists say that the names of 5,800 people, including celebrities, crime victims, politicians and members of the royal family, were found in the notebooks of a private investigator working for News of the World.
It is not clear how many of them were actually victims of hacking, which involves illegally eavesdropping on voice mail by entering a PIN to access messages remotely.
Celebrities who have already testified before the inquiry include “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling and “G.I. Joe” actress Sienna Miller, who both complained of being hounded by paparazzi.
Actor Hugh Grant also appeared before the panel, and he implied that police leaked information to the tabloid press. He also accused the Mail on Sunday of hacking.
Current and former journalists have also testified before the broad-ranging inquiry on subjects including payment to sources for stories and intrusive surveillance of celebrities.
CNN’s Laura Perez Maestro contributed to this report.