Piers Morgan: Tarnished Rock Star?

Morgan dodges questions about Heather Mills, Paul McCartney voice mail.

Dec. 20, 2011— -- Former News of the World editor Piers Morgan appeared to backpedal before a British ethics inquiry today, first saying that he didn't believe he had listened to any hacked phone messages, then refusing to discuss how he came to hear a taped conversation between Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.

"I can't discuss where I heard that tape or who made it," Morgan told the Leveson Inquiry looking into Britain's phone hacking scandal.

Asked if he listened to a tape of a phone message, Morgan invoked journalistic privilege: "Yes, I believe it was yes. I'm not going to discuss where I heard it or who played it to me."

Morgan said he "feels like a rock star" with all the "worst ever hits" from his back catalogue being brought out.

When the CNN host was asked by inquiry chairman Lord Justice Brian Leveson whether he thought it was unethical to listen to someone else's message, Morgan said, "It doesn't necessarily follow that listening to someone else talking to someone else is unethical."

Levenson responded that he would be "perfectly happy" to call Mills to ask her whether she gave Morgan permission to listen to her calls, to which Morgan replied, "Well, what do you expect me to say? I'm not going into details."

Mills has previously said that the message was obtained illegally.

Morgan appeared on the defensive after admitting under persistent questioning that he had heard the tortured phone message between Mills and McCartney as their marriage was unraveling. He even remembered McCartney pleading to his wife, singing "We Can Work it Out!" on the phone message.

Earlier he had tesitifed that he did not believe he had listened to any illegally obtained phone messages.

"I do not believe so, no," Morgan told inquiry attorney Robert Jay.

At times testy, cocky and defensive, Morgan testified by videolink from the United States. Before he began hosting "Piers Morgan Tonight" the British-born Morgan was editor of two of London's biggest tabloids: the News of the World and the Daily Mail.

Morgan was fired from his job as editor of the Daily Mirror in 2004 when the paper was forced to concede it published fake photos of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi.

While he was often dismissive of questions about his actions and motives as editor, the atmosphere got notably testy when he was asked about his use of private investigators to find stories for the front pages.

Morgan conceded he was involved in the purchase of information from a source known as "Benji the Binman" who combed the trash cans of celebrities in search of juicy information. It was Benji the Binman who found the documents for stories about pop singer Elton John's personal finances.

"Did I think he was doing anything illegal? No. Did I think he was doing anything on the cusp of unethical? Yes," Morgan said.

The inquiry lawyer challenged Morgan on that statement, suggesting he might want to consult a lawyer about the legality of stealing other people's trash.

Morgan said that there needs to be a better balance in the inquiry, because a lot of the good things that papers were doing at the time have not been covered.

Chairman Leveson disagreed with Morgan's assessment, saying that if he had been following the proceedings he would know that they had mentioned the good things papers do on several occasions.

Morgan has good reason to want to keep his distance from the inquiry -- already more than a dozen journalists have been arrested.

The inquiry was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron after it was made public that News of the World had illegally eavesdropped on the voice mail messages of celebrities and other public figures.

Actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and singer Charlotte Church have all spoken before the inquiry about widespread press abuse, while executives and lawyers for Murdoch's News Corp. have defended the tabloid.

Morgan, who has steadfastly denied knowledge of phone hacking by his staff while he was editor of the two tabloids, has been under scrutiny since the scandal broke over the summer.

Back in July, British political blogger Paul Staines, who blogs under the name Guido Fawkes, claimed to have discovered a 2009 recording where some interpret Morgan as admitting knowledge of hacking and other unsavory activities by Murdoch journalists.

Morgan asserted that there was "no contradiction" between his 2009 comments to BBC radio host Kirsty Young and his "unequivocal statements with regard to phone-hacking."

"Millions of people heard these comments when I first made them in 2009 on one of the BBC's longest-running radio shows, and none deduced that I was admitting to, or condoning illegal reporting activity," Morgan said in a statement to ABCNews.com in July. "Kirsty asked me a fairly lengthy question about how I felt dealing with people operating at the sharp end of investigative journalism. My answer was not specific to any of the numerous examples she gave, but a general observation about tabloid newspaper reporters and private investigators."

The former Fleet Street editor has also fought off accusations from James Hipwell, a former Daily Mirror financial columnist who called illegal phone hacking "endemic" during Morgan's tenure. Hipwell is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the inquiry.

"Piers was extremely hands-on as an editor," Hipwell told British newspaper The Independent in July. "I can't say 100 percent that he knew about it. But it was inconceivable he didn't."