LONDON (Reuters) - Phone-hacking was widespread at Piers Morgan's Daily Mirror, a former columnist at the tabloid said on Wednesday, as an official inquiry unearthed further evidence of the illegal practice in the British press.
James Hipwell, fired from the Mirror in 2000 and later jailed for illegal share dealing linked to his financial column, said he witnessed hacking going on daily in 1999 by Mirror showbusiness reporters working a few feet from his own desk.
Hipwell said he believed the practice was sanctioned by senior editors, although he had not seen it taking place in the presence of Morgan, who edited the newspaper from 1995 until 2004, or discussed in front of him.
"It seemed to me that what they were doing was entirely accepted by the senior editors on the newspaper," he told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. "I think it was seen as a slightly underhand thing to do but not illegal."
Morgan, now a CNN talk-show host in the United States, edited the Rupert Murdoch tabloid at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal, the News of the World, from 1994 to 1995 before going on to edit the Daily Mirror from 1995 to 2004.
Murdoch's News Corp has admitted people working for the News of the World hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians and others. It paid 2 million pounds ($3 million) to the parents of a murdered shoolgirl whose phone was hacked.
The scandal has damaged the reputations of politicians and senior police officers close to Murdoch's media group.
The inquiry led by senior judge Brian Leveson has already heard evidence that phone-hacking was not confined to the News of the World, which Murdoch shut down in July.
Hipwell told the inquiry he had the impression hacking had been a "bog-standard journalistic tool" for gathering information at the Mirror when edited by Morgan.
"It seemed to be a genuinely accepted method to get a story," he said. "I would go as far as to say it happened every day (in 1999). It became apparent that a great number of the Mirror's showbusiness stories would come from that source."
Hipwell described Morgan, who gave evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday, as an extremely hands-on editor with a particular interest in the showbusiness desk, which he typically visited every day.
"I cannot prove who knew what at what time but, looking at his style of editorship, I can say it was very unlikely he didn't know what was going on," he said.
Hipwell, who made about 40,000 pounds ($63,000) from selling shares he had recommended in his column as values soared, said one of his colleagues had hacked Morgan's own phone to try to help Hipwell during disciplinary proceedings against him.
"One of the showbusiness journalists who felt I was being treated unfairly by management offered to hack into Mr Morgan's voicemail on my behalf to try to find out any information that would help my case," he said. "I clearly remember him doing it."
Morgan was cleared of wrongdoing over the share-dealing scandal in 2004 after a four-year investigation.
He was, however, criticized by the Press Complaints Commission, the voluntary body that oversees the British press, for selling shares shortly after they were tipped in the column and also for failing to impose guidelines on his staff.
Trinity Mirror - which as well as the Mirror also owns the People, another tabloid accused of hacking - has said its journalists work within the criminal law and the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct.
News Group Newspapers, a News Corp unit, on Wednesday lost a case against private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who hacked phones for the News of the World.
Mulcaire had fought to force the company to resume paying his legal fees in civil cases he faces from hacking victims.
(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan and Kate Holton; editing by Andrew Roche)