British Tabloid Fires Its Editor, Admits Iraq Photos Were a Hoax
By Glenda Cooper
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 15, 2004; Page A13
LONDON, May 14 -- The Daily Mirror newspaper said Friday it had been the victim of a "calculated and malicious hoax" in publishing pictures of purported abuse of an Iraqi prisoner by British troops. Editor Piers Morgan, who has repeatedly insisted the pictures were legitimate, was fired.
The newspaper apologized "unreservedly," reversing itself one day after the British government said that military police and independent experts had concluded that the pictures were fraudulent.
The photos have been at the center of two weeks of uproar in Britain over alleged prisoner abuse, at a time when U.S. soldiers face similar charges. The British government is also facing separate claims that its troops have unjustly killed Iraqis and beaten prisoners.
Earlier Friday, senior officers of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, whose soldiers the Mirror had claimed were shown in the photos, argued at a news conference that a weapon and truck shown in the photos had never been used by the unit in Iraq. They denounced Morgan, saying he had put troops in danger.
It was time that "the ego of one editor [was] measured against the life of a soldier," said Col. David Black, the unit's former commander.
According to Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times, it was the Mirror's parent company that forced the change in direction. Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror PLC, summoned Morgan to a meeting and demanded he apologize. When he refused, he was fired.
"There was intense pressure from the shareholders," Neil said. "Sly Bailey felt they were in an indefensible position." Morgan declined to comment.
Morgan, 39, who edited the Mirror for eight turbulent years, is one of Britain's best-known journalists and a man of constant paradox.
He was a fan of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher who ended up editing a paper that usually supports the Labor Party. He was a former show business journalist with a serious news agenda, an editor with the most vigorous antiwar coverage in Fleet Street and a brother serving with the British army in southern Iraq.
He took the top job at the Mirror in 1995 after a brief stint running News of the World as Britain's youngest newspaper editor in half a century. He quickly caused outrage with the headline "Achtung! Surrender," the day before an English soccer match with Germany.
In a more serious affair, he bought stock on the advice of his financial columnists, known as the City Slickers, shortly before they promoted the stock in the Mirror. The Slickers lost their jobs, but Morgan remained.
Recently, he exposed lax security surrounding the royal family when a Mirror reporter obtained a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace just before President Bush was due to stay there.
Morgan is well liked in Fleet Street. "I'm sad to see Piers come to grief in this way," said Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of the Sun. "But it is clearly a case of bad judgment. These pictures were obviously fake."
Chris Horrie, author of "Tabloid Nation," a book chronicling the Mirror's first 100 years, said the result might be "terminal" for the paper. "The Daily Mirror has been caught out in a big huge lie -- and [readers] have long memories," he said.
Nigel Evans, a member of Parliament whose constituency includes the headquarters of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, said it wouldn't be easy to lift the "cloud" that now hangs over the unit. "It is unforgivable that life has become more dangerous for these soldiers as a result of these pictures," he said.
With Morgan gone, the focus of the uproar is likely to switch.
"Who created these pictures, and why?" Horrie asked. "Unlike the American ones, they are good quality, they don't need to be pixellated for the Muslim world because of nudity. . . . It's a perfect creation for antiwar extremists, Iraqi intelligence -- or tabloid editors who want something to be true too much."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company