- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2011

LONDON (AP) - Model Heather Mills on Wednesday accused a senior newspaper journalist of boasting that his colleagues had intercepted her voicemail messages, a potentially explosive allegation that could widen the scope of Britain’s phone hacking scandal.

In an interview with BBC’s “Newsnight” program, the ex-wife of former Beatle Paul McCartney claimed that in 2001 she was called by a senior editorial figure with the Trinity Mirror group of newspapers about a fight she’d had with McCartney, her then-boyfriend.

Mills quoted the journalist as telling her: “Oh, I hear you’ve had a big argument with your boyfriend.

“And I said: ‘Why would you know this?’ And he started quoted verbatim the messages from my machine.”

Mills said that when she accused the journalist of hacking into her phone and threatened to call the police, the journalist admitted that the story had been obtained by eavesdropping and pledged not to publish it.

Mills named the journalist in her interview, but the BBC bleeped out his name, citing legal reasons. It was left unclear exactly which newspaper the journalist worked at _ the Trinity Mirror PLC publishes about 165 titles across the country, including Britain’s left-leaning Daily Mirror, its sister-paper, the Sunday Mirror, and The People, a sports-and-celebrity oriented tabloid.

Neither was it clear why Mills was making the accusations now, 10 years after the alleged incident and a month after the phone hacking scandal first began making headlines across the world.

Attempts to reach Mills for further comment were unsuccessful. Her office said the 43-year-old was traveling and couldn’t be contacted.

Trinity Mirror PLC has consistently refused to answer questions about the past conduct of its journalists, saying only that its employees follow the law and the British press watchdog’s code of conduct. Mirror spokesman Nick Fullagar said Wednesday that the group was sticking to its statement.

Although the scandal over allegations that journalists routinely spied on public figures by intercepting their voicemails had its genesis at the now-defunct News of the World, media-watchers have long suspected that its competitors were in on the practice as well.

The Trinity Mirror’s papers have come under growing scrutiny following allegations aired by unnamed former journalists quoted by the New York Times and the BBC that hacking was rife at some of its titles, and shares in the company have dropped by nearly 20 percent in the past week.

Attention has also focused on Piers Morgan, a former Daily Mirror editor who now stars as a celebrity interviewer on CNN’s prime time lineup. Critics have unearthed a string of past statements in which Morgan seems to suggest that phone hacking was widespread and that he was well-aware of it at the time.

In particular, Morgan’s opponents point to a 2006 article in which he claims to be have been played a tape of a message Paul McCartney had left on Mills‘ cell phone.

Morgan described the tape as “heartbreaking.”

“The couple had clearly had a tiff, Heather had fled to India, and Paul was pleading with her to come back,” Morgan wrote. “He sounded lonely, miserable and desperate, and even sang ‘We Can Work It Out’ into the answerphone.”

Morgan has not explained who got a hold of the tape for him or how, although he has said he never ordered phone hacking while working at the Mirror. In a statement issued Wednesday, Morgan described the Heather Mills’ claim as “unsubstantiated,” adding he knew nothing about any conversation anyone at the Trinity Mirror “may or may not have had” with her.

“To reiterate, I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from the hacking of a phone,” the statement said.

Mills isn’t the first to go public with a phone hacking allegation against the Mirror. Late last month James Hipwell, a former Mirror journalist, claimed that his colleagues used the practice routinely. But Hipwell’s credibility was clouded by the fact that he used his business column at the paper to hype stocks which he had purchased and then sell them, reaping the profits in an illegal market manipulation scam for which he was convicted in 2005.

Mills too has a credibility problem. After her contentious divorce from McCartney in 2008, the judge in the case said that Mills had an “explosive and volatile character” and was prone to make-believe, adding in his judgment that Mills‘ testimony had been inconsistent, inaccurate, and “less than candid.”


David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.

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