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Piers Morgan

Adventures of the comeback kid

British Journalism Review
Vol. 19, No. 4, 2008, pages 17-29

Piers Morgan edited the News of the World, 1994-95 and the Daily Mirror, 1995-2004. His ITV talk show begins in the New Year.

Contents - Vol 19, No 4, 2008

Editorial - Toys in the attic 3

Not finally... - Subjective views on matters journalistic
Michael White, Laurel Maury, John Cole 5

Kenton Bird - Sarah Palin's a journalist, too 13

Piers Morgan - Adventures of the comeback kid 17

Iain Dale - Mining for gold in the blogosphere 31

Steven Barnett - TV news and the echo of Murrow 37

Mark Seddon - Labour's love lost? 45

Shane Richmond - How SEO is changing journalism 51

Julia Cresswell - Let's hear it for the cliché 57

Stephen Pritchard - Holding ourselves accountable 63

Anthony Delano - Different horses, different courses 68

John Hill - Will hacking help the press? 75

Michael Henderson on Michael Parkinson 81

Eamonn McCabe on Kenneth Kobré 83

Christina Lamb on Ann Leslie 85

Philip Jacobson on Daoud Hari 88

Phillip Knightley on Elliott/Imhasly/Denyer 90

Brian MacArthur on Anthony Delano 92

Quotes of the Quarter 1 – 12
Quotes of the Quarter 2 – 30
Quotes of the Quarter 3 – 56
Ten years ago The way we were 62
Letter 94
Paul Foot Award 96

Cover: Piers Morgan by MARTIN ROWSON

  How “the youngest national paper editor ever to get fired” found TV stardom and irritated his critics by becoming internationally famous

What I used to love most about being a newspaper editor was doing deals. Negotiating is probably the thing I miss most – I’ve now got agents all over the place who do that for me. I miss the cut-and-thrust of negotiation, so whenever I can, I do deals – even on small things – because I quite enjoy it. Which is why I said, tongue-in-cheek, that I would talk to the BJR only if I could be the cover story. I’m not actually in a position to demand covers, but I’ve certainly worked out how most people get them – they negotiate. Everything in LA, Hollywood and even British show business, I’ve discovered since being on the other side of the fence, is all about deals. People negotiate with each other – they offer this and they get that. You know, if you lie on a pink lilo around the hotel pool, you get the cover.

My family were all either military or journalists, so I was either going to go, like my brother, into the Army, or become a hack, a very similar thing. I’ve always thought editing a tabloid paper was the nearest thing to commanding a unit – taking a bunch of disparate, very passionate souls and going into daily battle. The difference was that you probably wouldn’t die in Fleet Street, although there was a chance. At the same time, I always liked the idea of fame. My mum kept all my cuttings from when I was young, like a lot of mums do, and when I go back and look at those from the Wimbledon News, for example, even then I was doing big celebrity interviews, where I would appear on the front with my arm wrapped around Frank Bruno or Cliff Richard or Rowan Atkinson or someone, so even then I was a hack who harboured pretensions of wanting to be famous. I liked being the centre of things and showing off a bit and the recognition and the fun and games that went with it. So it doesn’t entirely surprise me that I have ended up in television.

I got on to the local papers and then started shifting on The Sun under Kelvin MacKenzie. I thought “I’d love to be that guy”, this sort of raging maniac who was running the Sun newsroom like a military operation. I mean, Kelvin would have been a great wartime senior officer – take no prisoners, kill everyone; he’d be the ultimate Parachute Regiment battalion commander. It all seemed incredibly exciting and glamorous. Kelvin was always talking loudly to the Prime Minister on one phone, Rupert Murdoch on another and shouting at some celebrity or another. Nobody, it seemed to me, was more powerful than him. Or having as much fun. It was then that I knew I wanted to be an editor.

Kelvin and Rupert took a punt on me at the News of the World. So I realised my ambition very early, although I’ve said that the title of my book, The Insider, really should have been The Youngest Editor Ever Fired, which is, I think, what I ended up being. I was fired when I was 38 but I’d been an editor for 11 years, which is more than most people have done – I think, in terms of longevity, I’d be in the top ten of all time – and I ticked every box you could wish to tick. When I look back on the past four years out of newspapers, I’ve rarely had a sense of wishing I was back in there and that can only be because in my 11 years I covered just about every kind of big, small and scoop story you could ever wish to do. I felt very lucky, very privileged. I was able to live my ambition to the full and then go off to a completely different career.

Two years of mayhem

The News of the World was crash, bang, wallop, total mayhem for almost two years. We won every award and sold buckets of papers, taking the circulation to nearly five million. We caused a lot of huge stories to break and it was generally considered, I think, to be a big success, albeit with the odd terrible clanger, like Earl Spencer [Morgan published a picture of Earl Spencer’s then wife in a detox clinic, breaking the Editors’ Code], which I’ve regretted ever since. It was an unacceptable lapse in journalistic standards, really. On the Mirror, to start with it was not very good – I took a while to readjust from being a right-wing News of the World rampaging scoop-breaking editor to the different pace of a daily paper with a great left-wing heritage. I don’t think I am overtly political – I wasn’t very right-wing politically and I certainly became a lot more in keeping with the heartland of Mirror politics towards the end and became a true Labour voter. I still see Gordon Brown occasionally. Being Prime Minister isn’t easy and I can see why they talk to editors and ex-editors who’ve been through a few firestorms. I told Gordon he needed to bring a few more big players into the Cabinet. He needed more people around him with firestorm experience.

But it certainly took me two or three years to understand what the Mirror was all about. You know, there’s no other paper in Fleet Street that has the sheer volume of ex-journalists that worked there and that feel incredibly proud of the paper and almost feel a part-ownership of it. It seemed every media commentator in Fleet Street used to work at the Mirror, so you had an irrationally large amount of criticism, good and bad, because people felt this ownership. To start with I railed against that, then I began to ride with it and then I went and read the old Mirrors and began to understand it. A lot of it I thought was hypocritical guff. I remember the leaving party for [reporter] Syd Young, a great character, when there was a real old Mirror turnout. So what I did was get the Mirror from the day Syd joined, back in the 1960s – 24 pages of light, trite shite, which made me laugh. Blue-rinsed spectacles can distort things, can’t they?

The Mirror in its great heyday was the heartbeat of the working class in this country. People would go out and buy a Mirror that would tell them what was happening and what to think about life. Well, it’s different now. The current editor of the Mirror, Richard Wallace, has an immeasurably harder job than Hugh Cudlipp’s editors ever did. He’s now producing a daily paper five times the size with a fifth of the staff, he’s in a ferociously competitive environment, not just with other papers that are much better resourced and better financed but also with the internet, which didn’t even exist 15 years ago, with 24-hour TV news, 24-hour radio. It’s a completely different game. I salute the current journalists and editors because I know how difficult their job is compared with their predecessors.

I loved my time on the Mirror, I learned a lot of things. It was a wobbly start, I slowly bedded down and then thought the Blair era gave us a chance to shine properly as a Labour paper again. The heyday under my editorship came with the 9/11 coverage and then the anti-Iraq coverage, and I’m very proud of both. You know, we won every award for our 9/11 issues, which was very important to me and the staff because we had the smallest staff, were the least-resourced, yet on the biggest story of my lifetime and any other British journalists’ lifetimes, we scooped the lot of them. I felt the Mirror found a proper voice then for itself and the coverage did well commercially. Our anti- Iraq war stance didn’t, but I don’t regret a word we printed. There you had a situation where historically the Mirror will be shown to have been absolutely right about the Iraq war, before during and afterwards. We suffered terrible sales damage once the war started, because everyone knew we were anti it, and people in Britain are very patriotic. I understood that, although we never ever criticised the troops, with the exception of the story that got me fired – I’ll talk about that in a minute, if you want to discuss it. I felt that we took a position, we screamed about it every day for two years before the war. Then, when the war started, we tried to straddle the problem of what you do if you’re the anti-war paper. A reader wrote to me and said: “Dear Morgan, stop banging on about the war – you lost!” But I didn’t feel we’d lost, although obviously we’d lost our campaign, with Britain plunging into a war it should never have been involved in.

Almost impossible position

My own brother was on the front line in Basra, so nobody needed to tell me about the courage and bravery of the troops, or what they were going through, so we then tried still to be critical of the political position while supporting the troops, an almost impossible position to make credible in a newspaper such as the Mirror. Sales fell off a cliff. Do I regret it? Not at all. I’d do exactly the same tomorrow. I regret that we went to war and still feel we should never have done that. The idea of a Labour Prime Minister going to war alongside the right-wing, most unpopular American President of all time over basically what came down to oil is very depressing to this day. I think history will judge the Mirror as being right, as it will on the abuse of Iraqis by certain rogue elements of the British troops.

Since I lost my job, members of the Regiment we accused have been court martialled for the most serious war crimes since the Second World War. One person was charged with offences in connection with those pictures and all charges were later mysteriously dropped and he became a prosecution witness*. The commanding officer later said some men had behaved like animals dealing with this Iraqi civilian, and others and had lost control. And that was the tenor of the Mirror exclusive – that members of The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, between May and July 2003, had been completely out of control. I suppose the only regret I have is that this business somehow is seen to be anti the British soldier, which certainly was never the intention.

The sequence of events was that we had these pictures offered to us and we checked out these two soldiers. They were who they said they were, they had been in the Territorial Army attachment to the QLR and in Basra in July 2003, they gave us their real names and we checked those, they wanted to be paid about £2,000 each by cheque to their home addresses, which tallied – quite a sophisticated hoax, this, eh? To this day I think they believed those pictures were genuine. They themselves may have been set up – I don’t know. The fact that the only person ever charged became a prosecution witness would seem to suggest that the Army thought he had credibility, and he always denied fabricating the pictures. I’m not sure what more we could have done. We gave the pictures to the MoD at midday before publication and they never once raised questions of authenticity. They knew who we were accusing, they knew when we were accusing them of it, they were aware of incidents that had gone on by that stage. Everyone tells me now that they knew immediately that they were fakes. Well no one said a word then. As we sit here four years later, nobody has ever proven to me beyond any doubt that those pictures were faked. If they do, I would apologise. But I don’t really see the need to apologise given the sequence of events since – no one convicted of fabricating them, nobody producing any hard evidence of anything, and the fact that members of that regiment have now been brought to book for torturing and murdering Iraqi civilians. If somebody who reads this would like to provide me with the answer I’d be very grateful.

I’ve never blamed Sly Bailey for what she did. The company was getting tremendous heat at the time. For two weeks we were the centre of this huge scandal, for two weeks there was this enormous debate about whether I should get fired or not, for two weeks we fought the good fight in the paper, and eventually one of the QLR commanding officers came out and said that the ego of one tabloid editor was not worth the life of a British soldier,which was a very eloquent phrase that I suspect was drummed up by someone of political persuasion. It led the BBC news and I remember Jeff Randall’s bulletin in which he said that if Sly Bailey didn’t take action against Piers Morgan soon, investors would consider her own position to be vulnerable. There aren’t many plc chief executives who, after two weeks of a scandal, see the BBC news leading a bulletin in which its experienced respected business editor is saying your neck’s on the line if you don’t deal decisively with this issue. Who wouldn’t think, maybe it’s time Mr Morgan and she parted company? Sly will tell you I’ve never had a cross word with her about it. I see her quite regularly and we always get on very cordially. I accept it wasn’t personal. It was a business decision.

As things have turned out, it worked out very well for me. At the time, even on the day I was fired, I thought, you, know, I’ve done [almost] 10 years editing the Mirror, I’ve had a wonderful time, and actually if I am going to get sacked over something, this will do me, because this is an issue where I believe I’ll be vindicated and it involved Iraq. The proudest thing I did in my editing career was the Iraq war campaign and the abuse by these very nasty elements of the British Army.

The clangers are always huge stories

I always played the editing game very instinctively and if you are a very instinctive person, you don’t have a lot of time to think on tabloid daily papers. I did drop the occasional clanger, but I think my track record over 10 years at the Mirror was pretty good. The clangers are always huge stories, they are always massively talked about, they always end up in your CV and your obituary as your greatest hits, if you like, and you wish that all of them hadn’t happened. “Achtung Surrender!” [a Morgan front page before a Euro 96 match between England and Germany] I still find funny. We took the piss out of the Germans and it was all meant as a bit of a joke. Every time we’d played Germany before, British papers had done similar stuff, but it was at a time when Britain was becoming very PC about this kind of thing. I was very taken aback by the furore it created. However, it was a bit of a sea change – since then when we play Germany you don’t get all that xenophobia and jingoistic nonsense, and that’s probably a good thing. But when I look back at that paper, I chuckle.

As for the shares thing**, of course I wish I’d never bought the shares. Having said that, I thought the ferocious and relentless drubbing I was given for years by Fleet Street was a bit over-the-top, when the reality is that the case got investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry for four years. They are unbelievably forensic in what they do. They found every tape of [calls] between me and my broker. They found every tape between the City Slickers and me, every email, everything. And at the end of a four-year investigation they didn’t charge me with anything, but charged the two City Slickers with offences and one of them went to jail. Now, I’m not sure what more I can add to that story – the facts speak for themselves. But it was a horrific set of circumstances I found myself in. It was a total coincidence that I wish had never happened. The Slickers tipped 2,000 shares in two years in their column and I bought shares in only one company before they tipped them – not a terrible record of share abuse. My mistake was to think that as the editor of a newspaper that had a very seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-night share-tipping column I could be active in the stockmarket, because this was an accident waiting to happen. I think I’ve bought in total, in my life, shares in 26 companies and I lost money on about 20. No, I haven’t bought any since. The way Fleet Street treated it, it seemed that I had conspired with the Slickers to fill my boots with this company, whereas they’d tipped them all month that January, loads of people had been buying them, my broker had bought them, family members had bought them, members of the Mirror staff had bought them – all investigated, by the way – and the Slickers’ story was old anyway, as the DTI discovered. So it was not what it seemed. But how did it look? Terrible. How did I feel about it? Absolutely appalled, because the one thing I’d never been was dishonest. I might have been a rogue when it came to my journalistic behaviour, but I was an honest rogue.

So I hated the stigma that came with it, which I know will always be with me now. Private Eye will always infer that I was guilty of insider dealing and all I can say is that I was investigated and cleared and other people weren’t. I just have to put up with it. I like Private Eye, by the way, I read it whenever I’m in the country, find it very entertaining but like everyone who reads it find it not quite so entertaining when it’s my name, being called Moron, with some terrible embarrassing story. But that’s the point of Private Eye and I’m certainly pleased it exists and is there to prick balloons and expose hypocritical bastards like me from time to time. My problem with [Private Eye editor] Ian Hislop was much more personal. He wrote some pretty personal stuff about my marriage and so on. We had kids at the same school and I thought, you know what, we are parents in the same class and all this is a bit close to home, but I’ve got no issue with him now. When I was an editor I loved waging feuds because it seemed very entertaining – it used to get my competitive juices flowing. But now I have settled into a less aggressive mode of life professionally, I don’t feel quite such a blood lust for feuding, even though I think feuding’s quite healthy.

What I miss most about newspapers is the people. I love the characters of Fleet Street. Fleet Street journalists are a strange bunch, you get all sorts in a newsroom. I like the black humour of journalists. I like the piss-taking and the sarcasm. I even like the way they write about me now I’m a TV tosser. It’s how it should be. Times have changed, of course. The drinking culture that used to exist in Fleet Street is nothing like it used to be because there’s no time.Today’s journalists have to work harder, so they can’t go and get pissed all day. I’m not against getting pissed all day – I still like to get pissed all day – but though the culture has changed there are still wonderful characters around.

I spend a lot of time in America and I would say the media are more accurate there than they are in Britain, but they have nothing like the passion and flair and aggression and enthusiasm and creativity that British papers do. You have these great disparate views here – collectively the papers are probably the most free and most aggressive in the world. And as a result we have a very healthy democratic system here. But I think within ten years every Fleet Street paper will be free. Look, if you gave away a free cup of coffee to every commuter in every city in Britain, eventually nobody is going to buy a coffee because their perception of a cup of coffee is that it’s worth nothing. And free papers are being bombarded on to people in every city and they are getting better and better, the quality is improving week in, week out, and when they get as good as the paid-fors, it’s the end of paid-for newspapers. Now you get to the bigger picture about the future of papers, which is that they are going to have to adapt to the modern culture.

I’d make the Mirror free

There will be no change in demand for content but the content has got to evolve to accommodate the younger generation. My son of 15 reads newspapers online. He has the attention span of a gnat, like most kids of that age, and like the rest of his generation he doesn’t pay for anything – whether its music, movies, TV or anything else – he finds it all online for nothing. And he will not want to pay for a newspaper when he can get it free on his – by then, in five or six years – flexible hand-held computer with which he can flick to any page of any paper at the push of a button, or even by voice recognition. I would make the DailyMirror free tomorrow, because I don’t see any future for it otherwise. If The Sun were to go free tomorrow it would kill the Mirror. It’s a horrific position to be in and I’m sure that if Sly Bailey could find a buyer at the right price she’d sell the national titles like a shot. There will be print newspaper for another 30 years, I would say. Probably not a lot longer than that – it’s only the older guard that likes the feel of a print newspaper. Paper is just going to die out, just as books are going to die out in their present form.

Go to Hollywood and there’s a guy called Perez Hilton, a young blogger who has a site that gets seven million hits a day. All he does is get pictures of celebrities and takes the piss out of them, with balloons on their mouths saying stupid things and makes witty, camp observations about them. He works on a laptop in a café – it’s multi-million-dollar business done on a laptop in a café. Now that site charges, I think, 50,000 dollars a day to advertise on it – he’s making a multi-million dollar fortune out of a blogsite, he’s making more money taking the piss out of celebrities on his site than all the British newspapers are collectively out of the most stunning collection of editorial content in the world. Now that’s wrong and it says to me that the British media must work out how to make money out of the net. I click on the Drudge Report five or six times a day because it is incredibly authoritative and if you want to know what’s happening in America, or round the world now, you go to Drudge. These sites have huge values to them and British newspapers have got to wake up and, literally, smell the coffee in the café.

TV is just as bitchy and hypocritical and aggressive and competitive and fun as newspapers. The difference if you’re on screen is that it’s just obsessed with all things aesthetic in a way that newspapers aren’t. If you’re the editor of a newspaper you can look like the back end of a dog and it doesn’t matter because no one cares. If you’re presenting a TV show or appearing on, say, Britain’s Got Talent, what you find is that you’ll get 30 texts after a show, 20 of which will be talking about how your hair looked, or your tie, or your suit or your tan or lack of it. That shows you the emphasis moves when you’re into television to be all about looks and image and fashion and style in a way to which newspaper newsrooms are almost a complete antithesis. That’s the only difference. The people are just as competitive, if not more so.

Fame has a lot to be said for it, you know. You get treated very nicely. I don’t go on TV and try to play a role – I’m just myself, which means if you’re someone like me, the ultimate example of the Marmite presenter, you’re going to get half the people loving you for it, while the other half want to kill you. Well, that’s how I spent my editing career, so I have no problem with that. But for a lot of people on TV that would be total anathema. They hate being disliked and you see them trying really hard to be popular. I did The Celebrity Apprentice in America and it was a fascinating show to do because I was up against 13 American stars, all playing an acting role the entire time we filmed the show, all trying to appeal to the public by not being themselves. I was just myself – you know, pretty obnoxious, pretty ruthless, playing hard to win but having a laugh, very competitive, shamelessly calling in all my rich, famous mates. And I won. Another thing is not to worry about being criticised, because it’s the nature of the beast, particularly in Britain. TV criticism in Britain now has become an art form of piss-taking – that’s all it is. I never read a proper review of my TV stuff in the tabloids. Most of the time they just want to call you a fat bastard, or talentless, over-rated, overpaid tosser. That’s fine if it’s funny. Then I laugh like everybody else.

When I was fired from the Mirror I felt all right, actually. I felt almost a sense of relief. I had already done a bit of TV, two series of Tabloid Tales for the BBC, and I always thought I could do interviews on TV, so I threw myself into various TV things. I presented This Morning for a week, which was a bit of a disaster – I wasn’t very good at it, I wasn’t very natural or warm in the way a daytime presenter has to be. I wasn’t really designed to do sitting on chairs and telling housewives about the latest fashion – it’s not my bag. I’d written my book, which had been a big success, luckily. I’d done daily papers for years and had so much energy and enthusiasm but nowhere to go with it – I was sort of, well, not floundering, but listless.

Shameless name-dropping

Then I got a call from Simon Cowell. He had this show, called America’s Got Talent, that he was developing over there and he said, do you want to come and be a judge. I said, wow, I’d love to. He said, first we have to get past NBC, who’ve never heard of you and won’t understand why I want you, so I went out to Simon’s house in LA to sell myself to two NBC executives and passed my audition with shameless name-dropping of every famous person I could think of. Even then, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Most shows in America bomb – I think last year 27 shows were launched on primetime and only three did well, the others were canned, some of them after three weeks. It’s a very, very brutal business. America’s Got Talent went to number one in the ratings that summer, stayed there all summer, and the third series, which has just finished, was number one all summer again, with ratings up on last year’s. It’s been an astonishing bit of luck, to be honest, and I thank Simon Cowell for all of it. Even though it’s a huge show, in LA they’re used to celebrities everywhere. You think you’re really something if someone spots you in Starbucks and then you realise that Al Pacino’s standing behind you in the queue. But if you go to somewhere like Kansas or Houston or Atlanta or Dallas or wherever, it’s amazing the reaction you get. For me it’s surreal and bizarre. When I went to LA in 2006 nobody in America knew who the hell I was and cared even less. What I like about it is that you can totally reinvent yourself in America – they have no interest in your past at all. Nobody cares that I edited newspapers. It never comes up in interviews, they don’t ask me about it. They like to ask about Princess Diana because it’s in my biography that I knew her, but they’ve got no interest in my infamous past. Whereas in Britain still, four years later, I am mostly described as an ex-tabloid editor.

After the first two weeks of Britain’s Got Talent I went down to my local cinema, in Fulham, where I’d blissfully gone once a week being recognised by one man and his dog, and suddenly every third person wanted to talk to me about the show. I love all that. For me, who dreamed of fame and fortune when I was a kid hack on the Wimbledon News, it’s fantastic. I don’t see any downside to it at all, other than you have to have a very thick skin when it comes to the media treatment of you and all the piss-taking. But since I dished all that out for years, I get the joke. Now I’ve signed up exclusively to ITV for two years, but one of my deal-breaks with them is that I want to keep doing Question Time for the BBC, because I don’t think there’s anybody else who does primetime entertainment shows in Britain who also regularly does Question Time.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I had an incredibly long career in Fleet Street – 20 years – and achieved all the things I wanted to achieve. I don’t think there have been any bigger stories since I left than Dunblane, Princess Diana’s death and 9/11, and there may not be in my lifetime. And now, having gone into a totally different career, I do TV in America and Britain, write two columns for the Mail on Sunday, I’ve just signed a new two-book deal to do more volumes of diaries, and I do an interview for GQ magazine every month. I’ve got three ITV primetime specials – on Monaco, Dubai and Hollywood – going out in January, and I’ve got First News [the children’s newspaper of which Morgan is editorial director and part-owner] and a lot of other commercial stuff. And yet, despite all that, I have more free time and holidays than I ever had as a newspaper editor and I’m a lot fitter than I used to be and a lot healthier than I used to be. I tell you, editors of daily newspapers work harder. When I see them, they look as fried and frazzled and worn out and aggressive and pumped up as I used to be.

This article is an edited version of a taped interview conducted by the editor.

* Private Stuart Mackenzie, 28, the soldier alleged to have faked photographs appearing to show British troops abusing an Iraqi prisoner that were subsequently published in the Daily Mirror, appeared as a prosecution witness at the court martial of seven men from The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. The Crown Prosecution Service said lawyers had advised the Ministry of Defence Police that there was insufficient evidence for a “realistic prospect of conviction” against Private Mackenzie.

** City Slickers columnists James Hipwell and Anil Bhoyrul bought shares in electronics company Viglen Technology the day before they tipped the firm in their column. Morgan also bought shares on the same day in 2000, but claimed not to have read the relevant copy.