The New Statesman Profile - Piers Morgan

Some are hailing the <em>Mirror</em> editor's new respect for hard news as a return to the Cudlipp d

The smiling baby boy gurgled as he was introduced to his "Uncle Piers" and cooed "bonjour", a party trick learnt to melt the heart of the president of France. For a family famous for protecting its privacy, it was odd to expose an 18-month-old son to a rapacious tabloid editor, particularly one about to take the stand in a High Court privacy case.

But as the shine fades from a very tarnished new Labour administration, Tony Blair is desperate to build bridges with the press, and particularly the once slavish Mirror, now his most lethal critic.

Piers Morgan's rediscovery that hard news sells newspapers and wins awards may be good news for lesser celebrities, who can now sleep easy in other people's beds, but it spells trouble for a government faced with big political problems. Five million traditional, core Labour voters read Morgan's Mirror from Monday to Saturday, and he is dishing up a daily diet of Labour sleaze, scandals, cock-ups and conspiracies. As disillusionment spreads among Mirror readers - whom the Daily Mail-obsessed Blair has long taken for granted - the apathy risks turning to antipathy.

Morgan was at his self-confident best (or worst) in the cramped Courtroom 13 on the Strand as he defended his decision to splash the visits to Narcotics Anonymous by Naomi Campbell, the supermodel, over his paper's front page. She had been halting, muddled, confused. He was sharp, funny, eloquent. Campbell was suing for breach of confidence and/or unlawful invasion of privacy. The Mirror editor insisted that her pursuit of fame made her fair game.

"Celebrities who regularly invade their own privacy," he told the court, "abrogate their right to the same privacy as someone who has not chosen that path."

In the world according to this particular newspaper editor, everybody is a source or a victim, and sometimes both. The Mirror is very much Morgan, a hands-on editor who, still only 36 years old, backslaps his way around the 22nd-floor newsroom in London's Canary Wharf. Unless Arsenal are playing a midweek game at Highbury, he stays on the back bench to approve every page.

Morgan demands absolute loyalty from his staff. When I quit the Mirror three years ago and derided his then cosy relationship with Downing Street, an enraged Morgan wrote a page-two piece dubbing me "Kevin Manure".

Since 11 September, the media commentators who once called him "Gormless" have hailed Morgan as the true heir to Hugh Cudlipp, who presided over the Mirror in its glory days in the 1950s-60s. Justly praised reporting and writing, first from New York, then from Afghanistan, put the Sun in the shade. And the Mirror was passionate, too: sympathy for the US attack victims turned to fury when Blair backed the bombing of one of the world's poorest countries.

Morgan, recovering from an operation to cure a back injury, rose from his sickbed to take charge and has not looked back since.

Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan is in many ways more Mail than Mirror, with his prep school education, handmade suits, chauffeur-driven car, Marco Pierre White dinners and Caribbean holidays. Born in 1965 in an East Sussex village, the son of a meat distribution executive, he was named after a showy racing driver, Piers Courage. The young Morgan was privately educated before moving on to a rather good comprehensive and sixth-form college. After school, it was off to Harlow and a journalism course, then an ill-starred year in the City with Lloyd's while searching for a break into newspapers, which came courtesy of the Wimbledon News in south London.

Selling scoops to the tabloids earned him a job on Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun within two years where, as editor of the Bizarre showbiz page, the "friend of the stars" cleverly thrust himself into the limelight by shamelessly posing with his new best friends and earned a small fortune writing instant books on the likes of Phillip Schofield and Take That.

The brash MacKenzie is Morgan's mentor. At his prompting, Rupert Murdoch made Morgan editor of the News of the World in 1994. At 29, he was in charge of Britain's biggest-selling newspaper.

The scoops rolled in as the NoW made John Major wish he had never used the phrase "back to basics" and exposed a string of philandering ministers, including David Mellor, in or out of his Chelsea shirts. Morgan says he had a tip-top news desk and acknowledges the role of Max Clifford (later to play a key part in delivering the Cherie-Blair-pregnant scoop to the Mirror) but, in terms of setting the news agenda, he set a breathtaking pace.

A gung-ho attitude saw him publicly rebuked by Rupert Murdoch within 12 months. Reading the writing on the wall, Morgan jumped ship in 1995 to edit a solid if dull Daily Mirror, then being eclipsed by a much brighter Sun. Within six months, he was apologising on TV for the infamous headline "Achtung! Surrender", accompanied by a picture of Paul Gascoigne in a tin hat. An editorial declaring war on Germany was judged not to be in keeping with the friendly spirit of the Euro '96 football tournament. A Mirror-sponsored Second World War tank destined for the German team's central London hotel was stopped on the M25, and the paper's executives failed to track down Douglas Bader's artificial tin legs.

Still reeling from that controversy, the Mirror was said to have cracked when, under prompting from a management wary of further opprobrium, Morgan inexplicably returned leaked copies of Kenneth Clarke's final Tory Budget to the Treasury.

A first-time Labour voter in 1997, Morgan was swept along by Blair's fresh appeal and decreed his paper new Labour's Pravda.

He was told to be on his best behaviour, but that best fell short of what some ministers considered acceptable. Robin Cook must still be haunted by the night when, over dinner in Brighton, Morgan forced the then foreign secretary to confess his love for Gaynor Regan and then asked him what she was like in bed.

It was MacKenzie, Morgan's mentor, who freed Morgan to edit a newspaper rather than a propaganda sheet when, in 1998, he became a senior executive in the Mirror Group and decreed that the gloves were off. The Mirror abandoned Blair in favour of Gordon Brown and set about criticising Labour on health, education, policing and transport. Alastair Campbell invested heavily in getting Morgan back on side, and when MacKenzie moved on in 1999, Morgan supported the bombing of Kosovo as enthusiastically as he later opposed bombing Afghanistan.

Within a year, Morgan was embroiled in a share-dealing scandal that had him fearing the sack every day. For months, rumours had circulated within the paper that his "fill your boots" share tipsters, Anil Bhoyrul and James Hipwell - the "City Slickers" - were too keen to take their own advice. Morgan would chat with the dreadful duo regularly.

In February 2000, the Daily Telegraph disclosed that Morgan had bought shares in a hi-tech company the day before it was plugged in his own paper. Once he frequently lampooned other editors; now the boot was on the other foot, with the rival Sun giving him a real kicking and calling for him to quit or be fired. Morgan did not like the taste of his own medicine, and appealed to other editors to get their journalists off his case when they doorstepped him at his home in London. He was found guilty of breaching three counts of the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct and is still subject to an inquiry by the Department of Trade and Industry. He remained editor, but the Slickers were sacked.

That he has bounced back is remarkable and, ironically, owes much to his willingness to be critical of the government he relied on for support during the City Slickers crisis. Before the 2001 election, Morgan had again declared the Mirror faithful to Labour. That went out of the window when he discovered that No 10 had leaked the delay in the election date from May to June to the Sun. Hell hath no fury like an editor scorned. Once again, old sources are new victims. After Downing Street's most recent attempt to bring him back on side, Morgan received a card from No 10 signed "From your best friend" by Cherie Blair with a kiss. Fiona Millar, Cherie Blair's assistant and partner of Campbell, added: "From another best friend", and two kisses. Campbell, celebrated for his plain speaking, simply wrote: "Ugh!"

Kevin Maguire now writes for the Guardian