According to his friend Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan’s toughness is an act. “He is sensitive to criticism, much more so than I am,” he said. “This is the sort of person who will google himself 20 times a day to find something positive.”
Morgan’s oversensitivity proved his downfall this week, at least superficially. He walked off the ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain when challenged on his comments about Meghan Markle (he claimed didn’t “believe a word she says”), like an anti-intellectual Howard Beale.
But do not assume he is out of what he thinks is journalism. Morgan is always fired, or he quits, and he always comes back. He is not a good journalist – his methods are not rigorous, and sometimes his work appears to be dishonest. Consider this from his diaries, The Insider, dated 26 March 1997: “Tea with Tony Blair at No 10. He was yawning a lot and drinking endless cups of tea. I tried to wake him up a bit.” John Major was still prime minister at the time. But he is watchable because he is unpredictable. As he says, “I like waging feuds. They get me going and make me perform better.” He may have another job by nightfall. He may have set the whole thing up. There was something calculating, and deliberate, in the way he wobbled off the set.
Morgan, 55, began as a gossip columnist, and he is still one, though he dabbles in the worst kind of editorial, too, which is shouting without listening. Morgan, whom I profiled for the New Statesman in 2018, began his career on “Bizarre”, the Sun’s show-business column, where he reported stunts as news: Madonna visiting him at work (it was a lookalike, and he apologised for his mistake). Announcing that “Madonna” was a lookalike and that the apology was fake gave him a second day of “news”. Rupert Murdoch talent-spotted him and appointed Morgan, then 29, editor of the News of the World in 1994.
Morgan got great scoops, often to do with sex: Hugh Grant and a sex-worker; the chief of the defence staff and his mistress; Alan Clark sleeping with a mother and her two daughters. He had no boundaries, then and now – circulation was all that mattered – but he overstepped when he published photographs of Victoria Aitken, then Countess Spencer, during treatment for an eating disorder. Murdoch reportedly rebuked him, and Morgan quit in 1995 to edit the Daily Mirror. If that hadn’t happened, he might have become a famous editor of the Sun, like his one-time mentor Kelvin MacKenzie. He fled from his destiny.
[See also: Tanya Gold profiles Piers Morgan]
The Mirror was the closest he got to serious journalism: under his editorship the paper vigorously opposed the 2003 Iraq War. But he also published photographs of Princess Diana, 18 months before her death, weeping – “I felt it was indicative of her state of mind and it was a pretty powerful image,” he said – and Naomi Campbell leaving a Narcotics Anonymous clinic. I think he corrupted public discourse, but he would laugh at that. He is seemingly obsessed with the famous, though he appears to hate them. He collects celebrity memorabilia: Julie Goodyear’s false eyelashes; Pete Sampras’s shoes; a cigarette packet that someone threw at David Bowie.
The City Slickers scandal in 2000 – he bought shares in companies tipped by the paper the following day – damaged him further and when he published fake photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqis he was fired. His brother Jeremy once told the Sunday Times: “Piers thrives on risk.” (He also called him “a chameleon”.) There is circumstantial evidence – Jeremy Paxman told the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 that Morgan explained to him how to hack a phone – that Morgan was aware of phone hacking at the Mirror, but he has denied it.
He is often lucky. Cowell saved his career by inviting him in 2006 to be a judge on America’s Got Talent, where he admired David Hasselhoff more than is normal and insulted children with lines such as: “I feel it’s not so much about you as what your mum wants. She’s pushed you into doing this and what she really wants is a million dollars and a new car.” But the nadir of his television career, by some margin, was his interview with Donald Trump, who befriended him when Morgan won The Celebrity Apprentice in 2008. He identified himself to Trump as “someone who likes you” and gave him a kilt. It was nauseating. For once Trump looked like the more serious man in the room.
Morgan can be decent, but it feels accidental, tidal, a mistake. (His denunciation of lax US gun control laws while at CNN is one example.) He is sometimes right, but it is all subservient to his vocation of himself. A celebrity journalist is a terrible thing.
At heart he is an angry gossip writer – the first volume of his diaries was superb – and he thrived in a media landscape where there is too much gossip, and too much anger. He might still.
Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist