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What the rise of Piers Morgan tells us about modern Britain

As a precocious tabloid editor, bullish presenter, friend of Trump and Twitter provocateur, Morgan has found the fame he dreamed of. But is there anything beneath the oily exterior?

 

Kelvin MacKenzie draws breath. “The issue about Piers – I know it sticks in the craw of the socialists reading your article,” says the former editor of the soaraway Sun, “[is] he is a natural star and a natural communicator. So, he ends up running ‘Bizarre’ [the Sun’s showbiz column], completely hijacks one of the more successful areas of the paper and starts draping his arms around every pop star and every film star he ever interviews. And he becomes more famous than the people he’s interviewing. Something that has continued throughout his entire career. It” – it? – “is a massive piece of talent and should be recognised for what it is instead of people pissing on him all day long.”

I suppose I am one of those people – but I have cause! He clogs up my Twitter timeline with nonsense. He bookends my day with papooses, pies and rage that he disguises as bonhomie, or, worse, truth-telling. He is – and this surely delights him – ubiquitous.

“Unlike most of the turds in the media, who you wouldn’t wipe your arse with on a wet Wednesday in Wigan” – MacKenzie pauses slightly as the headline comes to him – “he actually cares for the people out of the spotlight. The queue to hire Piers in the UK stretches about ten times round the block. The truth is he is going to end up the best paid kind-of” – why “kind-of”? – “presenter in the country and the bottom line is this. When he joined Good Morning Britain they could not give the thing away. Now he is killing the BBC and in the end he will absolutely own breakfast and if he wants to make £5m a year or £10m he can, or he can go somewhere else. It’s a remarkable story but because it’s successful and because he comes from a tabloid background – the Sun and the Mirror – then, you know, all the bloody halfwits who buy the New Statesman will hate him. It is absolute snobbery. If it was somebody like Evan Davis who could do it – who by the way couldn’t push a peanut up a hill,” – and he changes his mind – “right, he couldn’t push a peanut down a hill, actually – then everybody would be saying ‘this intellectual genius’.”

I don’t think that is true, because I haven’t seen Evan Davis judge a piano-playing pig or obsess over David “the Hoff” Hasselhoff. And I’m not sure Morgan cares about the semi-mythical people out of the spotlight either; rather I think of the line from Citizen Kane: “You talk about the people as though you owned them.”

“And that’s your lot.” The tap turns off. MacKenzie hangs up.

Piers Morgan is famous, as MacKenzie says; as famous as he ever dreamed of being. He is almost television handsome with his boyish, sly face. But is he important – and is he really a journalist? He works in a place where two swelling, and awful, journalistic seas meet: celebrity gossip, and shouting opinions you probably don’t even hold. But journalism is in crisis and, as in politics, populists have been thrown up; people who, though ignorant, seem to know what to do. He speaks to the stupid and dominates on Twitter, which is the palace of stupid. He is our Trump.

I thought that if I interviewed Piers Morgan I might exorcise him. But he wouldn’t do it. He is still upset about a blog the New Statesman’s website published in July, in which writer Becca Harrison reported she had called him a “fascist-enabling c***” in a café, because of his support for Donald Trump. I thought the blog was unfair, but then I saw his interview with Trump, and I didn’t think she had gone far enough.

According to his friend Simon Cowell Morgan’s toughness is an act. “He is sensitive to criticism, much more so than I am. This is the sort of person who will google himself 20 times a day to find something positive.” So he said no to an interview with me, and I read four volumes of his terrible memoirs, which are the kind of books that actively make you stupider. I remember nothing but a blur of anecdotage and retellings of celebrity encounters that weren’t that interesting the first time around. Morgan writes like a man looking for attention from his mum (he has three siblings). He is 53 years old.

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In October Morgan posted a photograph on Twitter of a haggard Daniel Craig carrying a baby in a papoose. “Oh 007.. not you as well?!!!,” he wrote, with punctuation that needed a sub-editor, “#papoose #emasculatedBond.” It was a typical Morgan tweet. It was reactionary – in this case misogynistic, for childcare, it hints, is for women – with a celebrity twist and something idiotic as a topper: Agent 007, as many people pointed out, is not a real person. (Morgan does this so he can say later that he was joking.) Twitter responded angrily and he rolled back, as he was always going to. It was the strategy. He wasn’t criticising fathers who do childcare, he said. Rather, he was criticising the “virtue-signalling” of a man wearing a papoose, even though Craig was obviously papped, so he was signalling nothing more than wanting to use his arms while in possession of a baby. The conclusion, then, was Morgan’s satisfaction in gaining attention of any kind. “First the Washington Post,” he wrote as the story spread, “now BBC News. Papoose-Gate is growing bigger than Watergate.”

I found a slender 2011 biography of Morgan by Emily Herbert, which is very kind to him, presumably because if you don’t like Morgan why would you bother to read a whole book about him? But even as Herbert spins everything to Morgan’s glory it is fascinating. He was always ambitious, bellicose and able to move slickly through worlds. His father, Vincent O’Meara, a dentist and sometime journalist, died when he was a baby. His mother married a Welsh publican called Glynne Pugh-Morgan. Initially the family had money but they lost it.

Piers Morgan grew up in a Sussex pub. Has he ever, really, left it? He used to bottle up at 5am before going to school. He was educated privately until he was 13, and then went to comprehensive school. “It upset my Mum to have to do it, but we just ran out of money,” he said. “Suddenly, to be yanked out of that gilded existence, with all your friends going to Eton or Westminster School, and you’re going to the local comp.” His brother Jeremy told the Sunday Times: “Piers is a chameleon and he made friends with the largest boys there, who protected him.” He also said: “Piers thrives on risk.” Piers would tell skinheads: “I’m not available for a fight but my brother is.” So his catchphrase was born: “One day you’re cock of the walk, the next a feather duster.”

Morgan studied journalism at Harlow College in Essex and reported for the South London Press and the Streatham and Tooting News. He met Kelvin MacKenzie in the late 1980s, then burning the boundaries of what tabloid newspapers were prepared to do for profit. MacKenzie’s personal apogee was putting a photograph of the Ealing vicarage rape victim in The Sun four days after the attack. His colleagues were appalled, so he blocked out her eyes on the photograph. But he still published the image and a picture of her home, effectively identifying her. MacKenzie loved Morgan. He still does.


Morgan left the News of the World to edit the Daily Mirror in 1995

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Morgan worked on the “Bizarre” section at a time when gossip was overwhelming newspapers. He dropped the “Pugh” from his name because it was not everyman enough and he practised the art of spin. In 1992, he wrote that Madonna came to talk to him in Wapping in her limousine. It was a lookalike and he apologised for being duped; then he said he had hired the lookalike and that the apology was a joke. Two years later, when he was 29, Rupert Murdoch made him editor of the News of the World.

He was the youngest national newspaper editor in 50 years. He got great, sex-themed scoops, of the sort you wished you hadn’t read: Alan Clark and his “coven” of three related women; Bienvenida Buck and the chief of the defence staff Peter Harding; Hugh Grant and Divine Brown. He said: “Say a married woman sleeps with the village policeman, her husband finds out, there’s a fight and someone tells the News of the World, then we’ll run it. Is it wrong?” He didn’t answer the question, because he couldn’t. Instead, he concluded: “Well, 4.9 million people thoroughly enjoyed the News of the World last week.” So money – power – was the answer, and so it remains.

Then he published a photograph of Victoria, Lady Spencer, in treatment for an eating disorder. It earned him a public rebuke from Murdoch – it was likely a cynical rebuke, and he would have been forgiven – but he couldn’t bear to be in the wrong. So, despite his conservatism, he fled to the Daily Mirror (although he probably would have edited the Sun, had he stayed). MacKenzie was already at the Mirror Group.

I spoke to Phil Hall, his deputy at the News of the World from 1994 to 1995. What drives Morgan? “He loves life,” he says – most tabloid editors talk in captions, they can’t help it. “He gets up every morning full of energy and verve and he doesn’t stop until very late in the evening.” And what else? “I have never met anybody so motivated and up for a challenge. He’s got a fantastic sense of humour so [he would] constantly have the office rolling with laughter.” (Those he didn’t fire, that is.) “He wouldn’t stand for nonsense. But he didn’t harbour grudges. If he didn’t think people were delivering he would haul them over the coals.” He led from the front, a general in a war not worth winning. When Manchester United’s Eric Cantona kicked a fan at Crystal Palace in 1995 Morgan rang the office to demand big coverage. He was already on his way to the football ground.

At the Mirror he veered, sometimes wildly, between the trivial and the serious, as if he did not know who he was. He commissioned a column from Alan Sugar called “A Spoonful of Sugar” and a column from Gordon Brown’s former spokesman Charlie Whelan called “A Line of Charlie”. He opposed the Iraq War, which is the best thing he has ever done. He may be very irritating, but he is not always wrong. He published photographs of Princess Diana crying when pursued by paparazzi – “I felt it was indicative of her state of mind, and it was a pretty powerful image,” he said, which was a pathetic defence – and of Naomi Campbell coming out of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Anyone who had ever done publicity had no right to privacy – it was his personal philosophy. It was as if he hated them.

“MIRROR DECLARES FOOTBALL WAR ON GERMANY” was his headline during the 1996 European Championships, and then “ACHTUNG! SURRENDER!”, all in the build-up to the semi-final against England. When criticised he sent a Harrods hamper to German striker Jürgen Klinsmann and headlined the summit “PEAS IN OUR TIME”. I still don’t know why. When Germany beat England on penalties there was a riot in Trafalgar Square.

In January 2000 he benefited after buying shares the paper would tip the following day in the “City Slickers” column. The story changed many times – he invested £20,000, he invested £67,000, he emptied an investment account – he insisted it was a coincidence and gave all the profits from the trade to charity. And although the columnists James Hipwell and Anil Bhoyrul were fired, he was cleared of wrongdoing, and then won editor of the year at the UK Press Awards in 2001 and 2002.

There is circumstantial evidence that Morgan knew about the phone-hacking at the Mirror, but he has always denied it. Jeremy Paxman told the Leveson inquiry that Morgan had told him during a lunch in 2002 how to hack a phone and, in a tortuous passage in one of his memoirs, Morgan explains that he was doing it for Paxman’s sake, and that alone.

Morgan loves personal conflict. He said in 2009: “I like waging feuds. They get me going and make me perform better. On newspapers every day is a feud. All editors need one to get by.” He feuded with David Yelland, who was editor of the Sun while he was at the Mirror. He said Morgan has “a schoolboy, lavatory sense of humour with an extremely nasty edge”. He feuded with AA Gill, who marvelled that Morgan “seems to have learned human as a second language, possibly from Derren Brown”. Jeremy Clarkson punched him three times at the British Press Awards in 2004.

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His most dedicated feud, though, was with Private Eye. It began when he appeared on Have I Got News For You in 1996 and, in comedic terms, died. He took on Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye and team captain, and he lost. He threatened Hislop with his available weapons – intrusion – and when the audience said they preferred Hislop to him (Hislop was a regular, after all) he couldn’t bear it. He vowed revenge.

“He had this great campaign,” says Hislop on the telephone. “He was going to get me. I was this hypocrite that constantly revealed stuff about other people. Well, now he was going to get me. There were journalists on my doorstep for days. He used to send people around the village and he rang up the vicar asking if I had confessed anything good.” The photographer on the doorstep said he wanted a picture of Hislop, “laughing as though you are happy and then we will put it over some tragedy or something”. Then the photographer’s car broke, and Hislop laughed. So Morgan got the photograph he wanted.

“I think he is a bully really,” says Hislop, “He gets very cross when anybody stands up to him at all. He was part of that swaggering tabloid gang who thought they could do anything, and it was all a laugh and whatever they did was fine, and any damage was collateral. He just got absolutely furious with the Eye firstly and then with me secondly because we kept saying: if we apply the standards that you do journalistically to other people, let’s have a look at you.

“He started dispensing marital advice when the Angus Deaton thing blew up,” Hislop continues. “Piers decided that he would give lectures on fidelity. Given that he was himself having an affair with a married woman and was married, which he would have gleefully pointed out in his days as a tabloid reporter or editor, I thought that was a bit hypocritical.

“Piers always felt let down by me, that I wasn’t part of the gang. He had lots of mates who were journalists and editors and they were all in it together. While I never feel in it together really.”

Does Hislop think Morgan knew about phone-hacking? “That’s my own view. There is no smoking gun, and no one has managed actually to pin it on him despite the Paxman conversation and a great deal of circumstantial [evidence], and what you might call common sense about the way editorial processes work.”

Private Eye also mocked his diaries: “They were a new form of diary being written,” – Hislop giggles – “sort of rather later than the date given.” For instance, his diary entry for Wednesday, 26 March, 1997, says: “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. There is an explanation of this in a subsequent diary, which is too boring to print. The Private Eye nickname endured, though: Piers Moron. The Hislop dossier, if it exists, has never been published.

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When Morgan was fooled into publishing fake photographs of British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners in 2004, he was fired, and spent a summer floating around supermarkets, buying Ambrosia creamed rice, and, according to his diaries, saying things such as: “Thank God I’ve got lunch with Parky [Michael Parkinson] tomorrow.” And then: “Bollocks! Parky cancelled lunch at the last minute.” Does anyone actually speak like that, even to themselves? I cannot tell if Morgan is very honest – which is always his boast, he preens with honesty – or a very comprehensive liar. Or some combination of the two, whose behaviour changes with the wind.

He had a very peculiar saviour: Simon Cowell. He made Morgan a judge on America’s Got Talent, and later, Britain’s Got Talent, the show with the piano-playing pig. He was Cowell’s assistant fiend, existing, as deputies do, to make the boss look good, or at least better. He moved to America for part of the year. He says he missed his three sons by his first marriage, but he went anyway and made other children cry. He told a six-year-old performer, “You aren’t as good as Beyoncé, you don’t look like her and, frankly, your mother probably pushed you out there.” He told a nine-year-old, “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.”

What is worse – telling children that they are untalented, or that their mothers are wrong? He wrote a lot of diary entries about his fellow judge, David Hasselhoff – “a man who has become, indisputably, the world’s top cult iconic celebrity” – whom he both envied and despised, but it all feels like filler.

What is inside Piers Morgan? My guess is nothing much at all. He tries, sometimes, to be serious, but it is a ghost limb, and it doesn’t belong. He wrote that he collected celebrity memorabilia and that feels more heartfelt. Morgan’s objects are the detritus of a man made of bad newsprint: Julie Goodyear’s false eyelashes; Pete Sampras’s shoes; a cigarette packet someone threw at David Bowie.

If there is any self-knowledge in his diaries – which are very comprehensive and repetitive, with every celebrity interview and TV appearance analysed and retold – it is all projected on to others. “Everyone thinks they can be a star now, just by prancing around on shows like this,” he writes. “And the worst thing is, they’re right, they can.”

Morgan kept rising. He won Celebrity Apprentice in 2008, and befriended its judge, Donald Trump. He took over Larry King’s evening interview show at CNN in 2011 and, over three years, presided over a decline in ratings. He attacked the proliferation of guns in the US. This may have been sincere, or it may have provided a retrospective excuse for when he was, again, fired. The more often he is fired, the more buoyant he becomes.

He returned to the UK, and to breakfast television, and Twitter, where he has 6.45 million followers. He makes the news regularly – for that is what has happened to news – and has made his co-host Susanna Reid cry. He threw a custard pie at her live on air the day before I filed this piece.

He has another new job too – Trump’s friend on Earth. He interviewed him last summer and it was Morgan at his worst. “We eat a lot in this country,” was his first observation. “You eat a lot,” agreed Trump, for once looking like the smarter man in the room. Morgan asked what was going through Trump’s mind as he walked towards the Queen? Trump talked about his mother and referred to his childhood self as “Little Guy”, which is one for the psychiatrist, not the news reporter.

Morgan then asked: what do you make of the Queen? You are probably the two most famous people on the planet! “She’s got a lot of years left,” said Trump, ominously, “she’s got a lot of years left.” What were her opening words? “Welcome,” said Trump, slowly. Then came another meaningless scoop, but pleasing to Trump. Morgan repeated the comments of Meghan Markle’s father, Thomas, who was interviewed on Good Morning Britain, that Prince Harry had told him, “We should give Donald Trump a chance.” Later, Morgan identified himself to Trump as someone “who likes you”. I wondered if Trump himself was embarrassed, but, if so, he recovered. “I’ve ordered a new Air Force One,” he said, “no president had the courage to do it.”

To call it soft soap is insulting to soft soap. It’s cheap soap; access without revelation is just PR. But politicians are not Morgan’s true adversaries. Other journalists are. Those who criticise him are accused of jealously – because he travels in private jets – or taunted for having fewer Twitter followers. So he flattered Trump, his joy at being on Air Force One wild in his eyes. He nodded to himself as the photographs were taken, as if giving his childhood self a high-five. Then he gave Trump a kilt.

How much of Morgan’s persona is real is impossible to say. I asked his second wife, the journalist Celia Walden, what he is really like, but she chose to speak, instead, about his impact on others. “Some people have issues with him, but I’ve always quite liked him,” she says by email. She is droll. He does have good taste in women. He likes a clever-clogs. “What’s funny from a wife’s perspective,” she says, “is watching people who have obviously decided they loathe Piers from the outset change their minds during the course of a conversation. It can be gradual and always begrudging but they tend to end up hating him a little less once they’ve met him.”

Piers Morgan is a paradigm of what has happened to journalism. In his small way, he is a tragic hero who lost his true destiny, which was to be editor of the Sun. It would have been a perfect fit, but hubris is his sin, and it floated away. So he turned instead into a PR firm with just one client, which would be fine if he didn’t call himself a journalist too. Perhaps he should call himself The Man Who Owns Breakfast. Make yourself the story, MacKenzie told him, when he started at the soaraway Sun, and to that edict at least, Piers Morgan has been faithful.

This article appears in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history