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If Piers Morgan, editor, had been an American baseball star, or even a Premier League footballer, he would have accurately been described as a "natural''. His God-given journalistic talent is augmented by a fast and impressive mind, courage, charismatic leadership, a razor-sharp and wicked sense of humour, and just the right amount of banditry in his soul to make him the best editor of the Daily Mirror for about 40 years.
If you threw him into a haystack he would come out clutching not a needle but a news story. If you stood his Fleet Street critics on top of each other they would not reach up to the penultimate eyehole in his favourite cricket boots.
Where, or how, did it all go wrong? Why was this immensely gifted young newspaper flame extinguished? Think sporting metaphor again and think Gascoigne or Best. Think character flaw. Not drink or similar social excesses, but simply immaturity. Piers Morgan is 95 per cent brilliance and 5 per cent Peter Pan. That 5 per cent little boy in his character gives him the enthusiasm and exuberance that helped to make him a great editor - and the chink in his judgement that caused him to drop periodic clangers and eventually to lose his job.
In his early years in charge of the Mirror, Morgan was to a huge extent protected against the Peter Pan factor by his management board, which included three former Fleet Street editors whom he listened to and respected. They formed a grey-haired sounding board that absorbed his more extreme boyish tendencies.
In later years there was no editorial brain on the board and no journalist in the company whose talents came within reach of his. In every business sense, he behaved, and obeyed the superior word of management. But when it came to matters journalistic, Morgan was allowed to be a law unto himself. For about 95 per cent of the time that resulted in shrewd decisions and great newspapers. But when Peter Pan was on the wing, Piers and the Mirror teetered on the high wire of disaster. That he did not take an earlier fall says more about his gambling instinct and luck than his judgement.
Some of us recognised the Peter Pan in his personality by working alongside him, but another great editor, Sir David English, said on his appointment in 1995 (and recorded in this book): "Piers Morgan will be a bold and instinctive tabloid genius... but as in the case of his mentor Kelvin MacKenzie, the risk of a spectacularly destructive own goal will remain high.''
All of which makes The Insider an irresistible read, whether you love him or hate him, are friend or foe, or wouldn't touch the Mirror with decontaminated tweezers. And there is enough arrogant boasting, self-immolation and sweet boyish charm to convert you from one category to another and back again. Morgan does not allow his detractors to pull any punches. "Piers, you are the most odious, unpleasant, nasty, offensive and disgusting person in Fleet Street. I wish you an early fucking death,'' is how one sports agent greeted him. Neither does he shrink from settling a few old scores with colleagues, celebrities or politicians. There are spats, fisticuffs and feuds that go on for years.
Three main figures consume his time and energies through 466 pages - Diana, Princess of Wales, Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch. The love-hate regard for all three that burns in his brain makes for a fascinating, if superficial, insight into the worlds of royalty, high politics and newspapers, and some of the most readable exchanges. The princess lures, captivates, infuriates and imprisons him on what he calls Planet Diana. A lunch with her and 13-year-old Prince William is "a massive humungous day''. When later she publicly condemns an exclusive story she has privately conspired with him to create, his mood fluctuates "between blind rage, utter bemusement and rueful revenge''. She also helped him sell a lot of copies of the Mirror.
Tony Blair, in similar vein, attracts him into the Number 10 inner clique with private meetings, phone chats and handwritten notes that reflect a mutual admiration most pleasing to an editor's ego.
But as the normal and healthy strains of the business of reporting government policy kick in, and the build up to war in Iraq and the invasion itself progresses, so there is more hate and less love.
Playing secondary but significant roles throughout are Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. In the middle of one row, Mandelson makes what he thinks is a scathing put-down: "You regard politics and life as showbiz.'' What else should he expect from any successful red-top editor?
What Morgan says about Rupert Murdoch, the man who first recognised his editing talents and gave him the News of the World to play with aged only 28, is more revealing about himself than Murdoch. He reveres, worships, lauds the great man and, like most of the editors Murdoch has fired, would be honoured to work for him again. But he has never forgiven Rupert for the humiliation the latter heaped on him by publicly spanking him after a damning Press Complaints Commission verdict. The politics of the situation was that the industry needed a martyr to save it from statutory control and Murdoch chose Morgan. After he resigned a few weeks later and a successor as editor of the News of the World was appointed, Morgan wrote to Murdoch: "I am sure the NoW will thrive under him... without the need for you to publicly bollock him, hopefully.'' It still rankles.
One exquisite irony occurs when Piers labels a friend as "a shameless starfucker''. Talk about the kettle... There are nearly 1,000 celebs, politicos and media stars alphabetically indexed at the back of the book and he drops more names than bombs were dropped on Baghdad.
It was, of course, Iraq that was to be his nemesis. In the run-up to the conflict he furiously and courageously campaigned against invasion. As the inevitability of war became clear, friends and colleagues - myself included - reminded him that the Mirror is the traditional soldier's friend. Once British lives were on the line, he could not continue his onslaught. He said he understood and meant it, but Peter Pan couldn't help himself. He periodically piled in during the war itself and Mirror sales dived.
Then in the aftermath came the fake pictures of British soldiers abusing prisoners. Why did he use them without watertight proof they were genuine? Why did he not back down when it was clear the game was up? I think Peter Pan was so desperate for them to be right that he couldn't help himself. It was perceived as a newspaper atrocity, a quantum leap from a mere red-top clanger - a sad ending to what might have been a truly glorious editorship.
I don't think this Peter Pan will ever truly grow up, but that is part of the charm and success of the man and his diary. It's a compelling read on any level, whether you want to consider the relationship between politics and the press, royal behaviour, the red-top world - or just want a good laugh.
Charles Wilson was managing director of the Mirror Group from 1992 to 1998
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