Media: The growing pains of Piers

Ever since he arrived at The Mirror, a lot of newspaper pundits have been waiting for Piers Morgan to fall flat on his face. But the latest sales figures show that he has turned around the fortunes of his red top.
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Could it be that Piers Morgan, the 33 year-old ex-public schoolboy responsible for the "Achtung! Surrender" headline who arranged for a reporter to buy drugs from the Home Secretary's son, is the man with his finger on the pulse of modern Britain?

The sales figures for his newspaper, The Mirror, seem to encourage the idea. Years of decline in the red-top market, accompanied by years of smug carping from the broadsheets, seem to have been turned on their head.

In the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, The Mirror has proved that rumours of the death of the red-top are exaggerated. Its sales are up 66,000, or 3 per cent, compared with last November. Even better, and more reliable, is the fact that its last six months have been consistently up on the same six months in 1997.

After the doom-laden predictions of just a few months ago, when The Mirror was overtaken by the Daily Mail, The Mirror is back where you expect it to be - the second best-selling newspaper in Britain.

Morgan sits in his office, taking an obvious enjoyment from the good figures; he is even confident enough to admit to some mistakes: "When I first got here from the News of the World, my initial instinct was to try to go head to head with The Sun, which was a mistake. It misjudged the readership here, and that was a major moment for me personally."

"What I've learnt over the last three years is that Mirror readers are very different animals from, perhaps, Sun readers and News of the World readers. I might have got away with the "Achtung! Surrender" stuff on The Sun, but you can't get away with it on The Mirror, and I've learnt some valuable lessons."

Ever since that German-baiting Euro '96 headline, Morgan has been targeted as the unacceptable face of tabloid journalism. He is certainly the highest- profile tabloid editor since his mentor, Kelvin MacKenzie.

"Sure, occasionally I get called a complete tosser, but it doesn't bother me. If you are my age and you do my job, you are going to get attention. And I don't exactly run from that - it gets attention for the paper. If the BBC and ITV want to come and interview me, it saves me thousands of pounds in advertising. If you are not the market leader, you have to try every trick in the book to get attention for your paper, and that has very much been my strategy.

"If you look at the headlines of the last year, with Jack Straw's son, the Saudi nurse, Prince Harry, the interview with Trevor Rees-Jones, we have constantly been leading the agenda. And getting The Mirror front page on to television helps sell copies of the paper."

The other time Morgan and The Mirror got coverage this year was not of the kind even he can welcome. In September, the Mirror Group chief executive David Montgomery issued a public rebuke to Morgan at the Labour Party conference. In front of Tony Blair, Montgomery criticised Morgan for being negative about the Prime Minister's conference speech. "There was a misunderstanding," says Morgan. "But now all is happiness. And the good performance of the paper has helped - as it usually does between a chief executive and his editor."

Morgan believes that there are two separate strands to the turnaround in The Mirror's sales. They might be termed the money factor and the Kelvin factor.

The first he attributes to the oft-criticised Mirror Group management. "They decided two years ago that they had to invest in the paper. A budget of pounds 16m was found, to hire more journalists, to produce more sections, more magazines. On Saturday we had a 136-page paper with all sorts of people and lifestyles covered. We have Internet supplements, we have job and career supplements - every day of the week we are giving people a reason to buy."

Much of the money went on columnists. There are 22 new ones working for the paper who were not there two-and-a-half years ago, including Brian Reade and Tony Parsons. In total, there are 40 more journalists on the paper than when Morgan became editor and he wants to emphasise how hard his staff has worked to turn the paper around: "The Mirror has been getting a kicking from The Sun for 30 years and I think over the last 18 months we've given them a kicking. There is a feeling of real confidence here."

The Kelvin factor relates to the difference made when the former Sun editor gave up on L!ve TV to become deputy chief executive of Mirror Group, with responsibility for all the titles, and especially the most important one.

"Kelvin's arrival was the catalyst to take the paper on to the next sphere. He is in my view far and away the greatest tabloid editor that there has been, and totally in tune with how the readership has changed. Everyone thought he would take The Mirror downmarket, and of course we went the other way - although it's almost incongruous to say we've gone upmarket, because that indicates a class distinction. I don't make any class distinction; if people ask, `where do you want to get readers from', I'll say `anywhere'. I'll have a Times reader; I'll have a Daily Star reader. We are seeing a change to the way people aspire to things. The reader is more demanding now than they have ever been.

"It would be wrong to say that as soon as Kelvin left, something went out of the paper. I had produced the paper that he wanted - I edited, he managed."

Morgan believes that the other factor in The Mirror's revival is that The Sun has lost its way: "It's not because they don't produce good papers - they do - and it's not because David Yelland is not a bright guy - he is. I think their problem is that they don't really know what they stand for any more.

"They've been backing losing tickets and doing U-turns all over the place. In the last year alone, there's been a big U-turn on Tony Blair, a U-turn on the Millennium Dome and another U-turn on gays.

"The Sun when it was at its most rampaging and successful never did U- turns on anything. It didn't have to - it understood exactly what it was about. Indeed, it never had to declare what it was about; it would just be obvious by the treatment in the paper. They've lost their confidence and we've regained ours."

On top of the change in his readers' class ambitions, Morgan believes social attitudes have moved back in The Mirror's direction.

"The two really big events of recent years, Tony Blair's election and Diana's death, have definitely created a culture in this country which is more compassionate and understanding than during the Thatcher years. The Sun prospered when there was a selfish, nasty edge to life, and I think because of our core values as a compassionate, Labour-supporting, campaigning paper, we have benefited from the change."

Piers Morgan has rarely seemed lacking in confidence, even when being hammered for his antics by his rivals' sales figures or by commentators. The man who fell into a vat of ebullience as a baby has had the cheek to survive in a job a lot of people claimed he could not do. Now that things are going well, he is likely to become irrepressible.

Four of Morgan's more infamous front pages. `You can get away with `Achtung! Surrender' on The Sun, but not on The Mirror. I've learned some valuable lessons.'