With his public school education, hand-made suits, dinners at Marco Pierre White restaurants and holidays in the Caribbean, who'd have thought Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan would have ended up editing The Mirror (and not doing too badly either)?
The Deborah Ross Interview
"I know," says Piers, with a exasperated groan. "You were hopeless."
"You could have helped me out. You could have pointed me in the right direction every now and then."
"The thing is, I chose never to run with the pack. I was selfish. I did my own thing. I got more exclusives that way. Still, exclusives aren't what they used to be. We tend to put `exclusive' on everything just to annoy other papers. I once even put `exclusive' on the weather, by mistake."
He's a bright guy, and I like him, and he makes me laugh (mostly). He is shortly off to guest-edit an issue of Cosmopolitan. I ask him what sort of pieces he's going to commission. How to have six orgasms and a power breakfast while elbowing down the rubbish in the kitchen bin, perhaps? He says he read the magazine for the first time the other day, and "bloody hell, I had to drink a pint of bromide afterwards. There was a feature, he says, "on 100 ways to please your man. and I thought, three of these would be enough for me..."
I think few doubt that Piers is sharp enough. Or ambitious enough. ("All journalists should be ambitious. I want all my staff to want my job") Or egocentric enough. But is he the right guy for The Mirror? I'm just not sure. But that's OK, because I don't think anyone else is, either.
Anyway, we meet at his office on the 22nd floor at Canary Wharf Tower. A big man, with a big face and small eyes and highly-polished, black shoes, he dashes in a few minutes late. He says he's sorry but it's his wife's birthday on Monday and he had to rush out to buy her a card. He has already bought her a present, yes. And? "It's a trouser suit from Joseph. A light grey, creamy sort of thing." How lovely, I sigh enviously. For my last birthday, I tell him, my loved one bought me a plastic nose on which to keep my spectacles. "God. If I bought that for my wife, she'd shoot me," he cries happily.
He gives me a tour of the newsroom and I get a quick run-down on tomorrow's main stories. The first interview with an American woman whose estranged husband injected their baby with Aids, so he didn't have to pay maintenance. "A great story." The continuing serialisation of Andrew Morton's Monica's Story, which Piers bought for pounds 60,000, and which has attracted "an extra 300,000 readers a day". An update on baby Brooklyn. "A fantastic story for us. We're saying it's good Posh didn't conceive in Peckham, because then the baby would be Peckham Beckham. I say it's good we don't all have to name our children after the places where they were conceived, because my own son might have found it cumbersome going through life known as A Quickie on the Back Seat, Just Outside The Dog & Duck."
He introduces me to one of the long-standing feature writers while he strides purposefully off to do something else. The writer says Piers "is the best Mirror editor ever, and he's very kind. Just look at his face. It's as open as a frying-pan". Piers later says that, as an editor, you must be able to "ride rough-shod over the slings and arrows".
A successful newspaper must have a clear identity, and that identity must obviously come from the editor. But is Piers Morgan The Mirror? And what is The Mirror now, anyway?
Everyone seems to have a firm idea of what The Mirror once was. It was, they say, a great, left-leaning, compassionate, campaigning newspaper. It was Paul Foot and John Pilger and lots of hiking through Cambodia. Possibly we have always overrated this period in the paper's history, but, even so, its identity was constructed for many years around a passionate concern for social issues, while giving a voice to the working classes. I think this is what Piers thinks he ought to regain.
He does not, frankly, strike me as one of The Mirror's natural constituents. I'm not, here, referring to his salary - "What do I get? More than the Prime Minister..." or his flashy chauffeur-driven Jag or Merc or whatever it is. These things go with the job. No, what I am referring to are his basic values. His politics. His lifestyle.
His first editorship, at 28, he's now 33 - was on Rupert Murdoch's extremely right-wing News of The World. Although he now describes himself as "New Labour-ish", he used to be a big fan of Thatcher. "It's heresy for a Mirror editor to admit it, but I did vote for her, yes." He's an ex-public-schoolboy who intends to dispatch his own two sons - Stanley, two, and Spencer, five - to private schools at some point.
He has a tailor visit him here, in his office. "He brings shirts, cloth, shoes, everything..." He lives with his wife, a ward sister, in a big house in Wandsworth, south London. He holidays in the Caribbean, "usually somewhere I've booked at the last minute, at great expense". He likes Marco Pierre White's restaurants "because he always brings out a pounds 3,000 bottle of desert wine. He's a card." I'm not sure he's ever had deep concerns about the NHS.
I think he thinks that he connects with his readers on the terraces. He is mad for Arsenal, he says. "If you asked me what would be worse, getting sacked, or Dennis Bergkamp breaking both legs and never being able to play again, then I'd say Bergkamp breaking his legs." When I ask him what most frightens him in life, he says: "Chelsea winning the league". He adds that Spencer "can name 16 of the A-team Arsenal squad and can sing all the chants". Stanley's first-ever item of clothing, he continues, was an Arsenal Babygro. He says you've got to be ever watchful. "Someone might slip a Spurs shirt on them one day, and they like the colours, and that's that..." I can't be too sure about this, but I imagine that when Piers goes to Highbury, he possibly takes a picnic basket. "A nice bit of Brie, anyone?"
The Mirror has not done too badly under his editorship. When Piers was first appointed in 1995 the paper had truly lost its way, with no coherent voice, and a tedious over-reliance on showbiz and soap stories. Now it is better written, with better news stories, and the title is the only red-top not to have lost circulation in the last year. (The current circulation figure is 2,289,373.)
He is clever enough to have established early on where the land lay. His biggest mistake, he says, was trying to go head to head with The Sun, which culminated in the xenophobic "Achtung Surrender!" headline during Euro '96. He can see that he misjudged things badly there, although I'm not sure he properly regrets it. "After all, it's a joke you'd be able to get away with in Dad's Army or 'Allo, 'Allo, isn't it?" he says.
He is splendidly arrogant. He appeared once on Have I Got News For You?, tried to get the audience on his side against Ian Hislop, and failed. It was all rather embarrassing. But he watched the video again the other day and "you know, it wasn't that bad. It was quite funny".
Does anything make you feel humble, Piers? "When we've run appeals, and ordinary people in ordinary streets doing ordinary jobs send in cheques for pounds 10, which is probably half their weekly supermarket bill, that makes me feel humble." I wish I knew which supermarkets they went to.
He is, primarily, a "scoop" man, which is fine. But are all scoops fair, I ask him. Was getting a reporter to buy drugs from Jack Straw's son fair? Absolutely, he says. "That boy knew more names for resin than even I do. He was heavily into it." His father might need to know that, but not us, surely. He says he didn't intend to publish at first. But after the transaction took place, he had to, because a criminal action had occurred, and he didn't want his reporter to get into even further trouble with the police. "I had my hand forced. Plus it was a good newspaper story." He doesn't think celebrities' private lives should be protected. "They sell their weddings to OK! for pounds 100,000, then complain when we write about their divorce. You can't take the money for the good stuff then turn the tap off for the bad stuff."
Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan was born in Sussex in 1965. He was called Piers, he says, because at that time there was a dashing young racing driver called Piers Courage. He says "I could start a club of 33-year-olds called Piers." Still, he accepts, it could have been worse. It could have been Nigel.
Piers' father, Glynne, ran a meat distribution business. His mother, Gabrielle, sounds long-suffering. "This is my wife and she's Gay," is how his father always introduces her at parties. Still, she's always been his greatest support. "I speak to her almost every day. She'll support me to the end, whatever my heinous journalistic crimes." Which are? "If I was ever too critical of Diana she would be on my case. She camped on The Mall for the wedding."
He's a newspaperman, through and through. Even when he's in The Caribbean, he gets itchy for ink after a couple of days. "Then I'm down the supermarket, buying The Tobago Times and getting cross because there is no four-day- old copy of USA Today." He read newspapers from an early age. He remembers, at six - before he had quite got to grips with the magic "e" - picking out a headline from the Daily Mail and asking: "Mum, who's this girl who's been rapped?" He was always fantastically ambitious, too. He has, yes, always been supremely self-confident. He is hoping to pass this on to Stanley. "I say to him, it doesn't matter if you are or aren't the best, but you do have to want to be the best."
He did a year in the City after school, then went to Harlow Tech to study journalism. Next it was The Wimbledon News. And then The Sun, where I first encountered him. Aside from never giving me any pointers, he was also keen, I recall, on shoving me out of the way, so he could have his picture taken with celebrities. He was always "Friend of the Stars". He says now this was all just a joke, really.
Still, when he pops out of his office for a moment, which he does at one point, I note a framed photograph on the floor, leaning with its back to me, against a wall. I take a naughty peek. It's him meeting John Major - aghh! Whatever he thinks of John though, he hasn't taken any culinary tips from Norma because I can reveal that he doesn't keep grated cheese in his freezer. Is this yet another scoop for me? I still find it quite hard to tell.
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