From City boy to World leader - Life and Style - The Independent

From City boy to World leader

Piers Morgan began his working life as an insurance clerk. Today, at 29 , he edits a best-selling Sunday tabloid, spurred on by `honesty in public life' `I became the Friend of the Stars, an arrogant egomaniac' `Pop stars' agents beg me to run their sex scandals'

The interesting thing about Piers Morgan, editor of the News of the World, is not that he is so well dressed (especially his shoes). Anyone with experience of journalism expects that; the more tabloid the paper, the better the suit. (As you've ask ed, I'm wearing trainers and no tie.) It's not even remarkable that he is so middle class. (All executives are middle-class.) Incidentally, his real name is Piers Pughe-Morgan; his brothers are called Jeremy, an army captain serving in Ulster, and Rupert ; hissister is called Charlotte, married to a major serving in Bosnia.

What is unusual about him is his age. He took over the job last January, aged 28, making him the youngest editor of a national newspaper for more than 50 years. (Since Hugh Cudlipp became editor of the Sunday Pictorial in 1937, aged 24.) He has survived a year in the job. Jolly well done. Have you enjoyed it?

"Very much. It's been a very interesting year. At my age, I probably wasn't expected to survive, but I'm glad to be still here. Oh, if you don't mind, I'd rather not be seen in the photograph with a drink in my hand, if you don't mind..."

It was a working lunch in his large and comfortable office (posh sofas) surrounded by a choice selection of his more sensational front pages, and he'd only opened a bottle to be hospitable. He took just a sip from his glass and didn't touch the smoked salmon sandwiches. This is the modern age.

He had been in the job only three weeks when he put up a notice, aimed at his 140 staff, saying that, henceforth, two-hour lunches would be unacceptable. People should restrict themselves to a one-hour meal break. "A few had been in the habit of having the traditional Fleet Street liquid lunch. I've only been a journalist seven years, so all I know is the new-style journalism."

He was born in Sussex in 1965 and was sent to a prep school, Cumnor House, where he boarded for two years. His father, formerly a publican, who had sold up and gone into the meat distribution business, had hoped to send all four of his children to publicschool but began to feel the pinch financially. So at 13, Piers did not go to Ardingly, as expected, but to a local comprehensive.

"It wasn't easy at first, coming from a more privileged background. I did get beaten up by a couple of skinheads who naturally took me for a total twit, but I soon settled down. I made friends with someone 6ft 5in tall, which helped. One of my talents has always been to find people to protect me.''

He was a keen debater and even keener Tory. Very good O-levels, reasonable A-levels. He failed French, however, and couldn't take up an offer from Warwick University without re-sitting, so he took a year off. He worked in the City, as a clerk at Lloyds, travelling each day from his Sussex village on the 7.15 from Haywards Heath.

"It was good money, £150 a week, but after nine months I was in tears with boredom." So he went to Harlow Tech on a journalism course (famous old boy: Kelvin MacKenzie), then served his indentures on the Wimbledon News.

In 1988 he worked freelance on the Sun, which led to a job on its pop music column, Bizarre. It was then he single-barrelled his surname. "I wouldn't have got a byline otherwise."

He'd never been a pop fan, and still isn't, but he did know about self-publicity. (Though he says it was all due to the Sun's then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie. The greatest, most wonderful, most marvellous journalist Piers has ever met, unquote. Well, he isonly 29.)

"I'd been to interview Bros, who were then No 1, and we'd done some photos. In a test shot, I was sitting beside them, cracking a joke. When Kelvin saw the whole set, he picked the funny one I was in - and spread it across two pages.

"I became the Friend of the Stars, a rampant egomaniac, pictured all the time with famous people - Madonna, Stallone, Bowie, Paul McCartney, hundreds of them. It was shameless, as they didn't know me from Adam. The Sun had had a bad time, after losing anaction with Elton John, but this was harmless and funny. The publicity people from the record companies were all in on the joke.

"I got a letter one day from someone on HMS Campbeltown, saying I was appalling. Everyone on board got in a rage when they saw my face - so I printed that letter in full, in the column. I had a great four years, travelling the world."

And thanks to this, with no executive experience at all, you were made editor of the News of the World? "Yes. I got a call one day, asking me to see Rupert Murdoch in Miami. I suspected it must be something good, but I never expected this. I was flabbergasted.

"Obviously, Kelvin had helped, but you have to realise I was filling the column five days a week, running it like a mini newspaper. I had a staff of four and my own budget. I had been offered promotion, as features editor of the Sun, but turned it down, feeling I wasn't ready yet to be a faceless executive.

"I couldn't say no this time, though I'm sure most people expected I'd make a hash of it. I thought, I can only do my best. If I blow this chance, I'll still only be 28. I couldn't lose."

He was acting editor at first, then confirmed in the post in the summer, after a series of juicy royal stories and sex scandals. "That's the paper's object - to be sensational and accurate, revelatory and entertaining." He gets a chauffeur-driven Jaguar and a large salary. How much? "Too much probably, but I'm not saying."

He is particularly proud of the Princess of Wales's so-called nuisance calls to a married friend, which cost the paper nothing. "Our chief crime reporter got it from a contact."

His other favourite concerned the love life of the Chief of Defence Staff, for which they did pay a large sum to the woman involved. "That story was totally justifiable. First, it was true. He was having an affair with a foreign national, so he was running a security risk. Second, he'd recently issued an edict saying all officers would be dismissed for adultery. So he was also guilty of rank hypocrisy."

Piers is at his most fluent when justifying his exposure stories, clambering on to his moral high horse, and charging away in the public interest.

"If they are Tory MPs, and have been elected by preaching family values, and use their wife and children in publicity photographs, they deserve to be exposed if they commit adultery.

"If, say, David Mellor, when he stood for election, had said vote for me, oh and by the way, I'll frequently be unfaithful to my wife during the time I'm your MP, and they still voted for him, then fine, good luck to him.

"I'm not personally laying down rules. I'm just saying that public servants, paid for by us, have got to be accountable. It's not just politicians. Vicars or village bobbies who are up to no good deserve to be exposed."

But surely he must feel sympathy for the innocent people who suffer along the way? "Of course I sympathise with people like Mrs Mellor and her children, but innocent people always suffer when there's any sort of scandal. The Financial Times might expose some crooked City con man, but no one criticises them, though there will be innocent people who suffer."

Was it vital to expose the Bishop of Durham for something he did 26 years ago? "That would have been harder to justify, as it was so long ago, if he hadn't said a gay lifestyle was incompatible with being a priest. So it was in the public interest. He isthe fourth-highest cleric. If he had said nothing at all about gay clergy, just kept his mouth shut, or been open about what had once happened to him, then we would have done nothing. All we want is honesty in public life."

What about pop stars? They are neither elected nor public servants, so why expose them? "If X is singing about love and marriage, and sleeping with the nanny, then he deserves to be exposed."

Oh come on. That's a pretty poor defence. "All right then, it is a different agenda with pop stars. They court newspaper publicity, to sell their records, so they have to accept bad publicity as well. You may think that's a pretty spurious argument. In actual fact, I've had pop stars' representatives begging me to run their sex scandals."

He is also proud he has had no writs or libel actions this year, so far. "Our first concern is with the truth." How about some teensy weensy mistakes? He thought hard and admitted there had been a couple of out of court settlements. One case concerned a famous sportsman whom they said might have been a pimp, if he had not succeeded in his sport.

"It wasn't a factual mistake, just a matter of interpretation. On reflection, we should not have used the word pimp in the headline. I was prepared to argue our case, but in the end I let the lawyers settle it."

His ambition is to take the circulation up to 5 million. "We are the Western world's biggest-selling paper at 4.7 million, but I want to sell more. I suspect when I get to 5 someone up there will want it to be 6 million."

Does Mr Murdoch interfere? "No, he never tells me what to put in the paper." But afterwards, does he give his opinion. "Oh, yes, he frequently does..."

Piers says he is still basically Tory, but has an admiration for Tony Blair. "I am impressed by him - he's not radical, speaks well and makes sense."

What do his parents think? "Oh they are proud. They were Sunday Express readers, but they now get News of the World. My grandmother has told me to leave Diana alone, but she finds the paper entertaining."

And what about your wife? There was a pause. I had been told he was married, with a one-year-old son. "We've recently separated..."

Pressure of work? "No." Are you living with someone else? "No." What does your wife do? "She's a ward sister in a hospital. She helps save people's lives, and like all nurses, she'll hate me saying that..." While you ruin them? "Some people might say that. Look, we've agreed to say nothing. I know it's ironic, me not answering your questions. You are entitled to ask them, but I'm entitled to say nothing further."

What if your rivals get on to the story, and decide to expose you - in the public interest, of course, the way your reporters might? "I'll tell the truth, as I've told you. We're separated. That's all I'm saying. That's all public figures should ever do - tell the truth. Now I must get back to work...."

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