Peter Cole: Nothing Piers Morgan has to say can be worth Â£1.2m
Ex-editor of 'The Mirror' holds a special place in media hearts. But will the public go for him?
Sunday 29 August 2004
It took Piers Morgan less than a week to earn £2.9m, which is fair going at the best of times and particularly impressive if you are out of work. The former editor of the Daily Mirror, who was sacked in May for publishing fake photographs of British soldiers "torturing" Iraqi prisoners, has agreed severance terms with Trinity Mirror, his former employers, amounting to £1.7m. This deal came just a few days after he signed a £1.2m contract with Ebury Press for his memoirs, which are expected to be published next spring.
Few sacked editors have received such a warm press as Morgan. After his abrupt dismissal by Trinity's chief executive, Sly Bailey, there was near unanimity among other newspapers, both rivals and those from different sectors of the market, that this was a sad moment. Editorials praised his flair and talent, his ability to make the world a cheerier place. Editors and columnists queued up to wish him well, to sympathise with his treatment, to share an anecdote or two illustrating how well they knew him. Such pieces were appearing weeks after Morgan was ushered out of Canary Wharf, his jacket and possessions following on in a plastic bag.
Many of these pieces glossed over the reason Morgan was dismissed, and even those who a little earlier had recognised that if the pictures did turn out to be fakes Morgan would have to go seemed upset that when they did he did. Schadenfreude was notable for its absence. It is not as though national newspaper editors normally go in for collective action. "All for one and one for all; lay off our brother, Sly," is not the sort of rallying cry we hear from a group of men and women driven by competition, circulation figures and, necessarily, huge self-confidence.
Was it simply that they all liked Piers Morgan, that he amused them, that he dared to do and say things they found it wise not to? Was it a collective feeling of "There but for the grace of God ..."? Was it their fascination with the red tops,(a trait common among editors in the quality sector) and the desire of the non-Murdoch editors to see the Daily Mirror score against The Sun? The atmosphere would surely have been very different if it had been The Sun that had published the fake pictures.
But the media village loved Morgan, loved his mischief, his living on the edge, his ability to play and enjoy the tabloid celebrity game while at the same time saying he was sick of it. He couldn't see the point of consistency. He changed the Mirror into a serious, anti-war-on-Iraq tabloid with attitude, but couldn't take enough of the readers with him. While losing sales, he was interviewing, affectionately and amusingly on television, the very celebrities he was keen to drive out of his paper.
The Mirror and its editor paid the price for getting it wrong over the "torture" pictures. All these newspapers who have not found it in their hearts to criticise Morgan often criticise government ministers for not taking responsibility, and resigning. And how often they criticise the pay-offs to private-sector chief executives who are forced to resign after corporate failures. Now one of their own has received the same sort of pay-off their newspapers would describe as an obscene reward for failure, but not a word of criticism has been published. Perhaps all editors know that one day their time will come, and they cannot risk publishing words that could be thrown back at them. They should realise, though, that if they live in that rarefied corporate world their claims to share their readers' concerns are not convincing.
And so the memoirs. Publishing books, like publishing newspapers, is a commercial activity committed to making profits for the publisher. Books cost publishers money. Revenue comes from sales, of copies in various forms, of serialisation rights. However you look at it, £1.2m takes some recouping. The Mirror is hardly likely to pay for their former editor's revelations. The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times are the only titles that regularly pay large sums to serialise books. Usually they are paying for revelation, new facts from somebody in a position to know, the inside story from a significant public figure. The author may be a major politician or a star from show business, music or sport, or somebody who has become a celebrity through television. Readers can seldom name the editor of the newspaper they read. One or two achieve celebrity status, usually through television. Andrew Neil and Morgan are good examples. But books by editors, no matter how respected and talented they might have been as editors, are seldom big sellers. People like me and readers of this column buy and read editor memoirs. We know the names; we are hooked on the entrails of the news business. The average reader does not share these passions. So while there have been fascinating, readable, anecdote-packed memoirs from editors - Max Hastings, Andrew Neil, Harold Evans all spring to mind - there have been many others that have risen without trace.
So will the editorships (of the News of the World as well as the Mirror) of Piers Morgan, 39, have the readers queuing up? As editor would Morgan have bought this memoir for serialisation? We are told that, like Alastair Campbell, he kept a detailed and meticulous diary (how do these busy people find the time?) that will be the basis of the memoir. "This is not going to be the usual bitter rantings of a sacked editor," he has said. "My book will give an unprecedented insight into the workings of newspapers, and the inside track on the corridors of power in Britain and those who work in them."
An insight worth £1.2m? Readers develop relationships with journalists through the television screen. They feel they know them and want to know more about them. They are fascinated by their families, their backgrounds, their early lives, quite as much as by their coverage of major news stories. These people love their newsreaders, the correspondents, and Richard Whiteley. This is why the gentle and anecdotal works of John Simpson, John Sergeant and Kate Adie sell so well, why the Mail is serialising Michael Buerk's memoir, why that will sell so well. And why Piers Morgan's may not.
¿ I must put in a word for the boys. Yes, we know girls do better in GCSEs and A-levels, although the gap is closing. Yes, we know teenage girls tend to photograph better than teenage boys. Yes, we know news picture choices on newspapers tend to be made by middle-aged men. But again with the GCSE results pages, as the week before with the A-level result pages, almost every picture, usually large, usually in colour, of a rejoicing teenager having just heard the exam results is of a girl. Doesn't matter if it is The Times or the Daily Mail, and you can rely on The Daily Telegraph to make their pictures larger and more glamorously posed than any other paper. No wonder boys feel surly and marginalised.
¿ As the Olympics come to an end, and life returns to football and its seedy baggage, let us remember all those non-Brits who won gold medals. I have been constantly amazed at the number of times I have heard, "No more could have been expected of him; he should go home with his head held high" as another Brit runs in eighth. This has often been to the exclusion of the name of the winner. All together now: name the winner of the women's marathon.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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