Piers Morgan: Yes, I have a few scores to settle
That sacking: I wanted to go out with a bang. Those pictures: history will prove me right. The memoirs: sweet vengeance will be mine. Raymond Snoddy finds the ex-Mirror editor in characteristically combative form
Monday 04 October 2004
The framed tabloid front page that has pride of place on the wall of the former
Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan's apartment does not depict any of his many scoops or award-winning editions.
The framed tabloid front page that has pride of place on the wall of the former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan's apartment does not depict any of his many scoops or award-winning editions.
Instead, it shows the famous picture of the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad - except that the face of the former Iraqi leader has been replaced by that of Morgan. And the headline reads: "Mirror Mirror On The Fall, The Sun Is The Greatest of Them All".
Just to rub the point in, this special front page bears the signature of Rupert Murdoch. It is the first thing you see when you walk into Morgan's London flat in Chelsea Harbour.
The special message from the chairman of News Corporation was sent to mark an important turning point in Morgan's editorship - the day sales of the Daily Mirror fell below two million for the first time in the paper's modern history. Yet the mock front page also manages to sum up, in the way a good tabloid often can, the role Iraq played in Morgan's fall from grace - from the reader hostility to the paper's opposition to the war, to the apparently faked pictures depicting British troops mistreating Iraqi civilians that ultimately got him the sack.
Despite the barbs, Morgan beams with pleasure at the fact that Murdoch should have cared enough to send it. Even now, months after he so spectacularly joined the ranks of "former editors", Piers Morgan has fewer regrets than Frank Sinatra about what he has done.
Does he rue the Daily Mirror's anti-war stance? "Absolutely not. History will judge the Mirror's campaign on the Iraq war as one of the strongest, bravest and best campaigns that any newspaper ever waged against anything ever, and I believe that passionately," the former Mirror editor says.
In fact, Morgan is so convinced that the war was wrong and illegal, and that conditions in Iraq have become so appalling, that he is moved to put forward a radical - and extraordinary - solution. "When you look at it now, there is a very sound argument for putting him [Saddam] back - and how believable is that?" asks Morgan. He adds that he could envisage one last Mirror campaign, which would have gone: "Bring Back Saddam - Bring Some Order To This Country."
He is absolutely not joking. "Armed fighters are swarming all over Iraq. We have devastated the region beyond any repair in the short term at all. None of this was going on while Saddam was in charge of things," Morgan continues, in a train of thought that will win him few new friends.
What about publishing the "abuse" pictures, which have been denounced by the British Army as fakes? Does he regret that? "I regret it being the cause of my departure. I regret the fact that everyone thinks I was some naive idiot who was easily duped. I certainly resent that allegation, because a lot of people believed that they were genuine. The British Army believed they were genuine when they saw them. The Government believed they were genuine," Morgan says.
But even this cloud - one that resulted in him being escorted from the premises of the Mirror without being able to return to his office to retrieve his jacket or say goodbye to his colleagues - has a silver lining. "I don't resent the fact that they let me go. I always wanted to go out with a bang anyway, and you certainly couldn't go out with a bigger bang than that - bigger than the Queen Mother - rather than falling sales and two paragraphs on page 23," he says.
Morgan has kept busy since his editing days came to an abrupt end earlier this year. He has nearly finished a memoir, written in diary form, of his 11 years as a national newspaper editor - two years in charge of the News of the World, and then nearly a decade editing the Daily Mirror.
He will not confirm that the advance for the book is around £1m but, in the best traditions of the tabloid trade, Morgan is promising revelations on everyone from Diana, Princess of Wales to the Prime Minister. He explains that he never kept a diary in the Alan Clark way, sitting down to write 2,000 words every night. What he did do was keep detailed notes of all the private meetings he had with powerful, famous and notorious people, and there are also many boxes containing cuttings, letters and other items he found interesting.
Also in the best tabloid tradition, there will be the sound of grinding axes and old scores being settled. Naturally, he feels there is no reason why he should not put everything in. "I am not going to betray genuine confidences, and I am not going to stitch people up who I don't think deserve stitching up, but lots of people have betrayed my confidences, and lots of people have treated me pretty badly over the years - and I have no compunction at all in settling those scores in terms of revelation," he explains.
The list of scores to settle will not, however, include either Sly Bailey, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror (owners of the Daily Mirror), or her boss, the Trinity Mirror chairman Sir Victor Blank - the pair who sacked him.
They are probably guaranteed immunity anyway by the confidentiality agreement that would have accompanied Morgan's £1.7m departure agreement. But he insists that he feels no bitterness against them and will not attack them now - or ever.
As he drove home that night, Morgan insists he had a strong feeling that it was the right time to go, and to leave behind the relentless pressure and the never-ending telephone calls. Now, during our two-hour conversation, the phone rings only once - a call from his literary agent confirming dinner that evening at The Ivy. But at frequent intervals the noise level approximates a war zone as helicopters take off and land at the Battersea heliport across the river from his flat.
Morgan, an avid Arsenal fan and the author of Va Va Voom!, his fan's diary of the team's 2003-04 season, is particularly annoyed by the marked increase in helicopter traffic outside his window. He attributes much of it to the activities of the Russian owner of the rival London club Chelsea.
The centrepiece of his new book - working title Inside Story, although Greg Dyke got there first - will feature his many meetings with the Princess of Wales and with Tony Blair and other Labour ministers. Morgan says he had an "amazing" degree of contact with the princess, partly because he was younger than most national editors, and partly because "she was a sucker for a charming boy from the villages". This included a long lunch with the princess and Prince William, at which no topic was off limits. Morgan says that he has unearthed eight pages of detailed notes of this "astonishing" meeting.
He also became a national editor at the time that Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party. Morgan believes he has had more one-to-one sessions with Blair than any other journalist - up to 10 times a year. "It would be pompous to say it is historical, but it is certainly an interesting insight into what went on and how he changed and Gordon Brown and the other cabinet ministers rose and changed," he says.
Piers Morgan was a funny, precocious child who loved newspapers from the age of six or seven and never wanted to be anything other than a journalist. When he started on the Streatham and Tooting News in south London, he almost immediately found himself covering the Brixton riots.
He also remembers interviewing a young prostitute after a routine court case. The 19-year-old Morgan suggested that her life must have been really terrible. "What are talking about? How often do you get your leg over every week? I love it, and I love the nice fur coat and the nice flat. How dare you patronise me like that," the young lady said.
For Morgan, this was "a brilliant insight" into the need to avoid making assumptions about people and the importance of empathising with them, and the absolute necessity for journalists to have charm. Foot-in-the-door merchants, he believes, belong firmly in the movies. "The number one thing I look for in any journalist is charm. It's not best results, it's not a university degree, it's not anything. If they can come into my office and charm me, they can charm anyone."
Clearly he was a young man with considerable charm and a plausible manner, who brought in exclusive stories and came to the attention of Kelvin MacKenzie when he was appointed to run the Bizarre pop column on The Sun when he was 23. The extraordinary breakthrough came just five years later when, at the age of 28, he was offered the editorship of the News of the World.
He has always assumed that it was MacKenzie who mentioned his name to Murdoch, and a number of exploratory dinners with the News Corp chairman followed. "I hadn't edited a paper bag. I was editing a pop column. But a lot of courage comes out of innocence, and you are not bothered about much. It was a fearless environment," he remembers.
Stories he treasures include Lady Buck and the Chief of the Defence Staff; Alan Clark and his coven of mistresses; and Diana and James Hewitt. The scoops earned him the editorship of the Daily Mirror, where the stories ranged from reporter Ryan Parry's undercover investigation into royal security - "extraordinary," says Morgan - to the memoirs of the palace butler Paul Burrell and the first interview with Diana's security man Trevor Rees-Jones.
Morgan says: "Looking back on [my time at] the Mirror, of the 20 biggest tabloid stories of the past decade, the Mirror probably had 15 of them. We carried on breaking huge stories, punching way above our weight journalistically, while unfortunately punching way below our weight financially." The trouble, Morgan notes, is that there are two kinds of scoop. Most are stories that cause a ripple but don't sell any more papers. Only a few rare scoops, such as the Paul Burrell story, have the power to boost sales, and even then the effect soon evaporates.
Ironically, it was the most serious story of recent times - September 11 - that seems to have lured Morgan into what became a series of misjudgements of the public mood. For a time after the attacks on the twin towers the readers of the Daily Mirror were, like everyone, in a sombre mood and willing to set aside the latest celebrity and reality-TV gossip in favour of more serious fare on the front page.
Morgan became the hero of editors' conferences. He was the man who had returned the Mirror to its roots, as a paper that could deal with any issue in a popular way. Morgan was a tabloid editor bravely turning his back on trivia. "I really thought that we were on to something - serious popular journalism - and it was some of best popular journalism I was ever involved in. We won all the awards and everyone thought it was brilliant - apart from the readers. The masses decided it was too much for them and they turned away from it. It is a huge regret to me," Morgan says.
Sales slumped (in a way that delighted Rupert Murdoch), and Sly Bailey insisted that Morgan put more traditional popular stories on the front page. Bailey, as the chief executive of a public company, is responsible to shareholders, and Morgan accepts that she had absolutely no choice. Now, however, he has a recurring fantasy that a left-of-centre billionaire will come forward and be prepared to fund the serious popular tabloid of his dreams - although he acknowledges that such a newspaper might have to be content with a circulation of no more than 1.5 million.
The Mirror editor also misjudged how readers, many of them initially hostile to the Iraq war, would react once the bombs were falling and the lives of British soldiers, including his brother Jeremy, were at risk. "Eighty per cent of the British public were against the war before it started, yet once it started and was on TV every day and became like this glorified, horrible video game, the patriotism kicked in," he says.
"We had been just as critical of the Afghanistan war without any problem at all, so I was slightly emboldened by that. And I didn't think we would have anything like the problem we had. Television was the difference." Given the paper's trenchant stance before the war, Morgan says it would have been very difficult immediately to switch horses and say: "Get in there, boys, and give them a good kicking."
The publication of pictures depicting British soldiers apparently abusing Iraqis also horrified many Mirror readers, not to mention some US-based Trinity Mirror investors. The growing realisation that the images were not what they seemed proved terminal for Morgan's editorship.
Morgan does not accept, to this day, that he was hoaxed over the pictures, although his instinct tells him that there was something not quite right about them and that they were probably recreated after a real event. "No one has been arrested or charged. We don't know who took the pictures. The people who brought them to us were who they said were, and they stand by them," Morgan says.
He promises that he will apologise unreservedly if anyone ever admits faking the pictures to get "a few bob" from the Daily Mirror. Instead, he is hoping for at least partial vindication when court cases begin against British soldiers charged with the sort of behaviour depicted in the photographs.
"I believe the ends justified the means. Even if we were hoaxed, there was a bigger picture, a more important picture, and it wasn't about one set of pictures," he says.
As he contemplates his future, Morgan says he is increasingly pessimistic about the future of the popular press as circulations continue to decline almost irrespective of what editors and publishers do. The effects of the internet, rolling television news and the fact that nearly a million free copies of the Metro newspaper are distributed every day are beginning to take their toll. The decline, he believes, is increasing and very worrying, and signifies that young people in particular aren't buying mass-market papers.
"I have tried every trick I knew and I couldn't crack it," Morgan admits, although he acknowledges that people will say that his campaigns were a bit worthy and relentless.
He has also, in recent weeks, been on the receiving end of the activities of the press. The headline on a Sunday Times article about him read: "I'm no moron: I trousered £2.9 million last week." Morgan was fuming about the headline, and told anyone who would listen that he had been stitched up and had said no such thing.
"Everybody laughed at me and said, 'Now you now what it's like.' That's what we used to do to people all the time," he concedes.
When he was sacked from the Daily Mirror, Morgan received a message of comfort and advice from his old mentor, Kelvin MacKenzie. It read: "You kept your hair, your sense of humour and your enthusiasm. Get out. And stay out."
As he contemplates a career in television, with three significant offers on the table, it is advice that Piers Morgan will almost certainly take, because his new life of relative leisure obviously agrees with him. This summer, he scored more than 500 runs for his village cricket team in Newick, East Sussex. "It's the most I have scored in 25 years."
FROM THE BIZARRE TO THE RIDICULOUS: THE UPS AND DOWNS OF PIERS MORGAN
At the age of 23 and having cut his teeth on local newspapers in suburban London, Morgan is appointed to head up the showbiz column on The Sun, a paper then edited by Kelvin MacKenzie, who is to become his mentor. During five years editing Bizarre, Morgan uses the column to change the nature of tabloid entertainment journalism, frequently ensuring that he is photographed on his pages, to be seen hanging out with the stars.
YOUNGEST EDITOR OF THE NEWS OF THE WORLD 1994
Morgan catches the eye of Rupert Murdoch and is appointed to run the News of the World, the biggest-selling newspaper in the country. He, thus, becomes the youngest national newspaper editor since 1937.
EDITOR OF THE DAILY MIRROR 1995
Despite being a "Thatcher boy from East Sussex", as Morgan once described himself, he is approached by David Montgomery to become editor of the traditionally left-leaning Mirror.
ACHTUNG SURRENDER 1996
Morgan comes unstuck when he draws on inspiration from his News International past to take a jingoistic line on England's clash with Germany in the Euro 96 football championships. The front page headline "ACHTUNG! SURRENDER! FOR YOU FRITZ ZE EURO CHAMPIONSHIP IS OVER" - alongside photos of Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce wearing superimposed helmets - was bad enough but the Mirror also hired an armoured car that was stopped by police on the M25 as it headed towards the German team's hotel. Morgan later admitted his mistake.
Morgan comes up with the idea of setting up a City Slickers column to make business news more interesting to Mirror readers. Unfortunately, he is discovered to have bought shares in Viglen Technology, shortly before they were tipped in the column by reporters James Hipwell and Anil Bhoyrul. In the ensuing scandal, the Slickers get axed but Morgan somehow survives.
NEWSPAPER OF THE YEAR 2002
Morgan wins many admirers for his decision to make the Mirror a more serious newspaper, recalling its illustrious past. The Mirror becomes the first red-top winner of the national newspaper of the year category at the British Press Awards.
THE FAKED PHOTOS 2004
Under a typically Morgan headline "Vile", the Mirror publishes pictures that allege to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi captives. The photos - comprising semi-naked "captives" with bags over their heads - are widely and officially denounced as being fakes but Morgan tries to brazen out the row, until he is forced to quit by Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey after pressure from the company's shareholders, already concerned at the declining circulation.
THE STRING OF OFFERS AND THE CASH BONANZA 2004
Britain's most-recognisable tabloid journalist finds himself not short of offers for television jobs and other work, as he decides how to spend a pay-off of £1.7m from the Mirror and a £1.2m deal with Ebury Press for his memoirs.
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