Piers Morgan: Hack of the day
It's all come good for the one-time disgraced Mirror editor, and now the Prime Minister has given him his biggest scoop
Saturday 13 February 2010
Rarely since the days of George "Georgie Porgie" Villiers, the 17th-century royal favourite and 1st Duke of Buckingham, has a public figure been able to make the girls cry as effectively as Piers Morgan.
Jordan he had breaking down in tears over the collapse of her marriage. Katherine Jenkins sobbed as she told him about being the victim of a teenage rape attack, and Dannii Minogue wept over her sister Kylie's battle with cancer. He made cheery Cilla Black cry by asking about the death of her baby. Morgan, always competitive, had Trinny Woodall bawling during a charity version of The Apprentice and even shocked Jerry Springer by berating a six-year-old contestant on America's Got Talent, the game show on which he is a judge, telling the whimpering little girl, "You are not as good as Beyoncé." Springer, the show's host and king of television melodrama, felt obliged to intervene, telling the Briton: "Stop it, that's wrong!"
Yet tomorrow British television viewers will get the chance to see their Prime Minister, no less, being questioned by this same Piers. And sure enough, Gordon Brown finds himself welling up, as he is asked about the death of Jennifer, his prematurely born first child.
So many tears. No doubt some viewers will find it all extremely irritating, this latest public outpouring before the ITV cameras. Mr Brown has already found himself accused of exploiting a personal tragedy to win sympathy from voters. But that is not Piers Morgan's fault.
Television celebrity though he now is, Morgan, 44, remains a tabloid journalist to his core. A transatlantic lifestyle he has, but his friends say he retains an insatiable hunger for news of the latest London gossip. As such, he has an acute awareness of the need to deliver a "top line", the exclusive that will offer his programme the publicity-generating headlines that drive ratings, which, in the currency of modern popular television, means an interviewee in bits.
One person you are never likely to see in such a state is Morgan himself. The Kevlar-strength armour provided by his enormous ego (which Morgan himself describes as his "protective shield") is splendidly observed by his friend Ellis Watson, who says: "He is the ultimate proof that self-confidence and self-belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Watson was the managing director of Mirror Group Newspapers at the lowest point in Morgan's career, when he was sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror following the 2004 front-page publication of fake photographs purporting to show the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers. Even Fleet Street, which had become accustomed to Morgan's chutzpah, was astonished by his brass neck as he tried to tough out the storm, insisting that the onus was on the Ministry of Defence to authenticate the provenance of shots that had all the realism of a church hall amateur dramatic production. Eventually Mirror management caved in to shareholder concerns, and Morgan was, quite vindictively, frogmarched off the premises by security guards.
Morgan gave an interview to his old paper last year, in which the Mirror's star columnist Brian Reade could barely contain his astonishment that his former editor, who he had last seen "pale, drawn and stressed", had re-emerged as an exceedingly rich and internationally famous figure. Reade consoled himself with the contention that Morgan was still the subject of "national loathing".
Except that is not really true. Yes, Morgan causes a certain harrumphing from a section of the BBC audience who hanker after a bygone age. And most newspaper television critics would never jeopardise their credibility by showing a hint of appreciation for a man described as "a vulgar overblown monstrosity" by Ian Hyland of the News of the World (a paper which, incidentally, Morgan edited at the age of 28, becoming the youngest national editor in half a century).
Such opinions are not Morgan's primary concern when he has been signed to a golden-handcuffs deal by ITV's intuitive director of television Peter Fincham. He appreciates the way the first editor of The Sun's Bizarre showbiz column is attuned to the language of the modern British living room, with its aspirations to a wad of cash, some nice threads, a sun tan and some celebrity friends, the lifestyle that Morgan himself enjoys when hanging around the hotel pool in Beverly Hills with Hollywood stars. So ITV audiences get to watch him swan around the playgrounds of the rich, from Marbella and Las Vegas to Sandbanks in Dorset.
How did a cricket-obsessed Sussex public schoolboy with the name Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan acquire such a popular touch? One of four children, he inherited survival and creative instincts from his artist mother who, for a time, brought the family up alone following the death of her husband when Morgan was a one-year-old. After some private schooling, Morgan completed his education at a local comprehensive and then journalism college in the inauspicious surroundings of Harlow in Essex. A natural tabloid hack, his talent was soon spotted by Kelvin MacKenzie, the fearsome former editor of The Sun.
He has had other setbacks, aside from the Mirror sacking. His purchase of shares in Viglen, shortly before the computer company was tipped by the paper's City Slickers column, almost led to him being fired in 2000 and hinted at an arrogant sense of infallibility.
Morgan is irrepressibly good-humoured in public, and always ready with an eminently quotable comment. His affection for the Fourth Estate was demonstrated by his setting up First News, a newspaper for children. In the wake of his departure from the Mirror, Morgan thought his peers held him in such high esteem that they would embrace his ownership, with the PR man Matthew Freud, of the trade magazine Press Gazette. The venture was a failure and provoked a boycott by suspicious rivals of the magazine's annual awards, where Morgan had infamously once indulged in fisticuffs with Jeremy Clarkson.
Morgan, typically, now has his own Morgan Awards where, at a five-star London hotel, he distributes gongs to celebrity pals "who have embarrassed themselves" in the previous year. It is presumably intended to reflect his ability to laugh at his own failings, and recover from them.
He owes much of his current good fortune to Simon Cowell, who recognised his potential as a television personality and gave him a position on the judging panel of America's Got Talent. He also judges on the British version of the same franchise and will host his own entertainment talk show.
It is a measure of his success that where Morgan once wrote books about the stars (To Dream a Dream: the Amazing Life of Phillip Schofield), he now just writes about his own stellar existence, including three autobiographical works to date, in which he has demonstrated either an extraordinary recollection of historical conversations or an assiduous work ethic in taking contemporaneous notes.
But there is no doubting of his journalistic talents at The Mail on Sunday, where his pristine copy for his weekly column is highly regarded by the paper's senior executives and has become a key selling point for the title, nor at GQ magazine for whom he has delivered a succession of scoops with his unrelenting personal questioning of famous people. It was Morgan who transformed the Liberal Democrat leader into Nick "Cleggover" by asking him: "How many are we talking: 10, 20, 30?" It might not be David Frost tossing aside his clipboard in front of Richard Nixon, but it's an approach that has got Morgan results.
He used those tactics on Brown for a GQ interview in November, telling the Prime Minister that he was seen by the public as miserable and dour. "I accept I have to do better in the presentation area. I've got my strengths and I've got my weaknesses," came the response. "I could present our message a lot better, I'm actually shy by nature rather than extrovert ... that's not the way politics works these days."
The two men have got together again, this time on camera, and Brown has opened up. That strategy may end in tears for Labour. But it's without question another big cheesy smile of a victory for Piers Morgan.
A life in brief
Born: Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan, 30 March 1965, Newick, East Sussex.
Family: Parents were Vincent and Gabrielle O'Meara, but his father died when he was a year old. Takes his name from his stepfather, Glynne Pughe Morgan, but dropped 'Pughe' after entering journalism. He married Marion Shalloe in 1991 with whom he has three children. He was divorced in 2008.
Education: Chailey comprehensive school, near Lewes. Then studied journalism at Harlow College, Essex.
Career: Started at the South London News but was quickly recruited by The Sun to write for its Bizarre showbiz column. Made editor of the News of the World by Rupert Murdoch at the age of 28. He moved on to the editorship of the Daily Mirror at 29, where he weathered a number of storms before losing his job in 2004 after he published a false photograph of supposedly tortured Iraqi prisoners on the front page. Moved into television as an interviewer, and also as a judge on ITV's Britain's Got Talent alongside Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden.
He says: "I see this for what it is: it is a great laugh. You know, if I thought five years ago I was going to end up in Hollywood judging piano-playing pigs with David Hasselhoff, I'd have fired myself."
They say: "I don't know how he was ever a newspaper editor. He needs editing himself." Amanda Holden, fellow judge
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