Profile / The spy in the nation's bedroom - Piers Morgan

Nick Cohen on the nice bloke at the `News of the World' who makes privacy legislation ever more likely
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The Independent Online
IN 1988 there were two Piers Morgans trying to make a living from national newspapers: a freelance photographer selling pictures to anyone who would buy them and a 23-year-old reporter on a local newspaper selling stories about the pop industry to the Sun. The pop Piers didn't seem a likely candidate for journalistic stardom. The Sun newsdesk was so vague about his identity that it sent his tip-off fees to the bemused but grateful photographer.

Today there is only one Piers Morgan. The amiable pop writer got his own column on the Sun, and became the apple of the shrewd eye of Kelvin MacKenzie, who was then the paper's editor. In January 1994, Rupert Murdoch acted on MacKenzie's advice and made Morgan editor of the News of the World, the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain. Morgan was 28.

The sight of a fluffy show business writer getting one of the best jobs in tabloid journalism - conservative estimates put his salary at about £140,000 - did not leave older and more experienced hacks glowing with pleasure. In the 15 months since his appointment, however, he has fulfilled all the promise that MacKenzie identified. Under Morgan, the News of the World has given its readers (and the rest of the British media, including broadsheet newspapers and the BBC) a string of scoops that would warm the cockles of the most stone-hearted proprietor. It was the News of the World that broke the story of the Princess of Wales's telephone calls to Oliver Hoare; of Bienvenida Buck's affair with the chief of defence staff, Sir Peter Harding (who resigned); of David Mellor's affair with Lady Penelope Cobham.

This year the BBC What the Papers Say Awards were so impressed by Morgan that the judges invented a new category, changing its Scoop of the Year to Scoops of the Year in a tribute to the News of the World's list of "world exclusives".

Last Sunday came the case of Richard Spring, the parliamentary private secretary to Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland minister. Mr Spring, so the News of the World informed us on the front page, had enjoyed "a three-in-a-bed sex romp" with the marvellously named Odette Nightingale, described as a "God-fearing" Sunday school teacher from Surrey, and another (male) friend of Mr Spring. Events then took their usual course under the new moral law of John Major's government. MPs accused of sexual impropriety must resign. So Mr Spring resigned as soon as the story appeared, and by resigning made the News of the World story fit for what Mr Mor- gan's mentor, Mr MacKenzie, used to call the "unpopular" papers and the television news bulletins.

Another Morgan triumph? Another example of outstandingly resourceful journalism, even if used for dubious and trivial ends? It is beginning to look not. It is difficult to understand, for a start, what Mr Spring did wrong even by the new standards of Tory purity. He is divorced and whatever he did, he did with willing, single partners in the privacy of his own home. Then there is Ms Nightingale. She seems to have approached the News of the World before the event to seek the newspaper's advice on what she should do with an alleged suggestion from her boyfriend, who was also Mr Spring's friend, that they should partake in some troilism with the MP. The result was that she came to the MP's house armed with a tape-recorder and comforted by thoughts of a much larger bank balance.

Entrapment is an ugly word. But, in the words of one former News of the World reporter: "I don't mind going after people if they're at it. That takes skill, it takes standing outside their houses for all the hours God sends. But honey traps are what the KGB do. There's no skill when you do it and you may have a certain difficulty with the public interest defence when you print the story."

This reporter resigned when he was ordered to hire a flat from a rent boy, fit hidden video cameras and pay a female prostitute £500 to seduce a Conservative MP (the sting went ahead, but no sex occurred and the story did not run). Resignation may also now be the honourable course for Lord (Woodrow) Wyatt of Weeford, who writes a political column in the News of the World as "the Voice of Reason". Last week in the Times Lord Wyatt made a remarkable attack on his newspaper.

"That anyone is entitled to privacy in their homes, in their cups or in their beds, is a concept wholly alien to the News of the World," he wrote. "The News of the World has as good as asked for a privacy law. The Government and Opposition should no longer hesitate to produce it."

A privacy law would be an odd epitaph for Piers Morgan, wunderkind of the tabloid press.

HE WAS born Piers Pughe-Morgan. His father, Glynne Pughe-Morgan, was in the meat distribu- tion business in East Sussex. Piers was sent to a boarding school until the fees proved too much and he was transferred to the local comprehensive.

Morgan (who dropped the Pughe when he became a journalist) did not want to talk to us and most of his colleagues and ex-colleagues would speak only off the record (Rupert Murdoch's News International owns five national newspapers and a television station and it is unwise for journalists to get into its bad books). But even these anonymous judgements were mainly fond. "He was just a really nice bloke," said a reporter, who worked with him on his first paper, the South London News. "He would come in in the morning with a ferocious hangover and fall asleep when the editor addressed the staff. But when you sent him out on one story he'd come back with six others."

The MacKenzie Sun that Morgan joined in 1989 was, in the words of the Financial Times, an example of what could be achieved through a system of management by tyranny. The editor bombarded the staff with streams of foul-mouthed invective, and pushed them, himself and the facts to the limits and beyond.

But Morgan never suffered the ferocious "bollockings". He was a constant favourite. One Sun executive said: "MacKenzie was impressed by his hard work - we all were. He wouldn't just fill his pop column, he would come up with news stories and features." MacKenzie encouraged Morgan to think of himself as a future editor. Morgan describes MacKenzie as "the most marvellous journalist I have ever met".

Nor was Morgan's copy an example of the Sun's famous Rottweiler approach. Before he arrived, the Sun had had to pay £1m to Elton John and publish a grovelling front-page apology after a string of stories about the singer's private life. Morgan rebuilt links with the record industry by deciding it would be "quite amusing to become a great friend of these stars". Positive stories were given in return for photographs of Morgan with the celebrities he claimed were "pals".

One typical item, in the paper which according to MacKenzie was meant to Shock and Amaze on Every Page, showed a photograph of Morgan presenting a platinum disc to Gloria Estefan. Her husband is quoted as saying: "We should be giving you this, Piers, after all the support you have given us over the last two years." Gloria adds: "Thanks for everything. You and the Sun have been wonderful to us."

"As I pointed out to rock's most charming couple," Morgan finishes by saying, "that's what friends are for."

Even Francis Wheen, Private Eye's press columnist who gave him the middle name Gormless, bears him no emnity. "He's hard not to like. He's cheerful, friendly and charmingly self-deprecating about his absurd attempts to present himself as the Friend of the Famous. His only complaint was that his mum wished I'd stop calling him gormless."

A nice bloke then, though perhaps a little less nice since he became editor; such is the way of things. He has sacked several of his paper's senior staff. Several others have resigned. The political editor and the features editor have gone. Sue Carroll, the deputy editor, returned from holiday to find another deputy editor in her place. Morgan's wife, a nurse and mother of his daughter, has also joined the diaspora. They split up last year. Morgan does not want to talk about it. "Nobody cares about a News of the World executive," he said recently - adding that his private life was private.

He is devoted to his mission. Long hours at the desk, long hours on the telephone. "The difference between Piers and other editors is I can get him any time," said Max Clifford, the publicist who sold Morgan the Buck story. "There's no question of being put off until tomorrow."

But what an odd mission it is, all this unrelenting exposing and revealing and prying and paying. Last week as well as Odette's tapes, it had "The South Bonk Show" (claims about Melvyn Bragg), "My cheating Sapphire" (a woman hypnotist who put a spell on men) and "I want to get Liberal with your missus" (allegations about an amorous and obscure Liberal Democrat). The high and the humble, the single, married and divorced have all become "legitimate" targets.

It is certainly popular entertainment (very popular - the News of the World sells about 4.6 million copies a week), but it is underpinned by a moral sensibility, however fake, that has an almost Presbyterian dimension, as though its victims were like poor Scots farm girls who had mothered illegitimate children and were arraigned before the kirk elders, with a front-page splash as their punishment stool.

The voyeurism is not new - titillating sex is how the paper built its sales and reputation - but under its previous editor, Patsy Chapman, the paper took some care to make sure there was a "public interest" defence for its invasion of privacy. Chapman was a keen supporter (and member) of the Press Complaints Commission.

Older tabloid journalists see the Spring story as a departure. The paper said that the MP's behaviour showed that he could have been the target of blackmail, but few have found that defence convincing.

"Patsy would never have run the story on Spring," said one former News of the World investigator. "Where's the justification? He's a single man, who's been set up in his own home by a woman whose getting a lot of money from the paper. I'm not saying we never put tape recorders under beds. But they were a precaution in case we were sued. We've now got inexperienced journalists and an inexperienced editor leading us straight to a privacy law."