x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Piers Morgan: Teflon tabloid wannabe

The incorrigible showman who reinvented himself after being sacked over a wartime hoax may soon step into the shoes of Larry King on CNN.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

It was one of Britain's most poignant moments: the final flight of Concorde, the supersonic aircraft that had promised so much for the future but which, like so much about the post-imperial period of the country, had ultimately failed to deliver. Yet what British journalists like to remember about the "celebrity"-packed October 2003 flight from London to New York, was the moment when Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC's Top Gear, threw a glass of water over Piers Morgan.

The news that Morgan, former Rupert Murdoch boy-wonder turned Daily Mirror blunderer, is in talks to step into the shoes of Larry King, CNN's retiring 77-year-old chief of chat, has left many of his former media colleagues in Britain agog - not to say green with envy at the rumoured three-year package of £9 million (Dh48m) for four shows a week. Clarkson's falling out with Morgan, then editor of Britain's Daily Mirror, was over its coverage of the BBC presenter's private life; the feud had bubbled since 2000 and, at the UK Press Awards in 2004, the assembled hacks cheered when Clarkson set about his tormentor with his fists.

Morgan has made many such enemies, but none has slowed his ascent of the greasy media pole. It remains to be seen how fans of King, a lifelong baseball aficionado, will take to nightly doses of a smug-faced Brit who, to American ears at least, sounds posh, glories in the full name Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan and is a fan of cricket and football. In Britain, Morgan is widely perceived as something of a chronic self-promoter whose meteoric rise has continued despite two calamitous journalistic faux pas.

Born in 1965 in Guildford, Surrey, it was as a child in the family pub that Morgan discovered how much he enjoyed being the centre of attention. As a teenager, he told one interviewer in 2005, "I loved holding forth, hearing the sound of my own voice, and a lot of people found it amusing. So I just carried on." Morgan at first followed a familiar path into journalism, serving time on weekly newspapers in and around London. In 1989, however, his career trajectory went ballistic when he was hired by Kelvin McKenzie, the bullish editor of the Sun to edit Bizarre, a showbiz column.

Morgan spent the next five years deftly employing Bizarre as an instrument of self-promotion; rarely did a photo of anyone even vaguely famous appear without Morgan grinning in self-satisfaction at their side. But any tittering on Fleet Street stopped abruptly in 1995 when, at 28, he was chosen by Murdoch to edit the News of the World, the best-selling Sunday scandal sheet. No sooner had the shock of that stunning promotion ebbed than Morgan was on the move again, this time to become editor of the Daily Mirror, the formerly socially campaigning workers' daily that had drifted downmarket.

Morgan tried to restore the paper's reputation for responsible journalism, but there were frequent lapses in judgement and taste. One of the more entertaining was during the 1996 European football championship, when England faced Germany at Wembley. Morgan thought it great fun to mock up a photograph of two English players wearing Second World War German army helmets, under the headline "Achtung! Surrender! For You, Fritz, Ze Euro 96 Championship Is Over".

In the face of criticism from everyone from the Foreign Office to Jürgen Klinsmann, the German skipper, Morgan reportedly abandoned plans to drop leaflets from a Spitfire over Berlin. His next brush with notoriety was less amusing. In February 2000, under the headline Mirror Editor Saw His Shares Soar After Paper Tipped Company, The Daily Telegraph revealed Morgan had invested £20,000 in a company shortly before it was bigged up in his own newspaper's City Slickers column.

Fleet Street had a field day, Even his "admirers" were equivocal. "Piers is a great guy and an excellent editor," one told the Observer. "But he is a mischief-maker who has a huge ego ? He is convinced he cannot be wrong." With good cause, it seemed. A Teflon-coated Morgan emerged from the scandal, if not squeaky-clean, then at least still in his job, despite calls for his resignation in the House of Commons.

Although he was criticised by the Press Complaints Commission for failing to prevent a breach of the industry's code of conduct, at the end of a four-year investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry Morgan faced no charges. The Slickers were not so lucky. Both were fired and in 2005 James Hipwell was found guilty of conspiring to inflate share prices for his own benefit. His colleague Anil Bhoyrul - who now works in Dubai for Arabian Business magazine - had earlier pleaded guilty to the same charge. Hipwell found himself celebrating his 40th birthday in prison, where he served three months; Bhoyrul was given 180 hours of community service.

Yet Bhoyrul's thoughts today about Morgan reveal a truth; that those who actually worked with him tended to respect and like him. "Piers is a great guy. He was always a big star, but always a nice guy deep down. As a journalist, he's one of only three I've ever respected or learnt anything from." By the time Morgan had been cleared, however, he had been ousted from the Mirror for a crashing blunder. In May 2004 he published a series of photographs that appeared to show British soldiers abusing captives in Iraq but which were quickly shown to be fakes.

Many felt that it was Morgan's impetuous nature that had led the paper into the trap and, even when the defence minister said the photographs were "categorically not taken in Iraq", he blundered on, demanding an end to "the appalling conduct of some British troops". The next day, the Mirror apologised, admitting it had been "the subject of a calculated and malicious hoax" that had put the lives of British troops in danger - among them Morgan's own brother, a serving army officer. Morgan, announced the management, "will therefore be stepping down with immediate effect".

But instead of being the end of the Piers show, the scandal proved to be a new beginning for Morgan, who received a £1.7m pay-off from the Mirror and a further £1.2m for his entertainingly self-endorsing memoirs, The Insider - The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade. The following year Morgan embarked on the US television career that has now seen him reach the very top of media heights. He was already the veteran of a series of celebrity-fixated shows for British TV and more recently had landed a travel series, Piers on ?, dismissed sniffily by the Daily Telegraph's TV critic. Many people "find that the sight of Piers Morgan has much the same effect on their system as a spoonful of liquid paraffin ? As a presenter, you'd be hard pushed to call him charming".

It wasn't charm, however, that won Morgan his break in America. For that he has to thank fellow Briton Simon Cowell, who from 2002 had played the cartoon Limey villain, cruelly ridiculing performers on the talent show American Idol. In 2006 Cowell co-created NBC's rival America's Got Talent, and the Cowell role went to Morgan, who has held it ever since. There would be no looking back. In 2007, he revealed last year, he had his teeth brightened, until they were "so white they could blind a dog from 100 yards. "I fear that my LA conversion is now irreversible."

It would seem so. In 2008 he won the US celebrity version of The Apprentice and last year cemented his persona as a Brit the Yanks love to hate by publishing the memoir God Bless America: Misadventures of a Big-Mouth Brit. Morgan, who has compared himself to Marmite, the curious British-made yeast-extract spread that one either loves or loathes, knows he is not liked at home but he couldn't care less. In an interview with a British newspaper last year he said that to his former colleagues the fact that "I've gone on to this global television career is too unpalatable to bear.

"It's much better to imagine I'd rather go back to a grim tower block in Canary Wharf or Wapping, sweating my guts out 16 hours a day in a declining market, running stories I've run before, than sitting by a pool in LA." Morgan has always had the last laugh and he's having the loudest one right now - as those dazzling pearly whites soon to be seen flashing across US cable TV four nights a week will confirm.

jgornall@thenational.ae