Mirror Images

Jenny Diski

  • The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade by Piers Morgan
    Ebury, 484 pp, £17.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 09 190506 0

Life, Piers Morgan says about being sacked in 2004 as editor of the Mirror, is as serious as you want it to be. Lighten up, he repeatedly tells sad celebrities who complain about his front page exposés that result in their unemployment or divorce. Take it easy, he emails spin doctors and government ministers who fear for their majorities after he has trashed their policies or their love lives to two million readers of the Mirror. I can see that if you are 28 and editor of the News of the World, then you are 30 and getting £175,000 a year for editing the Mirror, until nine years later when you get the sack and score a reported £1.2 million for your reminiscences, you might be inclined to advise people not to take life too seriously. It wouldn’t be just the money and your own youthful inability to know any better that caused champagne bubbles to burst in your head where serious might have been; there would also be the nature of what you did to earn the money. There’s no reason at all why anyone working on the News of the World and (until the invasion of Afghanistan) the Mirror should take anything seriously. Three things mattered to Piers Morgan: sales figures, breaking ‘great’ stories and adrenalin rushes. The first is necessary to keep your bosses happy, the only thing that will keep owners of tabloid newspapers happy, not because sales figures speak of the contentment of their readers but because of the advertising revenue large numbers of identifiable spending units bring in. Breaking great stories is a subset of upping the sales figures, and the adrenalin rushes presumably are what keep you going in those moments when you wonder if maintaining sales figures is quite enough to base a life on.

I am, of course, one of those ‘broadsheet snobs’ Morgan sneers at throughout the book, though not as much as he might think, because I don’t rate the broadsheets very much higher on the cultural scale than the tabloids. Still, it’s true I’ve read the Sun or the Mirror or the News of the World only occasionally, when one of them happens to be in front of me, and then with a kind of despair that grows like creeping paralysis over the will. I had the same reaction as I read Piers Morgan’s diaries. Whatever sense of humour I may have had drained away as the ever ebullient, jokey, matey, vindictive Morgan described a self-contained world of vacant celebrity and tawdry sensationalism that I have never quite believed anyone took seriously. But it becomes clear that Morgan took it very seriously indeed and so do the people whose lives were his raison d’être as an editor and maybe more than just as an editor. His narrative is entirely about being taken seriously by Elton John, Princess Diana, George Michael, Anthea Turner, Richard Branson, Paul McCartney, Patsy Kensit, Ian Botham, Jordan, Mohammed al Fayed, Cherie Blair, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair. (If there are names in that list you haven’t heard of, don’t worry, none of them matters as much as they think they do.)

At a Christmas lunch at the Mirabelle for his Mirror columnists, Morgan remembers ecstatically how ‘legend after legend’ arrived at the table. He counts them in: Alan Sugar, Carol Vorderman, Jonathan Ross, Miriam Stoppard, Tony Parsons. Even for someone who started his career in national journalism as a showbiz reporter on the Sun, these are pitifully undemanding exemplars of legends. At one party he is quite near to someone who might just count: Jack Nicholson. He asks Fergie (the former Duchess of York) how he can get talking to the ‘superstar’. Don’t tell him you’re a journalist, says Fergie, better say you’re something interesting like a bank robber. Our compulsively cheeky chappie, desperate for Nicholson’s attention, bounds up to him: ‘Hey, Jack! Fergie says that if I tell you I’m a bank robber, you’ll talk to me.’ Nicholson is silent for a moment before telling poor Piers what they say about bank robbers: ‘You never catch a good one. See ya later, pal.’ This encounter is the entire entry for Sunday 5 July. There is an old joke about a man returning to his village after his first trip to the city. ‘The king himself spoke to me,’ he boasts to a rapt audience. ‘What did he say?’ they gasp. ‘He said, he actually said, directly, to me, and I was as close as I am to you … he said: “Get out of my way, peasant!”’ And we have to suppose that if the villagers are present-day redtop readers they gasp in admiration and make him their headman. So this is how it is with Piers Morgan who, after a lunch with Mohammed al Fayed, concludes that ‘behind all the flamboyant bombast there lies a razor-sharp mind.’

His favourite mogul, his dream magnate, is, naturally, Rupert Murdoch. He whimpers with adoration about his first meeting in New York, where he is summoned to be sized up for the editorship of the News of the World:

Murdoch drifted in like a ghost, literally creeping up on us without any fanfare at all. I’d heard this was his deadliest weapon, his ability to just appear and scare the daylights out of you. It can be especially unnerving in the loo apparently. I mean, what the hell do you say standing next to the world’s most powerful tycoon with your flies open?

Well, Piers, what about something like: ‘Your penis is so very much bigger than mine, Mr Murdoch, sir, and I’d use your shit for toothpaste.’ At dinner, Morgan wisely kept his conversation at his own level. There are things he knows nothing about, apparently: ‘anything financial, for example – Murdoch’s area of undisputed global expertise’. Nevertheless, he practises a bit in front of the mirror after boning up on Newsweek, the Economist and Time. ‘Yes, Mr Murdoch, I agree that Clinton’s been too aggressive in his macro-economic view of China,’ he tells his reflection. Underneath the greatness, however, Murdoch is just a fabulous guy. Of course, you’ve got to know him, like Piers does:

Murdoch has an extraordinary mind, it races around all sorts of disparate subjects at high speed, pumping out completely unambiguous statements. He doesn’t do middle ground … His power doesn’t require him to impress anyone. He wasn’t recognised by anyone in the room, there were none of the usual mutterings you see and hear if you go somewhere with someone like Richard Branson. But if, like me, you know who he is, then he holds your attention like Don Corleone in The Godfather. He is easy to talk to, and surprisingly funny. I really liked him.

Below the highest level of the superstars and moguls like Jack, Mohammed and Rupert, there is a solid phalanx of the currently famous, and they are at the mercy of Morgan the tabloid editor, as he is at the mercy of those like Murdoch and the Mirror executives who hire or fire him at will. He loves celebrities and the world they live in but he’s a cut above them. He may not be the world’s most powerful tycoon, but he’s the man who can shatter the fragile framework of their lives. If he likes them and there’s something in it for the paper, he’ll give them a chance, even do them a favour. Paula Yates rings him up when her divorce settlement with Bob Geldof is going badly. ‘I’m going to walk the kids home from school today in the rain because I can’t afford a taxi. If you take some pictures, then Bob might feel shamed into helping me properly.’ Morgan’s thoughts on the subject have a curious moral content: ‘I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but it would be a good picture so I agreed. Sure enough, they turned up on time, in the rain, shuffling home. Undignified is not the word. For any of us involved in this sorry ongoing farce.’ I think to Morgan that ‘us involved’ is as crucial as the good picture. The ‘undignified’ is an expression of his essential superiority. These people are only getting their comeuppance, therefore what he does is a kind of service, just as when he tells Jack Straw that by exposing his son Will’s dope smoking Morgan has done the boy a favour and prevented him perhaps from spiralling down into the depravity of a tabloid drug-hell.

Making judgments comes easily to Morgan. He has no trouble telling the difference between the deserving and the undeserving. In 1994 he exposed a ‘Sex and Security Scandal’, revealing to readers of the News of the World that the chief of defence staff, Sir Peter Harding, was having an affair with the very nearly perfectly named Lady Bienvenida Buck. Even amid his rejoicing at the 80,000 extra copies he sold and feeling like ‘I’ve won an Olympic gold medal for gutter journalism or something – utterly, deliciously intoxicating,’ he spares a thought for his victims: ‘I must admit this evening I have been thinking a bit about Sir Peter Harding, whose glittering career – and probably life – now lies in tatters. He’s been a bloody fool, and deserves to be exposed for his hypocrisy and the stupid risks he’s taken. But it’s a high price to pay.’ His moral feelers grow more sensitive by the day. A few months later, a story comes his way about a completely unknown woman switchboard operator who became obsessed with a caller and began pestering him. He called the police and it became, according to Morgan, a ‘classic NoW story’. But as the story was about to run, the reporter who found it said the woman ‘had broken down and pleaded for mercy’ from the News of the World. She had just left a psychiatric hospital to which she had been committed after a suicide attempt. The news story would send her over the edge. Morgan checked her out and found what she said was true:

I pulled the story. Lots of people break down when we confront them, and lots threaten to kill themselves. But there is a difference between paedophiles and lonely disturbed women like this. I could not have lived with myself if we had exposed her on page 17 and then she had killed herself … I am developing a curious moral code as I go. Sometimes the job does feel a bit like playing God with people’s lives. I get, ultimately, to decide every week who lives and who dies by the NoW sword.

I read with real desolation that it was in the power of Piers Morgan (who once, wanting a quote from a famous Spaniard, suggested Mussolini) to decide between the moral rights of paedophiles and lonely, disturbed women, or to decide anything at all of importance to anyone – but then I remember that life is only as serious as you want it to be and tell myself to lighten up. Never mind that the decision to ruin or save lives is made for a lazy Sunday entertainment, in pursuit of the profit margins of News International, just keep a sense of humour. It is, after all, only the way the world of newspapers works. Everyone understands it. ‘Look Elton,’ Morgan says when Elton John moans about people ratting on him to the papers. ‘We think they are scum, like you do. But we will pay them and publish what they say if it is true, because that’s the game we’re all in, and you know it as well as I do.’ And the game, of course, is circulation, and circulation is money and money is what matters. It’s easy enough to let a switchboard operator with dull daydreams off, no extra copies will be lost. But paedophiles and pop singers pump up the circulation. Not just undeserving, but real money-makers. Morgan is a mite ambivalent, or sometimes wants to be seen that way. When, lacking anything else to put on the front page, he splashes on a forthcoming embargoed big moment in EastEnders, the circulation rises by 100,000. ‘I feel repulsion for the public,’ says this virtuoso taker of moral temperature. Later, however, when his stand against the Iraq war loses the paper 80,000 readers, he writes an ‘urgent email’ to Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror:

I am afraid I misjudged the way our readers would respond to the start of the war and our line has clearly been too confrontational and too critical for many of them … I am very sorry about this, it means we’ll drop below two million for the month and that is desperately unfortunate … I will just have to get those readers back as fast as I can. One thing I won’t be doing is sitting here defiantly telling myself how I’m right and they are all wrong. The readers are never wrong. Repulsive, maybe, but never wrong.

There is someone else who emerges from the diary as knowing at least as much as Piers Morgan about the value of newspaper readers. As the new editor of the News of the World, Morgan is invited to tea at the Commons with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell in 1994. Morgan, ever one to watch for signs of his own importance, notices not for the last time that Tony actually pours the tea himself. ‘I want a good relationship with you and your paper,’ Blair tells him. Just like Elton and Paula. It’s the game they’re all in. The way the world works. In 1995 Blair travelled to Hayman Island to give the keynote speech to Murdoch’s News Corporation conference which Morgan was thrilled to attend. He tells how Blair ‘vowed to set free media companies from “heavy regulation” and allow them to exploit their “enterprise”. Just what Murdoch wants to hear.’ Quite. And the tea parties proliferate when New Labour gets into power. By the end of Piers’s time in office, he tots up ‘22 lunches, 6 dinners, 6 interviews, 24 further one-to-one chats over tea and biscuits, and numerous phone calls with him. That’s a lot of face time with arguably Britain’s most important man.’ I’d go along with that ‘arguably’. Clearly anyone who edits any newspaper and certainly those who own them can claim to be more important, at least in Tony Blair’s eyes. His attitude to the Mirror is that its loyalty is his by right. Pravda, as Morgan calls it in relation to New Labour. But it’s the Sun Blair wants – actually everything Murdoch. ‘Obviously the Mirror will always be our first port of call but we will have to have a good relationship with the other side too,’ Blair warns Morgan. But time and time again, Blair or Campbell or Cherie slip vital information to the Sun, where New Labour’s heart really lies, and eventually it causes the most remarkable upset in both Morgan and his newspaper.

The Mirror came out against the invasion of Afghanistan, against Blair’s support of Bush’s imperialist adventures, and was virulently against the war in Iraq. It dropped its red top, renamed itself the Daily Mirror just like in the old days when it had been a paper that supported Old Labour, brought John Pilger back to rant against the government, and chucked the celebrities off the front pages in favour of headlines against the bombing of mountains in Afghanistan where Bin Laden almost certainly wasn’t (‘Rubble Reduced to More Rubble’) and photos of shackled prisoners in Guantanamo Bay (‘What the Hell Are You Doing in Our Name, Mr Blair?’). Clearly, Morgan was disturbed by Blair’s policy and genuinely against the way the ‘war on terror’ was being waged, but what emerges from the diary is that one month after 9/11, in October 2001, a minute was leaked of a statement by a Number Ten spin doctor called Lance Price who confessed to a New Labour private fringe meeting that he deliberately leaked the date of the 2001 election to the Sun in advance of any other paper:

The problem we had was with the Mirror, which rightly felt mightily aggrieved by the whole thing, and we had a considerable task on our hands trying to mollify them. They were never going to be a Conservative paper, but they were not as helpful to us in the campaign as they might have been. Having the Sun on board was a sufficiently important prize to take that risk.

Morgan is not one to forgive a slight. The new radical blacktop Mirror was as much the result of Number Ten’s hustling for the Murdoch papers’ support as the editor’s distaste for being America’s poodle. In reply to Mandelson’s demand that the Mirror get on side, when Blair was suffering his lowest popularity ratings, Morgan told him:

Well, the reason you guys are copping it now is because you sucked up to the playground bullies, treated your mates like shit, stamped on everyone who got in your way, and generally behaved like a super-arrogant, hectoring, lecturing dictator. This is the inevitable payback. But if the government now sucks up to its bruised mates, scorns the scornful bullies, and learns some quick humility, pays rigid attention to things that are actually important and starts to govern for the people, then it may not be too late for the ‘left’ media to give them their due as a bunch of rather talented and well-intentioned politicians.

Blair comes out of this as Morgan’s twin brother. Mirror images you might say. Blair, like Morgan, promises and evades, sulks and blames others. He cajoles, whines, ducks out of sight and makes threats based on his position. Blair and his advisers might as well be Jordan, Fergie and Patsy Kensit flirting with Piers in the hope of getting more of the right kind or less of the wrong kind of coverage. They might as well be editors of tabloid newspapers offering perks to their mates and doom to their enemies. I had thought that the obsession with celebrity and PR was just the idleness of the newspapers and television providing what was easiest to sell for an audience who wanted what was easiest to absorb. I imagined that there was some more solid substance beneath the mental lassitude. But it seems from these diaries that it is actually the way the world is. It is the real world. I do live in cloud-cuckoo-land. Politics and reality TV are one and the same at present, if the Piers Morgan experience is anything to go by. Popularity is the only thing. Numbers are what count. Getting elected, getting the paper bought by as many people as possible, is all that matters. The readers are always right whether or not you think them repulsive, racist and ignorant, so policies and front pages will be tweaked to give them what they want. There’s no point in having unpopular policies, I remember being told by Paul Boateng before the 1997 election: Labour would never get into power to put them into practice. What he didn’t go on to mention was that if you have popular policies that get you into power, you have to keep them, in order to stay in power – that votes are the same as newspaper circulation figures and profit margins. He was the one who told me I lived in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Piers Morgan’s diary is not a diary at all. It is, as he explains in the introduction, retrospectively written as a diary from notes, emails and memory. I doubt that makes it either more or less reliable as a document. But it does offer a new grammatical form, where what appears to be the (very wobbly) present tense of the narrative is actually what we might call hindsight tense. The entry for Thursday, 27 March 1997, a month before the election that will bring New Labour into government, mentions an interview with Tony Blair: ‘I won’t be weak on sleaze like the Tories,’ he said. ‘We have got to be whiter than white if we are to rebuild trust in government.’ Morgan’s razor-sharp mind predicts: ‘I reckon that might just come back to haunt him.’

Morgan admits that he is writing up off-the-record conversations he had, because he believes that all politicians know that nothing really is off the record. Butler of the Century, Paul Burrell, had a ‘hissy-fit’ when Morgan revealed, in spite of promising not to, that it was Prince Charles who Diana named as the one who wanted to arrange a car accident. Morgan was unmoved. ‘He was very naive to think the name would never come out. You can’t tell any journalist something that incredible and expect it to remain a secret. We just can’t help ourselves.’ At their last meeting, after he was sacked, a jubilant Cherie invited him to Number Ten for a last supper. She, like Burrell, proved very naive in believing that she could get away with saying something completely incredible and keep it secret: Blair moaned over his pre-dinner champagne about the Daily Mail being against him.

‘If I was a Tory,’ said Tony, ‘they’d love me and support me all the way.’

‘You virtually are,’ I said, joking.

‘No,’ said Cherie, very serious suddenly. ‘We are socialists.’