Like him or loathe him... Piers Morgan is happiest at centre of the storm
- Credit: Archant
He revels in his role as shameless self-publicist, aficionado of the feud and defender of The Donald. But the real Piers Morgan is a more nuanced, more sympathetic character than his foes give him credit for.
If Gore Vidal was right that every time a friend succeeds you die a little, having Piers Morgan as a friend may be seriously harmful to your health. I've known him for 30 years and it hasn't quite killed me yet. But if he carries on like this, my days must surely be numbered.
Yes, there have been spectacular temporary derailments along the way. But Teflon Morgan's extraordinary ascent to the pinnacle of the media mountain remains a remarkable success story. Love him or loathe him, you can't avoid him. He's in your face, in your consciousness and in the news.
As a journalist, he has achieved something unique. Bestriding television, books, newspapers and magazines, he is a one-man inferno who fires off opinions with deadly intent. A big name on both sides of the Atlantic with more than five million followers on Twitter, when it comes to the global debate, Piers is in it to win it. But if you don't like what he says, no one will be happier than him. His natural habitat is at the centre of a storm. He thrives on turbulence.
Currently, this instinctive contrarian is surfing the tsunami caused by his buddy Donald Trump's elevation to the position of President of the United States. No doubt about it, he's savouring the dangerous ride. But while Piers clearly relishes his relationship with the most powerful man on Earth, his critics have failed to note that he's no fan of the White House's reactionary policies. His frequent announcements that he would not have voted for The Donald continue to fall on deaf ears.
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The truth is that Morgan is simply asking us to give his democratically-elected friend a chance. Is that really so awful? With his trademark amused smirk, he's also thoroughly enjoying winding up the bien-pensant crowd. Meryl Streep, Madonna, JK Rowling, that little known Australian comedian who told him to f*** off on live US TV... Piers is taking on all-comers. And, as a master of the public feud, he knows how to shout louder than them.
Quite why these fair-weather activists object so vehemently to Piers' entirely accurate assertion that there is no proposed blanket American ban on Muslims is between them and the god of virtue signalling whom they obviously worship. Piers is suspicious of lemmings who go with the flow. If there's an orthodox majority view, he will explore the possibilities of thinking the opposite. Not for the sake of it, but because the baying mob's certitude can be a thing of ill-informed ugliness.
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Writing in The New European last week, Bonnie Greer supported the painfully politically correct petition to prevent Morgan from hosting the Royal Television Society's awards ceremony. She said it was a question of values. Her values. But according to my value system, no one should be condemned for the actions of a friend. Because proper friendships do not require total mutual agreement. At the risk of repeating myself, Piers does not agree with Donald Trump. Nor, to his credit, does he have any intention of deserting him.
I spotted Piers' uncanny ability to ruffle feathers way back in the 1980s when I recruited him to The Sun's showbiz department and soon realised that his undoubted talent as a reporter was matched only by his driving ambition. On his first day in the office he brought in a major front page exclusive about a celebrity living in a slum. When I rewrote his local paper prose in classic tabloid style, Piers sat beside me and watched. I never had to touch his copy again. He was a fast learner.
After that, I adjourned to Hollywood and Piers climbed aboard the express train to the top. Before long he was in charge of The Sun's pop column Bizarre and experiencing the heady intoxication of having his picture in a best-selling publication every single day. Rubbing shoulders with superstars, he was tasting fame… and, to put it mildly, he liked it.
At the unfeasibly young age of 28, he became editor of Rupert Murdoch's must-read scandal rag the News Of The World (RIP), the perfect place to hone his penchant for stirring up trouble. When, in 1995, he took over the Daily Mirror he embarked on a rollercoaster adventure that was sometimes triumphant and occasionally car crash.
Low points included having to apologise for declaring football war on Germany under the banner headline: 'ACHTUNG SURRENDER! For you, Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over!' Among the high points… opposing the Iraq invasion and peppering the 2003 stop the war march with thousands of Mirror placards screaming 'NOT IN MY NAME'. Win or lose, Piers Morgan doesn't do things quietly.
The Viglen shares saga that nearly cost him his job was not his finest hour. The Mirror's City Slickers business column stood accused of manipulating the markets and its two writers were prosecuted. Piers denied any part in an insider dealing racket and after a thorough investigation was exonerated.
But when, in 2004, he printed dubious pictures of British soldiers allegedly cruelly mistreating Iraqi prisoners it was a crisis too far. As appalled readers deserted the paper in their droves, Piers was sacked. Frogmarched from the building by security guards, he had to ask his PA to bring his jacket and briefcase out to him on the pavement. Shabby treatment. He deserved better than that.
Eager to cast their anti-hero as a pantomime villain, his enemies believe that he was somehow involved in fabricating those fateful photographs. He wasn't. I was there. He came to the conclusion that we were not being hoaxed and agonised long and hard about the right thing to do. Only after consulting his Army officer brother, did he decide to publish and be damned. And damned he was. With the benefit of hindsight, he made a mistake. But it was an honest one.
Inevitably, the irrepressible Morgan turned this career setback to his own advantage by writing up his diaries chronicling his life and times at the helm of The Mirror. A swirling mass of entertaining indiscretion – especially about his rocky relationship with Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister who tried but failed to tame him – it became an instant best seller. The boy was back and ready to take his seat as a judge on Simon Cowell's smash hit TV talent shows.
Disappointing though it undoubtedly is for the haters of the popular press, I can also confirm that Piers has never hacked a phone in his life. Nor did he sanction it. When he was interviewed by the police a decade after his dismissal, I knew it would come to nothing.
Some might say that his heartfelt decision to become a campaigning opponent of America's gun laws was foolhardy. It was also courageous. It was never going to sit well with his then employers CNN, for whom he had crossed the Atlantic to host their early evening flagship news show. When he clashed with raging right-to-bear-arms zealot Alex Jones, he made him look ridiculous. But despite the Sandy Hook school shooting atrocity, Piers was treading on sacred second amendment ground. Not long afterwards, he parted company with CNN.
Now back in the UK and back at the top of his game, he is the outspoken presenter of ITV's once cosy breakfast programme Good Morning Britain. It was made for him. From 6am to 8.30am he sounds off on whatever issue takes his fancy and by nine o'clock it's all over Fleet Street's online editions. His tetchy partnership with Susanna Reid and his volcanic unpredictability have put GMB on the map and boosted ratings.
With Morgan's booming voice echoing through the studio, an indulgent mother whose kid had 60 pairs of shoes was reduced to tears. Cabinet ministers are aggressively grilled to within an inch of their political lives. And (round of applause, please) right-on actor Ewan McGregor refused to share the screen with such a devoted Trump supporter. Which, of course, Piers is not.
He's against the Mexican wall, he's against the travel ban, he's certainly against nationalistic war mongering and he's for the gun control that Trump viscerally detests. But, as I can personally attest, Piers is a loyal guy… and he is not about to let intemperate suggestions that his mate in the Oval Office is a neo-Nazi racist go unchallenged. Incredibly, when he insisted that comparisons with the genocidal lunatic Adolf Hitler were ludicrously over the top it was seen as controversial.
As a left-leaning Remainer, Morgan is not a cheerleader for Trump's world view. Far from it. But he is a contemptuous opponent of the howling hysteria with which America's strange-haired new leader has been greeted. Hitler's brutal regime slaughtered millions. All Piers is pointing out is that Trump's administration hasn't yet followed suit and, let's face it, is unlikely to do so. He is trying to trade in that increasingly rare commodity – common sense.
Naturally, common sense was conspicuous by its absence when the pious members of the Royal Television Society got up a petition calling for Piers to be barred from hosting their awards show because they don't approve of his right-wing pal. I'm sure they all feel jolly good about themselves now. Breaking from his pugnacious tradition, this was one fight Morgan wasn't up for. No-platformed by association, he stepped down. Not a great moment for free speech, which so many liberals fail to realise has to extend to opinions they don't like.
This is not a hagiography. Piers is a shameless self-publiciser. An opportunist whose colourful career could never have happened if he wasn't an egotist with levels of self-confidence that border on obscene. His peerless skills as the ultimate networker can sometimes look suspiciously like obsequiousness. But he is a decent man who isn't even particularly ruthless. As an editor, he was uncomfortable with intrusive stories and during the regular financial cutbacks he hated the thought of laying off staff.
Those on the social media who attack him don't realise that it's his noisy public persona they despise. If they met him, they'd probably like him. A lover of the finer things in life, he's extremely good company and an excellent raconteur whose anecdotes are rather more star-studded than the average Joe's. He's a charismatic, funny bloke.
Attend one of his fine parties (his 50th birthday bash was legendary) and you'll see that his famous feuds are not quite as vicious as you might imagine. Top of the guest list at any Morgan event will be Lord Sugar and Gary Lineker, both of whom he relentlessly pillories on Twitter. Whisper it quietly, but they're all the best of chums. He even buried the hatchet with his long-term foe Jeremy Clarkson.
But it was through his spat with Clarkson that Piers stumbled upon the power of the feud. Their bitter dispute erupted after Piers could see no reason not to publish pictures of the Top Gear host getting affectionate with a woman who wasn't his wife. It was in a public place and Jeremy should have known better. He begged Piers to give him a break. To no avail. Jeremy was furious.
When the two titans came face to face at the Press Awards, Clarkson lamped Morgan. I was a couple of yards away and I can assure you it was one of the most pathetic punches in the history of handbags. Piers just laughed. But the resultant huge headlines were the stuff of his dreams. After Jeremy reached out to mend the bridges, Piers moved on to the next Jeremy. Paxman. The tougher the target, the better.
Sure, Piers is having mischievous fun. Sure, he loves the limelight and the fortune it has earned him. But to link him to the absurd alt-right wannabe Milo Yiannopoulos is unfair. Piers has edited two mass circulation national newspapers, hosts Good Morning Britain and Piers Morgan's Life Stories, and regularly appears on the BBC's most prestigious programme, Question Time. He also writes an award-winning column for the Mail On Sunday and his provocative pieces for Mail Online reach a vast readership that can be counted in the tens of millions.
Even before his ill-advised paedophilia comments destroyed his ambitions, Milo was a fly-by-night chancer on the make. Piers made it a long, long time ago and will almost certainly go on to even greater things. Milo admires Trump's policies. Piers does not.
But, having travelled beyond the big cities, he was convinced that small town America would reject that scion of the Washington establishment Hillary Clinton in favour of a brash billionaire who dialled into the insecurities of the masses and spoke to them in plain speaking terms they could understand. While virtually every expert pundit predicted a humiliating defeat for Trump, Morgan got it right.
It's beyond me why he should be so vilified for merely expressing his view that President Trump is not a monster. Does that really make Piers an undesirable individual not fit to host a showbiz awards ceremony? Or is this a prime example of political correctness gone mad? You decide.
Kevin O'Sullivan was television reviewer for the Sunday Mirror for 10 years, is resident critic for The Wright Stuff, and features on Radio 5's Afternoon Edition Television Club. He also reviews at tvkev.co.uk