Everyone loves a panto villain and Piers Morgan – the uber-confident former showbiz hack, ex-tabloid editor, author and now TV talent show judge – can play that role down to a T.
When he recalls his recent experience as a judge on ITV1’s TV talent show, Britain’s Got Talent, he says he feels ‘no guilt at all’ about reducing ‘deluded’ adults – and even children – to tears. ‘They know the score,’ he snorts, clearly enjoying playing the bad guy. ‘If Simon Cowell’s sitting there on the judging panel, what do they expect? A big hug and a kiss?’
Similarly, he does not seem to give two hoots about British TV critics’ opinions of his performances. When he is panned, he says, he ‘laughs out loud. As long as they do it well, I don’t mind. I’ll be looking for quality work. They’ve got to really obliterate me.’
But there is one thing even he would never do – despite many lucrative offers over the years – and that is join the PR industry. It is out of the question, he says, adding dramatically: ‘I would rather kill myself.’
This will not surprise those who remember Morgan’s vociferous anti-PR stance when he was editor of the Daily Mirror. In 2001, he placed an acerbic full-page advert in PRWeek to inform celebrity PROs that their clients would not be given copy approval. And in 2002, he told PRWeek he would rather ‘staple my eyelids to my rear’ than join the industry.
But, despite his continuing determination never to become a PRO, Morgan’s attitude towards the comms industry does seem to have mellowed. During an hour’s chat with PRWeek, a suntanned, relaxed Morgan – recently back from Los Angeles – spends far more time eulogising the PROs he respects than chastising those who have let him down.It is perhaps logical that Morgan’s viewpoint has changed, given the life he now leads.
As a journalist, Morgan was a maverick and a high flyer. His risky approach saw him being appointed editor of the News of the World at the age of just 28, before being lured to the Daily Mirror a year later, but it also landed him in hot water.
One risk too many
He approved the jingoistic ‘Achtung Surrender’ front page as England played Germany in Euro 96, and the 2000 City Slickers share-tipping scandal saw him investigated – then cleared – by the police.
Eventually, he took one risk too many and was sacked from the red top after publishing photos of British soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq, which turned out to be fake.
But his life today is very different. As chronicled in his recent book Don’t You Know Who I Am?, Morgan has spent much of the past year in LA, acting as a judge on NBC show America’s Got Talent alongside Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. He is already working on the second series in the US.
That said, and as the title of his latest book acknowledges, Morgan does not yet have the A-list celebrity status that he perhaps craves.
PRWeek meets Morgan in the bar of a Chelsea hotel. The Chelsea football team and its flamboyant manager are there, and it is days after a morale-destroying defeat by Liverpool in the Champion’s League dashed José Mourinho’s dream of ruling European club football for the second time in three years.
Halfway through the interview, Mourinho walks past our table. Morgan leaps to his feet, shakes him by the hand and introduces himself to a nonplussed Mourinho, who appears to have no idea who he is. Brushing this minor detail aside, a grinning Morgan delivers the line: ‘Sorry about your loss the other day. But as an Arsenal fan, I’ll get over it. Ha ha!’
As a scowling Mourinho stomps off, Morgan breezily sits down and finishes his sentence as if nothing had happened. This is why he made a brilliant showbiz reporter and why his books are full of odd encounters with celebrities – the man seems to have no shame.
But Morgan’s new career path gives him a very interesting take on the PR industry.
On top of his television work, Morgan is writing his third book (the title, he says, will be ‘something self-deprecating’) and he is working on other journalism projects, including a series of no-holds-barred interviews in GQ. He has been given carte blanche to ask celebrities outrageous questions. A dangerous move, as Tory MP and former Spectator editor Boris Johnson discovered. Morgan got Johnson to admit he could imagine having a fling with Cherie Blair, then scoffed when Johnson pleaded with him not to print it.
‘I see it from all sides. As a tabloid editor I was always on the receiving end of PR, but now I see the American PR machine promoting America’s Got Talent, I do interviews like this one to promote the book, I see the way PROs deliver people for the GQ interviews.’
It was during a tête à tête for GQ that he made up with former enemy Naomi Campbell. Three years ago, when the supermodel won a privacy ruling against the Daily Mirror, Morgan said it was ‘a good day for lying, drug-abusing prima donnas who want to have their cake with the media, then the right to shamelessly guzzle it with their Cristal Champagne’.
Now, he says, ‘she’s my best friend – she sent me flowers last week’.
Morgan credits The Outside Organisation chairman Alan Edwards with the turnaround in their relationship: ‘Alan spent a year and a half convincing Naomi to do an interview with me for GQ. You’d have thought the chances of him pulling that off were negligible, but he set the thing up at great risk to himself. If it had gone wrong he would have got the blame from a notoriously fiery client, but Naomi came out of it brilliantly and was thrilled with the result. Now that’s good PR.’
Other PROs he praises include The Corporation chairman Gary Farrow. ‘When Sharon Osborne or Elton John fall out with me, he can turn it around. Being a good PRO is partly about playing the Henry Kissinger role. You’ve got to be a diplomat, very charming and straight with journalists.’
Neil Reading also gets a mention, as do Taylor Herring’s James Herring, ITV’s Ben Webster and publicist Max Clifford. ‘There are loads of good PROs actually,’ he reflects, as if the thought had just popped into his head. But such uncharacteristic praise for the industry is swiftly tempered by a few moans.
His first complaint is incompetence. ‘There’s nothing worse than an incompetent PRO who can’t sort things out,’ he growls.
Secondly, PROs must have high-level access to clients to be truly useful. But it is on the subject of honesty between PROs and journalists that Morgan gets really fired up: ‘I don’t mind bad news. What I hate is wrong news or deliberately misleading news.’
When it comes to his less-favoured PROs, however, Morgan only mentions two people. The first is LD Communications’ chief executive Bernard Doherty, though Morgan’s venom seems to have mellowed slightly. ‘He loved lording it over journalists. We all called him Dumbo Doherty. Oddly, I bumped into him recently and we got on very well.’
The second is Madonna’s US publicist Liz Rosenberg, who Morgan believes lied to him over the pop star’s pregnancy. He is still angry about it: ‘Another paper broke the story – I wanted to kill her. It was an appalling lie. That kind of thing gives PR a bad name.’
Morgan gets firmly on his high horse where truth is concerned. To this day, he still maintains the Iraq photos that saw him sacked in May 2004 may yet turn out to be genuine – and, even if not, he has always been at pains to assert they were published in good faith. No reporter working for him would be allowed to publish something he thought was untrue, he adds. That said, he rates Max Clifford and accepts Clifford’s ability to ‘blur’ the boundaries between the truth and lies.
Surely in his showbiz reporter days he must have ‘played the game’ with PROs, happily publishing titillating pictures of hot new celebrity couples, even though the ‘relationship’ had a sniff of publicity stunt about it?
‘To a certain degree, all media play a game in that situation,’ he says, before reverting back to his original point: ‘If you’ve got PROs lying to you, that’s where the trouble starts.’
Morgan admits to being seduced by fame, which he describes as a life of ‘limos, upgrades, the best tables at restaurants and everyone loving you’, but always upholds that he ‘treats it as a game’.
Morgan’s former boss at The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, tells PRWeek this is part of what makes Morgan successful: ‘He doesn’t take life too seriously, which is important.’
Gary Farrow agrees: ‘I do think he’s mellowed, but he’s still not afraid to be unpopular – which is just as well.’
Morgan also claims not to care much about his media profile. ‘I like my media caricature. I’m always the pantomime villain and I quite like it. There’s more money being the villain. Who wants to be seen as Mother Teresa? Then you’d end up in a slum in Calcutta.’
Even so, he cannot help revealing the power he has over journalists who attack him. ‘We’ve had the number one show in the US. Reviews will hardly damage that, will they?’ he scoffs. ‘Do your worst, my friend. Given what I know about these people’s private lives, it could get nasty in my next book. I’m thinking of doing one on what I know about journalists and calling it The Real Insider: Journalists I Know,’ he chuckles.
And while he claims not to care, Morgan admits he checks all his own cuttings. ‘I find everything negative written about me. Journalists are mistaken if they think I’ll never read the interview. I see it all. And then I’ll put it in my next book.’
You do not doubt for a second that he would. Morgan’s last two books even ruffled the feathers of his allies. MacKenzie, for example, says The Insider ‘seemed to be my book with his name on it’, while Farrow muses that, despite Morgan ‘using several of my stories in his books, I’ve never seen a penny of the royalties’. Farrow adds: ‘Everything he used was off the record – and to me off the record is in perpetuity.’
Former tabloid rival
Morgan may have made up with Campbell (and, according to his latest book, called a truce with Private Eye editor Ian Hislop), but there seems little chance of a rapprochement with Brunswick partner and former tabloid rival David Yelland. He says the former Sun editor’s move to PR is a ‘classic example’ of why he would never do it. ‘Yelland is now some obscure business PRO, last seen defending Tesco or something. Know what I mean? I couldn’t bring myself to ring another editor and say “Can you help my client out, they’ve got a new line of runner beans”.’
When told Yelland has been working for former BP CEO John Browne, Morgan can hardly contain his glee. ‘From one of the greatest businessmen in living memory to national joke. Thank you, David Yelland. I appreciate it, mate; the cheque’s in the post.’ He adds: ‘You’ve got to use that. I want him to read it.’
Morgan will be disappointed, though not surprised, to learn that Yelland declined to rise to the bait when contacted by PRWeek.
Before striding off to meet a BBC controller for a ‘very important’ appointment, he cannot resist another dig at his old sparring partner: ‘Things are going so well for me now that I’m thinking of hiring David Yelland to get myself some negative PR. How’s that?’
Morgan may have mellowed, but there’s still life – and bite –in the old dog yet.
Don’t You Know Who I Am? is published by Ebury Press, £17.99.
Publishes Don’t You Know Who I Am? Acts as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent and later the ITV version, Britain’s Got Talent
Publishes The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade
Sacked by the Daily Mirror for publishing photos that seemed to show British troops assaulting Iraqi prisoners. Also faces Naomi Campbell in court, as the supermodel wins a privacy ruling against the Mirror
Is investigated – and later cleared – in the City Slickers share-tipping scandal, and faces calls for his resignation
Appointed editor of the Daily Mirror
Becomes editor of the News of the World at the age of just 28