I hate to drag someone as fuddy-duddy as Anthony Trollope into a discussion of the tabloid newspaper business, but here is what he had to say, in “Phineas Redux” about the gentlemen of the press: “Editors of newspapers are self-willed, arrogant and stiff-necked, a race of men who believe in themselves and little in anything else.”
Trollope was writing about the bumptious Quintus Slide, editor of the so-called People’s Banner. He is certainly not the most likeable of characters, but I wonder what the great Victorian novelist would have made of the boyish Piers Morgan, former editor of two of Britain’s biggest-selling papers, The News of the World and The Daily Mirror, and now the author of a tell-all diary-cum-memoir? “The Insider” is a spectacularly repellent piece of work, like “Scoop” without the funny bits. If you thought Kitty Kelley represented the lowest rung of the evolutionary ladder, Mr. Morgan has a few surprises for you.
Still, Mr. Morgan does have the good grace not to cover up his flaws. He may be crass, malicious and stunningly shallow, but at least he does not make a pretence of being a nice human being. Every time he falls down drunk in a restaurant — which seems to happen at least once every couple of days — he is happy to give us the unflattering details, while making sure that he also tells us which celebrity was sitting across the table at the time. I presume there are some things which were too awful and humiliating to be included in his book. On the other hand, having read what he left in, I can’t for the life of me imagine what they are.
As long as he gets a scoop and has his photo taken with the rich and famous, Mr. Morgan really doesn’t mind what impression he makes on people. (Well, he occasionally makes an exception for Rupert Murdoch.) After all, why should he care? In modern Britain, tabloid editors are all-powerful. They have access to the personal secrets of the rich and famous. Politicians and soap stars are equally at their mercy. If they want to know what medication singer X has been hiding in his bathroom cabinet, they pay a man who makes his living by going through the ash cans of celebrities. (Yes, that man really does exist. His name is Benjamin Pell, and he has become a minor media personality in his own right.)
Mr. Morgan belongs to a new breed, half-man, half-god. When a shady operator brings him the laptop computer belonging to a ubiquitous TV celebrity, demanding a huge reward, does Mr. Morgan send him packing? Of course, he doesn’t. He and his aides rummage through the contents and drool over an explicit letter that the VIP has written to his wife. Fortunately, for the star, Mr. Morgan is a friend of sorts, and decides to return the computer to him, on condition that he agrees to publicly admit writing the letters. The celebrity — who is, let me assure you, every bit as obnoxious as Mr. Morgan — agrees to spending his 15 minutes in the stocks. What else could he do? Cross an editor, and you are finished. And so, on page after page, all the inhabitants of the goldfish bowl laugh and swear and perspire and pretend that it is all good fun between friends. Even so, you can still smell their fear.
And what is the most depressing aspect of this book? It is not the spite, or the bullying. It is the knowledge that Mr. Morgan is intelligent enough to know what he is doing in this game. A chess champion at his prep school (yes, he went to prep school. Piers is no blue-collar name, as you will have noticed) he is capable of playing a match against the editor of the broadsheet Sunday Telegraph, a man who enjoys socializing with the likes of Garry Kasparov. In truth, Mr. Morgan is a figure-head of the anti-elitist elites, the people who, as the commentator George Walden has observed, “make a career in the masses.” An individual who thinks nothing of guzzling down very expensive bottles of wine at an ultra-smart restaurant, Mr. Morgan knows he can do anything he pleases in the name of “our readers.”
Fired from the Mirror in the scandal over allegations that he published fake photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi captives, Mr. Morgan is more of a television personality now. There is talk of the diaries being turned into a TV drama. His place has been taken by other editors, who are really not that different from him. No wonder the New York Times reporter Sarah Lyell was appalled by what she saw at the British Press Awards, held recently at a glamorous West End hotel. Journalists drank themselves into a stupor, some squared up for a brawl, others were content to bawl obscenities at the prize-winners. The atmosphere was, she wrote later “more like a soccer match attended by a club of misanthropic inebriates.” One well-known lifestyle columnist kept his acceptance speech to the minimum. All he said, apparently, was “Piers Morgan is an [expletive deleted].”
There is a delicious irony in “The Insider:” Mr. Morgan thinks George W. Bush is stupid, and accuses him of trying to force his nation’s “values” (the word is carefully placed in quotation marks) on Afghanistan. He turns the Mirror into a focus of the anti-war movement, and on July 4, 2002 he clears the front page to run an article by ultra-left reporter John Pilger accusing America of being the world’s number one rogue state. (The market-leader, The Sun, which is every bit as bullying and aggressive as The Mirror, remained pro-American.)
On September 11 Mr. Morgan is hard at work supervising the coverage of the terror attacks when he notices a soccer game is being shown on one of the newsroom TVs. His favorite team is playing. He asks for the sound to be turned up so that he can follow the match. Then one of his assistants quietly says to him, “Piers, I don’t think this is the right time to be watching football, do you?” Mr. Morgan suddenly feels embarrassed, and he thinks to himself: “Every editor needs a few people around him to tell him he’s being an arse from time to time.”
Tony Blair and his Conservative opponent Michael Howard are now courting Mr. Morgan’s soul mates in the hope that they will win their endorsement for next month’s election. The politicians are all smiles. The charade continues. The other day I read an article describing how a team of newly-recruited British tabloid journalists is leading the re-launch of The National Enquirer. You have been warned.
Clive Davis writes for The Times of London and keeps a weblog at clivedavis.blogspot.com.