It wasn’t me wot done it
Former Mirror editor Piers Morgan tries to laugh off his role in lowering journalistic standards.
The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, Piers Morgan, Ebury Press.
Piers Morgan, the cheeky chappy and former editor of the News of the World and Daily Mirror, tries to set himself apart from celebrity culture in his new book. The Insider, Morgan’s diary of the past ‘scandalous’ decade, chronicles his relationship with the rich and powerful and A to Z-list celebrities.
Yet Morgan is one of the chief architects of celebrity culture. Hold the front page. EXPOSE THIS MORON!
Morgan is the man who famously refused to publish a leaked copy of the Budget but happily papped Ulrika Jonsson at her father’s funeral, so it’s unsurprising if he is remembered as an editor who trivialised news values. Hugh Cudlipp, the revered former editor of the Daily Mirror, wrote the book Publish And Be Damned as a rallying cry against censorship of stories in the public interest. It seems that Morgan has reinterpreted this to mean publish-anything-however-private-and-trivial-and-be-damned.
Morgan seems happiest when he can make people laugh – including the Queen, prime minister Tony Blair and former South African president Nelson Mandela. Humour is one way of encouraging your subject to say something newsworthy by mistake. Also, perhaps Morgan thinks that however prurient his stories are, how can anyone object if there’s a gag at the end of it?
After 10 years of working in tabloid newspapers, Morgan concedes that he probably became ‘a rather cocky little git’, and he accuses people such as himself of dishing out moral double standards, hypocrisy and ‘downright nastiness’. Creeping self-doubt meant that he acquiesced to the odd celebrity who claimed that a planned Mirror story would wreck their lives, and would spike the story. Yet his change of heart appeared to be based on his feelings on the spur of the moment – or the fact that somebody was connected to a friend of his – rather than any journalistic principles.
On other occasions, Morgan would kill only half the story in exchange for some titbit about a celebrity’s private life. So on 4 March 1994, he gave back Jonathan Ross’ laptop computer that had been stolen and contained raunchy private emails to his wife. In return Ross was asked to agree to be quoted as sending his wife ‘love-byte’ letters. What was the news value in a happily married, heterosexual male saying he has a sex life with his wife? Never mind that – Morgan describes how he found the story hilarious.
Yet Morgan blames celebrities for cheapening news values. At the Society of Editors conference on 23 October 2001, he argued that 9/11 had ‘redefined tabloid newspapers’ away from celebrities and towards a new seriousness. For a brief period he attacked the celebrity culture in the Mirror, exposing the demands celebrities make on newspapers to control their own copy. But public figures make those demands because editors like him give in to them. Given that celebrities’ public image and next job can depend on how they are portrayed in the press, who wouldn’t try and control their image? What’s more surprising is how far editors such as Morgan are prepared to undermine journalistic standards in the pursuit of celebrity stories.
Book reviewers have pointed out a variety of factual inaccuracies in The Insider, which many attributed to the fact Morgan didn’t write it contemporaneously. Yet in typical fashion, Morgan has laughed these criticisms off. Of course busy journalists make mistakes – but Morgan’s blasé attitude to the facts is disturbing.
The biggest factual cock-up of Morgan’s career was when the Mirror published fake photographs of British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, for which he was sacked last year. Yet he downplayed the importance of the photos’ authenticity. As he writes in his book under the date 7 May 2004: ‘More and more soldiers are coming forward to tell their own tales of abuse in Iraq, and to back up what we have been saying. But people are still obsessing about the veracity of these pictures.’ This is a brand of journalism where everything is a laugh, and questions about the truth shouldn’t be obsessed over.
It wasn’t the first time Morgan downplayed the importance of journalistic truth. Back in 1997 he ordered an image of Dodi al Fayed’s head to be flipped around so that it would look like he was kissing Diana on holiday. Although Morgan subsequently regretted the decision, at the time he argued to his staff that ‘we know they kissed and we know the photos [that other photographers have of the couple] look a bit like these’.
Even though Morgan encouraged the debasement of public life, he’s not the only man at it. Government cabinet members have spent too much time trying to secure favourable newspaper headlines ever since the Sun trounced Neil Kinnock in the early 1990s. Morgan wonders how he got to have so many cups of tea with Tony Blair, with Alastair Campbell shouting in the background against anything in the press that contradicted the party line. It got so bad that Morgan had to remind them in 2002 that he wasn’t prepared to be a ’brown-nosing Pravda sheet’. So keen to steer the press its way at every turn, the government has almost managed to make Morgan look principled.
The Insider gives you the feeling that you have read all this somewhere before. Our culture is so confessional that everything leaks out before anybody can write a quick-turnaround book about it. So it comes as no surprise to discover that Tony Blair swears, cabinet politicians connive against each other through the media and certain celebrities have risqué sex lives. The book reads more like a confirmation of scandals than an exposé.
Today’s journalists see little reason to limit the unmasking of people’s intimate relationships and emotions. Meanwhile politicians continue to strip themselves bare, discussing their private lives, thoughts and emotions for political advantage in public. The combination of reality journalism and reality politics has created a debased public spectacle of emotionally driven debate. Values such as the public interest in journalism are ditched at every opportunity.
Although Morgan exposes all about his relationships with public figures and fellow editors, he fails to say anything much about his own private life. Luckily for him, most people accept that private life is the least interesting thing about a man who has been at the centre of politics and tabloid journalism since 1996. Shame he didn’t think the same about other people’s private lives too.
The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, by Piers Morgan, is published by Ebury Press, 2005. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)
Tessa Mayes is a journalist and author of the spiked-report ‘Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age’.
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