“I know what you did this weekend,” I say, as I slip into the window seat opposite Piers Morgan at Asiate, the Mandarin Oriental’s restaurant 35 floors above Central Park. “You bought and returned an overpriced Nikon D7000, watched the cricket and football on two laptops, and had a nice dinner with Jack Dorsey of Twitter.”
I have not been stalking the slightly doughy man sitting opposite me in a blue V-neck sweater and open-collared white shirt. All of the 530,000 people who have signed up to follow Morgan on Twitter since he succumbed to the microblogging addiction in December have been treated to the same information about his spat with a camera shop, his attempts to keep up with English sports and his Silicon Valley dining companions.
After making my way through most of Morgan’s 5,000-plus tweets, I’m concerned I will have nothing left to ask the man who replaced Larry King as host of CNN’s nightly talk show in January. Back when his predecessor launched Larry King Live in 1985 there was still some mystique in the celebrity business. Now, I wonder whether the endless stream of mundane details from host and guests alike isn’t in danger of killing the TV interview.
What purpose does his tweeting serve? “I’ll tell you one story, then you’ll get it,” he says, recounting a day a few weeks ago when the troubled actor Charlie Sheen was worrying about coming off badly in an ABC News interview that had not yet aired. “I’d interviewed him once before and we’d had quite a laugh, so I said to him, ‘Don’t wait for it to come out, just walk into my studio tonight and I’ll give you the hour live.’”
The star promised to do so but an hour before the broadcast, Morgan lost contact with him. “I’m at the LA bureau. We don’t have a show. Five minutes before showtime he drove up and I went on Twitter: ‘Breaking news. Charlie Sheen’s in the building. Going live right now.’ Half a million more viewers came in in that five-minute window than would have normally tuned in.” Morgan used to think Twitter was “pointless”. Now it is the centrepiece of his shameless strategy to reinvent himself. “My whole game plan was, if I’m going to do this I want to have the most followers in the world within two years. I only play anything to win.” Back home, the 46-year-old former British tabloid newspaper editor has never quite escaped his image as a cocky chancer. In the US, however, he is becoming a celebrity as big as any he wrote about during his days as a gossip columnist. If he pulls it off, it will mark the biggest of his unlikely career leaps so far.
The youngest of four children, who lost his father as a baby, Piers Stefan O’Meara acquired the name Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan when his mother remarried. He grew up in a Sussex pub, and went straight from school to journalism training and then a local paper in south London. He started offering stories to Rupert Murdoch’s daily tabloid The Sun and was eventually offered the Bizarre show business column. Murdoch liked what he saw, flew him to Miami for a walk along the beach and made him editor of the News of the World, the best-selling Sunday tabloid, at 28. Within two years, he had jumped ship to edit the Daily Mirror, The Sun’s closest rival.
Morgan picked fights in his tabloid years but these have mutated into fabricated Twitter feuds with the likes of Lord Sugar, host of the UK version of The Apprentice reality show, over who has more followers. Morgan is ahead of Sugar but far behind Charlie Sheen, on 3.6m, or Lady Gaga, with more than 9m. Self-doubt is not part of Morgan’s game plan, though.
The waiter arrives and I ask what Morgan recommends: “I know it all backwards,” he says. “I’ll go for the scrambled eggs on wheat toast with some grilled tomatoes and Tabasco sauce.” I choose scrambled eggs as well, with bacon rather than tomatoes. Our choice of Asiate’s “All American” seems as close as two expats in New York will get to a full English breakfast, though we order coffee rather than tea.
The Mandarin is Morgan’s New York home. (In Los Angeles, he stays at the celeb-friendly Beverly Wilshire. He shuttles back and forth to the UK, where his second wife, journalist and novelist Celia Walden, lives, as do his three sons from his first marriage.)
“I love the Mandarin. I love it,” he says, gesturing outside. “You wake up and see this amazing view through Central Park and this big neon CNN sign.” The red-lettered logo has been shining a little brighter since CNN gambled on Morgan, a foreigner known in the US only for winning Donald Trump’s celebrity version of The Apprentice and judging what he cheerily calls “piano-playing pigs” on America’s Got Talent. But CNN was desperate to reverse steep declines in viewing figures during the ageing King’s final year and prove it had not been drowned out by the more partisan voices of MSNBC and Fox News.
Morgan had a so-so start. His first show was a taped interview with Oprah Winfrey, which was upstaged by a more revealing piece the daytime TV queen had done shortly before with Barbara Walters on ABC. For a few weeks, his ratings were a middling return on CNN’s heavy investment in publicising its new host. But then came Tahrir Square, Fukushima and the (since sacked) star of the hit show Two And A Half Men.
“If someone had said to me within three months you’ll have uprisings across the Arab world, an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan and Charlie Sheen in meltdown I’d have been freaked out,” Morgan says. These world-shaking events (and Sheen) have seen him replace celebrity interviews many nights with live broadcasts. During those momentous weeks the ratings for Piers Morgan Tonight were double those King pulled in a year earlier but they have flagged on slower news days since then.
Morgan has not touched his grapefruit juice or complimentary purple smoothie, and he carries on talking for some time when our food arrives. Our eggs are a deep yellow, his tomato thick and bright, and my bacon a stack of perfectly crisped flat rashers. They are accompanied by toast and the usual unwanted heap of “breakfast potatoes”, diced and fried with onions.
Morgan had never anchored a live breaking news show before he got off a flight to Los Angeles “to find Egypt’s going up in smoke” and his producer saying he would have to go live. “I remember the clock ticking down to 6pm Pacific time and getting a real sense of adrenalin, thinking I could seriously depth-charge myself in the next hour.”
Caffeine, adrenalin and gym visits keep him going, he says, sipping his coffee, and his tabloid training helps him shift gears from Howard Stern to Hosni Mubarak: “You have to be as comfortable with the comparatively trivial as with the hard news. If you edit a paper like the Mirror, you might do 9/11 for a month, then you do celebrity interviews and buy-ups again.”
Morgan’s nine years at the Mirror are remembered less for his attempts to make it a more serious paper than for two controversies. He was censured by the Press Complaints Commission, the nearest thing Fleet Street has to a regulator, after buying shares in a technology company called Viglen in 2000, shortly before his reporters tipped them (an “unfortunate coincidence,” he said at the time) but he survived.
Not so when, in 2004, the left-leaning tabloid splashed on photographs purporting to show soldiers from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment humiliating Iraqis. The regiment protested that the paper had fallen for a malicious hoax but he stood by the pictures for two weeks until the Mirror was forced to run a front-page apology and his proprietor, Trinity Mirror, fired him.
I can’t hide my surprise when he says: “I feel absolutely vindicated we were right.” Hasn’t it been proved that the Land Rover in the pictures had never been in Iraq? “By whom? The regiment and the government? These are the people who thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Morgan shoots back. His brother Jeremy, an army officer, served in Basra soon after the incident “and I was fairly well informed after the event”. Although other instances of abuse did come to light later, he says that the origin of the pictures he published remains “a mystery” to him.
At 39, he had to reinvent himself. He had already begun to do television presenting, including a 2003 series, The Importance of Being Famous. In 2005 he published a best-selling memoir of his time on the tabloids called The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade. In it, Morgan recounts how he found himself unemployed, looked at the pop sensations and reality television wannabes around him and resolved to become part of it himself.
His chance came when Simon Cowell took him out to lunch. “He said, ‘I’m thinking about bringing a talent show back … to do a newspaper job you have to be sharp, you have to be funny, you have to be brave and you have to be outspoken. Those are all qualities required to be a talent show judge.’”
Soon, Morgan was on a flight to the US to record the first America’s Got Talent show (which was broadcast in June 2006). “I’m having a little Meursault in seat 1A and thinking, this is clearly better than trudging into [the Mirror offices in] Canary Wharf,” he says, attacking his eggs as he warms to his theme. “All my favourite movies – all those Top Gun movies – they have this very simple formula: you build up the character, then you have that pits moment where it all goes horribly wrong, then you have the redemption and the glory. It’s been my template for life.”
Cowell’s decision to make Morgan a judge on America’s Got Talent (and later the British version of the show) started the latter’s transformation from underemployed former editor to a figure more than a million Americans turn to on a big news night. “There’s always room in every Hollywood movie for the redemption and glorious comeback, you just have to work out what shape it is going to be in. It came for me in the shape of Simon Cowell.”
(This did not stop Morgan from postponing an interview with Cowell several times, to make way for news shows. “The day we think we can’t go live on Libya because we’ve got some amazing interview with Simon Cowell, forget it,” he tells me.)
I ask the former News of the World editor what he makes of the phone-hacking scandal that has upended the paper and drawn in the police, the government and much of the rest of the British media. He spears a slice of tomato and his lips purse a little. His friend Andy Coulson resigned as News of the World editor over the hacking affair in 2007 and then quit in January as spokesman for prime minister David Cameron, and Morgan says that having edited papers “where you hadn’t got a clue what’s going on half the time”, he is angry that Coulson has lost two jobs over a case where he has maintained his innocence.
Is Morgan sure that none of the scoops he published as editor were obtained by listening to voicemails? “The phone-hacking wasn’t around when I was there,” he says, ordering a fresh cup of coffee and moving the focus to the Guardian, which has pursued the hacking story vigorously.
“There’s an interesting ethical and moral distinction being drawn by the Guardian between WikiLeaks and phone-hacking,” he says. “There’s [Guardian editor Alan] Rusbridger appointing himself the great bastion of ethical and moral decency, but he knew for a fact that the WikiLeaks material had been obtained illegally.”
But don’t you think there’s a public interest case for publishing the diplomatic cables WikiLeaks obtained? “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” he replies, quoting Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s satire on the Street of Shame. “The stuff about Gaddafi and his four mistresses. There’s no public interest. It’s a good old sex romp.”
Morgan published many good old sex romps in his day, and his TV style shows his roots. He mixes the persistence of a tabloid editor with toe-curling moments of impertinence and ingratiation, such as grilling reality stars Kim and Kourtney Kardashian about their breasts or asking Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of state, “What would I have to do to woo you?”
“The ultimate crime for any journalist has always been to be overly worthy,” he says, but he resists the critique that US newspapers are the worst offenders. “The fact is sacrosanct in American journalism. In Britain we cut a few too many corners. Having said that, the British papers collectively have a lot more energy.”
Morgan has done little to tone down his Britishness for CNN, and it has its uses: later this month he will co-anchor CNN’s coverage of the royal wedding. Some reviewers feel his British cheek comes off as smug but, he says: “I don’t have any pomposity about me. When you read my Twitter I’m sure you got the joke. I’m deliberately playing up my smug persona because it winds me up. There are serious things in life and when I have to cover them I’ll be serious.”
I ask whether tweets about ex-cricketer Freddie Flintoff, Alan Sugar and Arsenal are a turn-off for Americans. “At least half my followers are British, and the American followers are quite intrigued by cricket and Lord Sugar and football, as they are by the royal wedding,” he replies, scooping marmalade on to a triangle of toast. A waiter moves in to collect our plates. Morgan is heading to the gym. Do you still get British papers in the morning, I ask as he gets up. “I’ve just stopped … Twitter’s become my number one news source.”
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.