Morgan, posing with some of the figures he covered in his Sun gossip column.
In the 2011 edition, the one he had last night, he is on-air live at CNN and can’t read the teleprompter. He can pick up only every third word or so, and as the scrolling moves faster and faster, there are more and more words he misses. He awoke drenched in perspiration.
I’m over it,” Morgan tells me. “A shrink would say, ‘I need you for 25 hours of sessions, and well get over this.’ My personal built-in shrink said, ‘You need a bottle of 1989 St. Émilion Grand Cru Classé, and you’ll be fine.’ ”
As it happens, there’s a bottle of the stuff in front of him. He drinks from his glass, and smiles evenly.
Edited transcript of interview with Piers Morgan, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Cut at the Beverly Wilshire, September 7, 2011:
New York Magazine: Given the fairly loosey-goosey culture of practices on Fleet Street, why would the Daily Mirror have been exempt from hacking?
Piers Morgan: I don’t think that question is good enough. You’re going to have to look me straight in the eye and say, “Piers, here’s the evidence, not just the word of bloggers.” And I will remonstrate with every serious journalist, on point of ethical journalism, it’s not good enough to smear people based on misrepresentation. People want to write about me being a phone hacker? Write about it all day. I’ve never hacked a phone in my life.
New York: How did the Mirror obtain Kate Winslet’s phone number and the McCartney-Mills voice-mail tape?
P.M.: I’m not going to respond to every single, individual story. I published about 100,000 stories in eleven years. If anybody has any evidence of illegality, present it.
New York: Evidence aside, isn’t it possible that you just didn’t know what reporters at your paper were doing?
P.M.: It is entirely possible that I wouldn’t know what any of my journalists were doing. It’s entirely possible it could have been happening at New York Magazine without your having any knowledge of what other people were doing. I can’t speak for anyone else. All I can speak for is, the Daily Mirror when I was there operated within the law, and we had a bank of lawyers whose job it was to maintain that position.
“I think journalists get into murky waters when they use the words ‘desirable journalistic practices.’ ”
“The terrible thing about the phone-hacking scandal is it’s overlaid a layer of criminality on something no one would have taken seriously before,” says Kelvin MacKenzie, the legendary Sun editor who gave Morgan his big break, speaking of Fleet Street in those days. “It was as though we were all at school still and getting paid for it.”
The past few months have been disorienting for any major player in the Fleet Street–celebrity co-dependency complex of the last several decades. It’s not that laws and morals didn’t exist in that world, just that they were self-serving and ultimately irrelevant. The game was the game. And as the green-eared editor of News of the World, Morgan distinguished himself by playing the full-contact Murdochian Fleet Street sport masterfully and with relish. He had hotel rooms secretly wired with recording devices and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for exclusive interviews. His reporters included Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) and Clive Goodman, each of whom became a household name this summer as the hacking scandal metastasized. He blithely sent Wade, disguised as a janitor, to steal a Charles-and-Di book excerpt from rival Murdoch paper the Sunday Times; there, she hid in a bathroom for two hours until the presses started rolling, then grabbed a copy.
Under Morgan, NotW revealed the sexual indiscretions of countless government officials and broke the story of Princess Diana’s 300 harassing phone calls to a married art dealer. When Hugh Grant was caught with prostitute Divine Brown in Hollywood, Morgan sent in a team to track down Brown, then spirit her away in a limousine that, according to Morgan, drove aimlessly around the country, keeping her out of the clutches of rival tabloids while she granted an exclusive interview—for a payment of at least £120,000.
Morgan’s aggression occasionally got him in trouble, though trouble was partly the point. After NotW ran photographs of Diana’s sister-in-law Victoria Spencer at a clinic for eating disorders, the Press Complaints Commission protested, and Murdoch publicly reprimanded Morgan as having gone “over the top”—though in private, he had commended him on the scoop. By 1995, NotW’s circulation edged up to 4.6 million newspapers, and although Morgan was often criticized as a privacy-desecrating thruster, that same year, he and NotW won Scoops of the Year at the BBC’s What the Papers Say Awards. “I am developing a curious moral code as I go,” Morgan wrote in a diary at the time.