After just a year and a half at NotW, Morgan was hired away to edit the Daily Mirror, where the scoops and scandals continued. It was often hard to tell which was which. After the Mirror published a hooligan-baiting “Achtung! Surrender” cover in advance of a Britain-Germany soccer showdown, Morgan’s bosses forced him to issue an apology (though they presumably appreciated that it was a newsstand triumph). Naomi Campbell, the model, was awarded $1.7 million in damages and legal fees against the paper after it ran photographs of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, but the episode just became more fodder for Morgan to drum up publicity (and the award was later reduced).
Even as the phone-hacking scandal began its slow-burn evolution in recent years, with an arrest here and a firing there, it seemed like a narrow case, a local infection and not a systemic cancer. But then came Milly Dowler—the 13-year-old murder victim whose voice-mail the post-Morgan News of the World allegedly not only hacked but also deleted messages from, giving her family false hope that she was alive. This was as close to an atrocity as modern journalism has produced. Suddenly, Morgan’s old friends and colleagues were losing their jobs and facing possible prison sentences. And suddenly, Morgan’s own past statements collectively amounted to enough smoke that his rivals (and there are many) could practically see the flames licking below.
For a week in July, Morgan, usually never shy about sharing his thoughts, remained publicly silent. Then Louise Mensch, a British M.P., claimed in a parliamentary committee hearing that Morgan had admitted to phone hacking in The Insider.Morgan confronted Mensch on Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room later that day, calling her allegation a “blatant lie” and challenging her to “show some balls” by repeating the claim outside of the protection of Parliament. She declined and, a week later, would issue an apology acknowledging that she had misread the reported section of Morgan’s book.
Morgan’s career has struck some as almost an affront to the notion of karma.
Four days later, in response to questions from the New York Times, Morgan wrote a full-throated denial that he ever had anything to do with phone hacking. Then Heather Mills told the BBC that someone claiming to be a journalist at the Mirror Group had told her in 2001 that the McCartney message had been obtained by hacking. In early August, Sir Paul himself publicly expressed dismay, and a contestant on America’s Got Talent whom Morgan had previously called “not funny” taunted him in front of 10 million viewers, asking, “What’s it like to bum out the dude that wrote ‘Let It Be’?” Morgan’s default mode is ball-busting, and he took the teasing in good humor, but even fellow judge Sharon Osbourne, who affectionately calls Morgan “a bombastic prick,” doesn’t joke with him about the hacking scandal. “It’s really not very cool,” she says, “and I wouldn’t go there. I know what he’d say to me: ‘Just shut the fuck up.’ ”
At this point, Morgan is clearly tired of having to field questions about phones. And on close inspection, none of his supposedly incriminating remarks pins him to any illegal act. But the Morgan hacking chatter grew so loud in Britain, with headlines like “Will His US Career Survive the Storm?” and “End of the Piers Show?,” that when a tweet circulated that CNN had suspended Morgan, it was widely retweeted. Jon Snow, a prominent television anchor with England’s Channel 4, was among the retweeters and had to apologize after Morgan confirmed that no such thing had occurred and after the original tweeter was shown to be fictitious. Morgan was soon tweeting that his accusers were “liars, druggies, ex-conmen and bankrupts.”
New York: You once called Sarah Palin “an idiotic bigot.”
P.M.: Well, there is an argument. As editor of the Daily Mirror, I’ve been pretty scathing about a lot of Republicans, and yet oddly, I would say the majority of our political bookings have been senior Republicans. I think they know I’ll give them a fair crack of the whip.
New York: Did you worry that calling Ann Coulter “a monstrosity” might make it hard to book her?
P.M.: She is a monstrosity. It didn’t deter her. She knows the game. She plays that game hard.
New York: And yet when you invited her back on, she canceled at the last minute.
P.M.: She did it because she’s cowardly.
New York: Was calling Heather Mills “talentless and legless” a cheap shot?
P.M.: That’s accurate. She is demonstrably talentless and has one leg.
New York: You never look back at something like that and think, That wasn’t very nice?
P.M.: No, because Heather Mills is an indescribably vile creature with no redeeming features whatsoever.
If the more dire prophecies about Morgan’s career and personal liberty had an unmistakably hopeful tone, it’s because in England Morgan is known largely for his feuds and all-around bumptiousness. “There’s high excitement over here,” says Francis Wheen, deputy editor of the satirical fortnightly Private Eye. “The amount of Schadenfreude that will flow over the country if he does get fingered! He has an amazing knack for getting away with it. He’s become even more insufferable since his U.S. success. He’s gone global in terms of his name-dropping and swanking around. He was bad enough before!”
Morgan first became a familiar face in the U.K., when editing the Sun gossip column, by having his photograph taken with the stars he was writing about; when their picture appeared in the paper, so did his, and through their borrowed fame he acquired his own aura of celebrity. This grating shtick won him the attention not only of Rupert Murdoch but also of Private Eye, which took to calling him “Piers Moron.”
As Morgan’s career accelerated, so did his celebrity hounding. He proved to be world-class at both flattering and antagonizing. He launched countless quarrels with celebrities and other journalists, stoking them and feeding off the attention. At a New Kids on the Block concert outside London in 1991, Donnie Wahlberg wore a PIERS MORGAN SUCKS T-shirt. Sinéad O’Connor told him in a letter that he was a “crawling sliming little gutter maggot”—an epithet Morgan proudly shared with the world. After Morgan twice ran photographs of Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson with a woman who wasn’t his wife, Clarkson physically assaulted Morgan at the 2004 British Press Awards. At the same time, Morgan made a point of cultivating the rich and famous, lunching with Princess Diana and hobnobbing with Victoria Beckham. And many of his more public clashes have ended in détente. Nine months after Wahlberg wore his anti-Morgan T-shirt, he was sheepishly posing with Morgan for a photograph. Years after Naomi Campbell filed suit against the Mirror, she sat for a kiss-and-make-up interview with the man who had once called her a “lying, drug-abusing prima donna.”
In May 2004, Morgan published Abu Ghraib–style photos purporting to show the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment abusing Iraqi captives. The photos later turned out to be a likely hoax. The scandal was a big deal, costing Morgan his job, and his detractors exulted in the comeuppance. But without the stimulation of a daily newspaper to edit, Morgan gamely reinvented himself as a multimedia personality. He wrote The Insider. He started doing lengthy Q&As with celebrities for GQ and hour-long sit-downs with famous people for ITV1. On Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, Morgan dominated the competition while creating some of the most uncomfortable television in recent broadcast history. In one particularly nasty incident, the fabled Omarosa (arch-villainess from the original The Apprentice) told him “Your children hate you” and called him “a faggot.” Afterward, Morgan said he wanted to pour sulfuric acid on Omarosa’s “horrible diseased torso.” “I had a lot of pressure on me not to choose Piers,” Trump says, “because people didn’t like him. He was a tough hombre. But I liked him. He was a smart, talented guy, and he was tremendous on the show.” (Trump still sends Morgan supportive notes like “Congratulations, champ” and “You okay?” and “Think big and kick ass.”)
Morgan’s lucrative bounce-back, after a fall many had felt well deserved, struck his ill-wishers as almost an affront to the notion of karma. His confidence-betraying, score-settling memoir, combined with his flourishing new career on television, inspired reams of invective. The critic A. A. Gill opined that Morgan had “learnt human as a second language.” The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker wrote that Morgan “looks like a teddy bear with Bell’s palsy concentrating hard on accurately shitting in an egg cup.” Actor Stephen Fry took to joking that the contemporary definition of countryside is “the murder of Piers Morgan.”
But in addition to giving his detractors heartburn, Morgan’s post-tabloid experimentations revealed a latent gift for getting famous people to open up on-camera. When he interviewed Simon Cowell, who by then had plucked Morgan to be a judge on America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent, Cowell choked up speaking of his father’s death. “Normally I talk about it mechanically,” Cowell says. “But he took me there. It’s the only time I’ve lost it on TV. He’s got a way of getting it out of you. He’s got a lot of empathy, and he wasn’t doing it to be cynical. After the show you feel like he gave you a date-rape drug, like, Was that a nightmare, or did I really say that?”
New York: CNN is a ways from Fleet Street. How did the conversations go with CNN when you were being vetted?
P.M.: I think that I’m much more journalistically ethical than my critics in Britain would have people believe. There’s a lot of smoke and a lot of mudslinging.
New York: You’re a little like Omarosa, aren’t you?
New York: In being a cartoon villain?
P.M.: No, because Omarosa, as you know, is a pathetically untalented grotesque waste of space. So your attempt to bracket me in the category of the most pointless wannabe reality wastrel in the history of television I find quite offensive.[Morgan checks his BlackBerry.] It’s quite funny, Tony Blair just e-mailed me.
New York: Can I see it?
P.M.: No. I’m trying to get him to do my Life Stories show in Britain. He’s nibbling a bit. I think he might do it. We’re negotiating. He’s definitely interested.
On a Tuesday afternoon on the CBS Studios lot in Hollywood, Morgan is sitting on a banquette in his trailer, waiting for the semifinals of America’s Got Talent to begin. Morgan and his new wife, Celia Walden, split their time between New York and California, depending on his schedule, although at the moment she’s grounded in L.A., awaiting the birth of their first child. (And his fourth: He has three in England from a previous marriage.) Two months into the AGT season, contestants have been winnowed from 100,000 auditions to ten. At this point, there’s no one on the show who isn’t talented. Presumably, then, Morgan won’t be buzzing anyone tonight? “Oh, no,” he says, “I think I’ll buzz at least two.” Just based on the music they’ve chosen, he says, he can guess who they’ll be.
Beside him is his agent turned manager John Ferriter, a.k.a. the Ferret, in tribute to whom Morgan named his company Ferret Productions. When Ari Emanuel and his William Morris Endeavor colleagues pushed Ferriter out just months after he’d emerged from a blood-clot-related coma, Morgan told Ferriter that if this was his Jerry Maguire moment, he would be his Rod Tidwell. Morgan had mentioned that his dream was to have the top-rated interview show in the world, but it was the Ferret who first suggested that he could take over Larry King’s slot at CNN. “I would never have been that ambitious myself,” Morgan says, sipping a cup of tea.
In early 2010, Ferriter started peppering CNN/U.S.’s then-president Jon Klein with links to interviews Morgan had done on ITV1. Larry King was 76, his ratings were in a nosedive, and CNN had been softly considering possible successors. King had the rare ability to book and interview a high-low mix of global political figures and pop-culture celebrities, and only a handful of other people could do the same. But Katie Couric wouldn’t be available for another year. Matt Lauer was locked into Today.
At the time, Klein was more urgently preoccupied with figuring out what to do with his 8 p.m. slot, where Campbell Brown’s show was dying, and only while on vacation a couple of months later, during a two-hour car ride from Palm Springs to L.A., did he get around to watching Morgan on his iPad. Until then, he had been only vaguely aware of the Brit, and strictly as a reality-TV personality. Now, watching Morgan’s interviews, he saw acerbic Simon Cowell come to the brink of tears and dronelike Gordon Brown well up as he spoke of his daughter’s death. “In one fell swoop, Piers had gone from pop culture to the height of politics,” recalls Klein, who now runs the digital-media-strategy firm @Media. “He handled both interviews deftly, he was intelligent and provocative, and he taught me something I hadn’t known. I was very impressed.”
At 10 a.m. on April 23, Morgan and Ferriter met with Klein, then–HLN head Ken Jautz, and two other CNN executives in Klein’s office at the Time Warner Center. It was more of a meet-and-greet than an interview for a particular job. “Piers walked in and blew us through the back of my office,” Klein says. “He owned that room from the moment he walked in. It was the single best interview I’d ever had with any talent.” Fifteen minutes after the meeting ended, Ferriter was standing in front of the Carnegie Deli when Klein called. “Wow,” Klein said.
The ensuing negotiations were complicated. CNN was concerned with finding a respectful way to ease King out. King wanted Ryan Seacrest to succeed him, but as someone close to the process recalls, “Ryan has politicians on his radio show and does a good job, but it’s a matter of what the CNN viewer would buy. Did we believe he could sit down with Donald Rumsfeld and Lady Gaga? We concluded no.” Morgan had a lot of other obligations to juggle. And CNN was also determined to thoroughly screen the tabloid veteran to ensure he would live up to the network’s standards. Hacking wasn’t yet on the radar, but Morgan’s Fleet Street background, and in particular the circumstances of his firing by the Daily Mirror, were a concern. In the cable-news booking wars, how far would Morgan go to win an interview? CNN executives carefully read Morgan’s books and had several conversations with him. “It was, ‘Hey, you grew up in a tabloid world, do you understand this isn’t an anything-goes environment?’ And he definitely did,” Klein says, “We came away feeling that he understood that we weren’t winking at him.”