While it might seem an unlikely move for Piers Morgan to be primed to take over one of the most famous host spots in U.S. television, even in his early career as a tabloid editor, there’s long been something of a showman about him.
But the question remains if he has what it takes to give a boost to the beleaguered CNN and make a name for himself as a major American talk show host. While some may have their doubts, others like Andrew Neil—a BBC News anchor and chairman and editor in chief of Press Holdings Media Group, publisher of The Spectator—are frank in their approval of Morgan’s next job: “Keeping Larry King years after he had ceased to be able to do a proper interview made no sense at all. Piers has done countless celebrity interviews and can do harder stories too. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and he doesn’t think that he’s the story. He’s a breath of fresh air.” Neil describes the likely appointment as “the most sensible decision CNN has made for years.”
View a clip of Morgan’s interview with Gordon Brown
And Neil may be right. CNN is surely hoping for more interviews like the one Morgan had with Gordon Brown earlier this year. He persuaded the then-beleaguered prime minister to appear on his sparse set and got him to discuss the tragic death of his first child, Jennifer. Even if it didn’t change the election, it was the TV moment of the year and a powerful performance for the usually dour politician.
While nothing is official yet, a source close to the deal says that it’s only a matter of days after months of negotiations before everything is finalized. The appeal of Morgan, says a source, is that the former editor is not going to be a new Larry King, but will instead want to create a show that brings U.S. audiences the forensic, thoroughly researched approach of his interview show in the U.K., which features a markedly sparse set and often family members in the audience (most notably when Sarah Brown was seen crying during the Gordon interview). This will be a marked contrast to King, who famously skimps on preparation for his encounters. Michael Hirschorn, owner of Ish entertainment and contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, agrees: “Piers Morgan can interview people, and the thing that he also does have is access, in terms of able to ring people up and get them on.”
Hirschorn adds that the Larry King show “is more of a cultural force that people talk about, rather than a show that lots of people actually watch, so there's a chance that someone new, if they do a good job, could relatively easily, say, double the ratings.” He thinks that Morgan would be a “competitive choice." But what is far from clear is if CNN's “structural” problems “in occupying such a narrow piece of territory” are going to be solved by “one person.”
What exactly can American viewers expect with Piers Morgan? The ever youthful personality has had a remarkable career. Starting off as a young hack covering riots in London, he was soon on his way editing The Sun’s showbiz column, Bizarre, (arguably the godfather of merciless salacious showbiz gossip in the modern style), and then on to, at the tender age of 28, running the News of the World—the closest thing Britain has to The New York Post and affectionately termed the “News of the Screws” for its weekly serving of sex scandal. The move made him the youngest editor on London's Fleet Street of newspaper headquarters in 50 years. He moved to The Daily Mirror in 1995, and, perhaps, this unforgivably swift ascent, in part, explains, even now, his ability to irritate the dustier elements of the British media-ocracy. As editor of the Mirror for almost a decade he was known for having a hotline to Kensington Palace, and, after Tony Blair came into office, Downing Street. When Morgan’s memoirs were published, readers were astonished at the level of intimacy between Morgan, Blair, and Gordon Brown. More recently he has forged a close friendship with Sarah Brown. And, no doubt, these connections are part of his appeal to CNN.
For all this, there were some bumpy moments, too. Showmanship sometimes backfired disastrously. He had to apologize for the headline " Achtung! Surrender" a day before England met Germany in a semi-final of the 1996 Euro Cup championships. Elaborate stunts have always been a crucial part of Morgan’s style. He reportedly once got Stevie Wonder to record a proposal for his girlfriend, and then there’s an apocryphal story of a disagreement between Matthew Freud (Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law) and Morgan. In response to a tirade about displeasing coverage of a client, Morgan is said to have pulled every reference to any of Freud’s clients from the next day’s paper only to find there was nothing left to write about. Realizing how useful they are to each other, the duo have subsequently kissed and made up, even going into partnership, owning the industry rag Press Gazette.
More seriously, there was the infamous Daily Mirror front page story in 2004 that had pictures of purported abuse of Iraq captives by British soldiers. The story turned out to be true, but the pictures were false, a terrible hoax, and in the resulting furor Morgan lost his editorship. But Morgan quickly bounced back with a bestselling series of memoirs, memorable performances on The Apprentice, and then through the intervention of Simon Cowell, a judging gig on Britain’s Got Talent and then America’s Got Talent. The combination of sarcasm, teasing, bullishness and a way with words that had made him a popular editor, turned out to be winning on camera, too.
Morgan may be a product of British journalism but Andrew Neil maintains that he appeals as a “modern kind of Brit. A lot of Americans still think of Brits as the kind of people who made walk on appearances in Brief Encounter. He’s a breath of fresh air because he isn’t that: he’s a poster boy for modern Britain, classless, with a classless accent and modern in his attitudes. He’s also blunter than Americans and with a better sense of humor.” Think of him as the Tony Blair of the airwaves after Larry King.
In Britain, it has to be said, Morgan’s success and personality still divides people. To his friends, he is self-deprecating, extremely funny, and hasn’t changed remotely over a decade in which his career has defied the usual limits of journalism. To his detractors, he is a bit too brash for British tastes. He might be a thoroughly home grown Fleet Street talent, but perhaps it was inevitable that his greatest hiring of all would be in the U.S.
On a more personal note, my first ever internship, at age 16, on a newspaper was at the Daily Mirror in the summer of 1997. Back then, excruciatingly, I insisted on interviewing him for the school magazine and he gamely let me attempt to put him through his paces, justifying the Mirror’s regular intrusion into the lives of celebrities. His rule, as I remember, seemed to be that anyone who courts publicity is fair game, anyone who doesn’t is not. Pointedly, despite now having the same levels of fame as his then tabloid quarry, when earlier this month he married his long-time girlfriend, journalist Celia Walden, there was no Hello magazine deal. Even the Mirror, which ran the story on its front page, wasn't allowed access and was reduced, ironically, to running a long-distance gray shot of the tiny country wedding. Somehow, I imagine, all of that will become a little more difficult in his new position.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.