The sacking of Piers Morgan as editor of the Daily Mirror has been greeted with ululation from media commentators, former and existing editors and several newspapers. Piers, we are told by no less an authority than the legendary Harry Evans, was a great tabloid editor. My esteemed colleague Professor Roy Greenslade can barely be consoled. Mr Morgan’s defenders concede that the pictures he published which showed British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners may have been fakes, but it is claimed that they illustrate a wider truth. The only discordant voice I have heard amid the general wailing and gnashing of teeth is that of Martin Kettle in the Guardian.
What does this reaction tell us about the media class? Mr Morgan may have been a charming and lovable rogue but he was not, by any traditional yardstick, a great editor. No one has pointed out that during his nine-year stint at the Daily Mirror the paper mislaid a quarter of its circulation. In the six months before he became editor the paper’s average daily sale was 2,553,523; in the six months to April 2004 that figure had declined to 1,902,841. Is this the stuff of greatness? It is perfectly true that the Mirror has been sliding downhill for at least a quarter of a century. Its great rival the Sun has also lost sales over the past nine years, though to nothing like the same extent. Mr Morgan, however, has left his own mark.
If the managing director of a high street conglomerate lost 25 per cent of sales over nine years, he would be hounded by the newspapers, not least the Daily Mirror. But Mr Morgan’s performance is not even mentioned. Is it because the Mirror, though a commercial failure, is nonetheless editorially brilliant? It would be very difficult to argue so. Two years ago Mr Morgan relaunched the paper as a more upmarket title with a marketing budget reported to be £20 million. A bevy of classy writers were hired, and the famous Cassandra column was re-invented. The name of Hugh Cudlipp, the editorial genius who had presided over the paper in its 1950s heyday, was invoked by Mr Morgan. All these changes were greeted with rapture by Mr Morgan’s admirers. In the event the circulation decline of the Mirror accelerated, and Mr Morgan was forced to abandon his expensive and highfalutin ambitions.
These failures seem barely to register with Mr Morgan’s indulgent and amnesic fan club. It was also forgiving when in 2000 he was accused of insider dealing. On 18 January of that year, the City Slickers column in the Mirror tipped a company called Viglen Technology, which immediately doubled in value. Mr Morgan had bought shares in the company worth £20,000 the previous day, and so made a considerable gain. He maintained that when he made the purchase he had no idea that his newspaper’s column was just about to tip Viglen and send its stock soaring. This explanation was accepted by the Press Complaints Commission, which conducted an investigation, though it censured him strongly for his share dealings. If Mr Morgan was not guilty of corruption, he had not exactly burnished the reputation of the fourth estate.
But all this has been forgiven and forgotten, as Mr Morgan’s editorial record has been turned by some into a triumph. How can this be? One of my theories about modern journalism is that editors and columnists are judged by their peers not so much on the basis of what they do or write as on their ability to charm and entertain. Mr Morgan is undoubtedly an exceptionally charming fellow, and he has cultivated other editors, particularly of broadsheets, as well as other leading figures in the media. In last Friday’s Guardian, Roger Alton, editor of the Observer, opined that ‘Piers is one of the good guys.’ I imagine that Roger and Piers may have spent the occasional long evening carousing together at the Groucho club, or wherever it may be. Piers does indeed appear to be ‘a good sort’, and by all accounts he is great fun as a companion. I have only met him once briefly at a party, and I certainly felt the force of his charm.
This alone cannot explain the eagerness of so many figures in the media to forgive Mr Morgan for publishing the bogus torture photographs, and even to defend him. Of course he did not know they were fakes. He persuaded himself that they were authentic, and failed to make the proper checks. As a result he has put the lives of British soldiers in Iraq at risk, since people there will have assumed, and probably still do, that these shocking pictures are genuine. This seems to me a very grave error on Mr Morgan’s part, for which his sacking is a pretty small recompense. His indulgent critics are without exception opposed to the war — as I am — but they have allowed their feelings to undermine their respect for truth. The argument that these pictures are in some way illustrative of what may have happened — which some of them have made, as has Mr Morgan himself — is intellectually disreputable. They were fakes. This failure to stand up in defence of objective fact on the part of some eminent commentators and former and existing editors is highly alarming.
Mr Morgan would not have been so leniently reviewed had he been a right-wing editor. The Left is always kinder to its own. Piers is not in any sense a socialist, but he has sailed under those colours, and his mistakes have been smiled upon. He promised a Cudlippian Daily Mirror, serious and Labour in its heart, and though he failed wholly to deliver it, the proclaimed intention was enough to win him plaudits. The Left is also largely anti-war (as are some on the Right), and so an egregious error in the anti-war cause has been forgiven, and even defended by some misguided souls.
Piers was not a great editor, but that did not matter. I suppose you could say that he was the first post-modern editor. He lost a lot of circulation. He brought a certain amount of shame, or at any rate of embarrassment, to his trade. He loved stunts and publicity, and did not really know about, or care enough about, his readers. He charmed and he joshed and he got involved in fights in which blood was never shed. He was the first editor to be much more successful than the paper which he edited. During his tenure the Daily Mirror brand weakened, but the Piers Morgan brand has gone from strength to strength. The tragedy is that his admirers cannot tell the difference.
So anxious are senior executives at the Telegraph Group for Axel Springer to emerge as the new owner that some of them are said to be taking German lessons. One has discovered a forgotten German relative. I was particularly pleased to see an article in last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph by Professor Ernst Cramer, who was billed as ‘chairman of the Axel Springer Foundation’. Everything possible is being done to make the Germans feel at home.