Authors: Emily Herbert
Circulation, the lifeblood of any newspaper, began to
rise and, with it, Piers Morgan’s star. His tenure at the
News Of The World
was to prove a controversial one but, as so often in his career, he managed to be right in the middle of the action – just as it was all going on.
iers Morgan was now in the chair of the
News Of The World,
Britain's biggest-selling daily. Right from the start, he had jumped in with both feet and showed he had what it takes. And he clearly wasn't willing to tolerate the old Fleet Street ways, in which lunch lasted the best part of the day; on his arrival, long-serving staff were somewhat dismayed to read a notice telling them to confine lunch to one hour from then on. âA few had been in the habit of having the traditional Fleet Street liquid lunch,' observed Piers, rather primly for him. âI've only been a journalist seven years, so all I know is the new-style journalism.' But his always excellent timing really couldn't be bettered at this juncture for, right in front of him, one of the biggest stories of the decade was unfolding.
Indeed, it was a story that was to cover more than one decade, for it concerned the Prince and Princess of Wales. The pair had married in 1981, amid much talk about the âstuff of which fairytales are made', and promptly went
about disproving anything of the sort. After producing Princes William (1982) and Harry (1984), the royal marriage had fallen apart and, in December 1992, it was announced that the couple were to separate. Princess Diana drove newspaper sales as no one had ever done before and, in the wake of the royal separation, fascination in her only grew, much to the advantage of the press, who charted every twist and turn in her life story. Of course, at that time, no one knew the story was to end in tragedy but there was a huge appetite, among both journalists and readers, for anything at all to do with Diana.
It was in August 1994 that Piers'
News Of The World
broke a story that not only dominated the news agenda but also began to hint for the first time at quite the extent of Diana's collaboration with the press. When Andrew Morton's book
Diana: Her True Story
was published in June 1992, it had caused uproar but it was not until Diana's death that it was revealed she had been closely involved with it all. Now, for the first time ever, she was caught out briefing a journalist â and all because of Piers.
The story that precipitated the huge row ran in the
News Of The World.
It alleged that art dealer Oliver Hoare had been subject to 300 nuisance phone calls, some picked up by his wife, who then involved the police. The police discovered the calls originated from Kensington Palace and, more specifically, Diana herself, at which point a senior unnamed politician stepped in to persuade them to drop the case to avoid further embarrassment.
It was no sooner published than several interested parties swung into motion. First, inevitably, there were concerns that it was Prince Charles' camp deliberately planting stories to make his wife look bad, a view that would appear to have been supported by Diana herself. A huge story appeared in the next day's
â under the headline
WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS
? â in which friends of the Princess claimed there were people out there who were trying to make her appear unstable. âI feel I am being destroyed,' she told journalist Richard Kay. âThere is absolutely no truth in it.'
However, on the same day, the
News Of The World'
s stable-mate) carried the headline
QUEEN'S FURY AT PLOTTING DIANA
, with a picture showing the Princess getting into a car with Richard Kay. His by-line had been on many stories involving Diana, always with a sympathetic angle and almost invariably quoting âFriends of the Princess'. Finally, this picture proved what many had long suspected, namely the so-called âfriends' were none other than the Princess herself. In this particular instance, she had been briefing Kay about the angle to take to rebut the claims, on top of which Kay himself had rung Piers on the Saturday before the story was due to break to make the Princess's case. Diana subsequently went on to claim that she had made her own investigations and discovered a little boy (unnamed) who lived in Kensington Palace was the real culprit, but it was pretty obvious to everyone else what had really gone on.
Scarcely a day went by without a new âDiana' story at
this point, but this particular piece really stood out, as it involved a politician stepping in. It was hinted to be either Nicholas Soames (unlikely, since he is a close friend of Prince Charles) or William Waldegrave (who had links to the royals), but the identity of the man in question was never made clear. Then there was the minor matter of how such an extremely detailed story made its way into the public domain with widespread suspicion that it had been leaked by the police, although Piers would not be drawn. âSuffice it to say, this is a story which has been fairly common knowledge in the police for some time,' was all he would admit. The affair itself had also been widely suspected by Fleet Street, but this was the first time there was some real proof.
It crowned Piers as the king of scandal â life and blood to a newspaper like the
News Of The World
â and was the culmination of a stunning successful six months in the editor's chair. This was the biggest story he'd run to date, but it was by no means the only one: since taking on the editor's mantle, he'd revealed Tory MP Hartley Booth's relationship with former researcher Emily Barr, leading to Booth's resignation from a junior government post. He then published a similar piece about Labour MP Dennis Skinner (
THE BEAST OF LEGOVER
), and also revealed the affair between Lady Bienvenida Buck, then married to another Tory MP, Anthony Buck, and the Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Peter Harding â who was also forced to resign â but topped that with a story about the Tory MP Alan Clark's affairs with a mother, Valerie Harkess,
and her two daughters, Josephine and Alison, whom he'd nicknamed âThe Coven'. The injured husband and father, James, posed with a horsewhip and admitted he would like to use it on the great man himself.
This was an impressive tally by any standards but it was the royal stories where Piers really came into his own: his first âDiana' story was that her psychiatric records had been stolen; this was followed up by the Hoare piece, which in turn led to a story from one James Hewitt, to the effect that he'd been the recipient of silent phone calls, too. Then came material about Diana's affair with Hewitt, still not widely known about at the time.
All of this mattered, not just for the entertainment of the nation but because Piers was still so very young. There had been plenty of grumbling about a lack of experience when he'd first got the job and yet, from the moment he took up the post, he'd been all but setting the news agenda. Meanwhile, he was careful to praise his reporters. âThey are the ones who bring in the stories,' he told
âThis isn't false modesty; the only credit I would take is having the balls to run the stories.'
Royal stories, especially those involving Diana, could be tricky to handle, too. Despite the public's voracious appetite for anything involving âShy Di' (who came close to bringing the Monarchy down), they adored her and, while they would read scandalous stories about her, there was a line over which no paper nor editor should step. Alleging nuisance calls while maintaining a sympathetic aura wasn't that easy, and there was a big risk in becoming the first
paper to reveal Diana's own extra-marital affairs but the
News Of The World
somehow managed to pull it off.
âOn the Hewitt-Diana story, I held a council of war with my three top executives,' recalled Piers. âI often do this because I'm only twenty-nine years old and I'm aware I have experienced journalists around, but I do have to make the final decision.'
Then there was the issue of the Monarchy itself. At the time, the Republican movement in Britain was not a strong one but sometimes newspapers running anti-Windsor stories, especially those owned by the
Republican Rupert Murdoch, were accused of base motives. Piers, however, was having none of it.
âI totally believe in the Monarchy as an institution,' he declared, âbut I don't agree with royals behaving like the rest of us. If we're going to give them palaces to live in, then they should behave in a regal manner. Princess Diana's come out of it wellâ¦ she's loved more than she ever was.
âMy ultimate defence of stories is that they are 100 per cent true. I don't make moral judgements. Sometimes my mother rings up and tells me to leave Diana alone. My grandmother will say, “That's a revolting load of rubbish you printed this morning,” but, when I press her further, she will admit she found it entertaining.'
And so did everyone else.
Piers didn't usually bring his age into anything and he sounded far more himself when defending the publication of the Bienvenida Buck/Sir Peter Harding story, described
by some people as a âsad' case. Sir Peter had been forced to resign from his post and his estranged wife had been pictured looking distraught.
âI don't think he's a sad case at all!' insisted Piers. âI'd do the same thing again tomorrow. He was the Chief of the Defence Staff, behaving in a way that was quite appallingly stupid for a man in his position and also compromising the job he was doing. All army officers had only recently been sent a memo saying that adultery would result in dismissal, yet, while the Gulf War was raging, he was wining and dining his mistress. It was hypocritical. I'm no great moraliser but I think it's wrong for people in positions of power to commit adultery if, by so doing, they leave themselves or their jobs exposed. And it's wrong if they're preaching one thing and doing another.
âI'm not dictating to ordinary people but say a married woman sleeps with the village policeman, her husband finds out, there's a fight and someone tells the
News Of The World
then we'll run it. Is that wrong? Well, 4.9 million people thoroughly enjoyed the
News Of The World
In fact, it was probably roughly three times that figure: Piers was quoting circulation figures, not readership levels.
Interestingly, even at this early stage, the fact that he had a brother in the Army gave him some degree of moral authority and, on top of that, he also had a brother-in-law then serving in Bosnia. âThey'd let me know if I'd done the wrong thing,' he insisted â but where, he was asked, would he draw the line?
It turned out that Piers had a humane side after all. He related the story of a BT operator who had chatted up a caller, found out his address and started to stalk him. However, once the
News Of The World
confronted her, she broke down and admitted that she'd just been released from a psychiatric hospital and if they published the story she'd commit suicide. And so they didn't go ahead.
âMorally, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if she had killed herself,' said Piers.
However, he did run a story in which it emerged that the Bishop of Durham had committed an indecent act in a lavatory, twenty-six years previously. âI thought very long and hard about it,' said Piers. âI wasn't happy with the story until we established he had been guilty of hypocrisy. It was obvious the conviction was spent. So we had to ask: should we be pillorying a man for something that had happened so long ago? My immediate answer was that he wasn't a young boy who committed a silly offence. At the time, he was a thirty-one-year-old man, married for five years, doing something quite extraordinary, especially for someone in the Church. What sealed it for me was the fact that he had said quite categorically there was no place in the ministry for gay clergymen.
âOK, twenty-six years is a long time but if he had admitted the offence at his appointment â though I concede it would have been laughable to do so â then I expect people would have said, OK, because it's no longer scandalous to be gay. Instead, he spoke out against gays. Our fourth most senior clergyman was guilty of rank hypocrisy.'
Piers was on a roll â already he had made a splash as editor of âBizarre' and now, as editor of the
News Of The World,
he was becoming a name and this thoroughly amused him. And his old school â Chailey â had just been in touch. âThe headmistress has just written to me asking me to open their new science building,' he told
âEvidently I'm their most famous old boy. I'll be delighted to do it.'
Another aspect to the job that he hadn't had to address before was politics. As editor of âBizarre', Piers had mainly concerned himself with pop stars, but now the country's leaders were getting a look in, too. And so he began to contend with one of the more curious leaps in the difference between his personal beliefs and professional stance, one that would stay with him for years to come: Piers was basically a Tory, who supported Labour and, at that stage, the Conservative Party still ran Britain. Indeed, Tony Blair had only recently been elected Leader of the Labour Party. âThere's no company line and I have an open mind,' said Piers. âI think Blair is an impressive character. I met him briefly at the Labour Conference and he was a very friendly, likeable chap. [But] yes, I do vote Tory. I'm from true-blue Sussex, I am conservatively oriented and it is my family's way. We had Michael Howard [the then Home Secretary] in recently. We got one of our canteen girls dressed as a jailbird to serve him food â he loved it.'
Murdoch's gamble was paying off and, to celebrate (or at least mark the occasion), Piers gave an interview to the
He was, to put it mildly, robust in defence of the stories he'd recently been running, for barely a week had gone by without another scandal in the
News Of The World
setting the pace.
âIf they are Tory MPs, and have been elected by preaching family values and use their wife and children in publicity photographs, they deserve to be exposed if they commit adultery,' he declared. âIf, say, David Mellor [the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who was forced to resign after a series of scandals], when he stood for election, had said vote for me and, oh, by the way, I'll frequently be unfaithful to my wife during the time I'm your MP, and they still voted for him, then good luck to him. I'm not personally laying down rules â I'm just saying that the public servants paid for by us have got to be accountable. It's not just politicians. Of course I sympathise with people like Mrs Mellor and her children, but innocent people always suffer when there's any sort of scandal. The
might expose some crooked City con man, but no one criticises them, though there will be innocent people who suffer.'