Hacking row wipes smile off Piers Morgan’s face
Charles Laurence in New York on the ‘cheeky chappie’ former tabloid editor now walking on very hot coals
America quite likes Piers Morgan, or at least its chattering classes do. His job at CNN is to play the cheeky chappie, the sort of fellow a Hollywood casting director would look for to play the English foil to a couple of earnest American saviours of the constitution. Good taste in suits, poor taste in jokes, unthreatening features, streak of villainy: that sort of thing.
Morgan is usually described in print as "the colourful former British tabloid editor", which sums up both the role and the performance.
His CNN show, Piers Morgan Tonight, is nothing more than a celebrity gab-fest, and need not be either serious or taken seriously. Last night, just as it was beginning to look like Morgan's cheerful luck might be running out over the little matter of phone hacking, his guest was the comedienne Kathy Griffin. Who? Quite.
Now Morgan is suddenly walking on very hot coals.
The scandal over British tabloids breaking laws and the bounds of decency in hacking mobile phone messages gained traction in America because the central figure, the target, is Rupert Murdoch, and whether Murdoch falls is very much of interest to the American media.
It was a New York Times investigation that breathed new life into the story last September. Why would the pompous old New York Times be investigating British tabloid scandals? Because Murdoch, new owner of the Wall Street Journal, had boasted in public of how he would take down the rival Times. The Old Gray Lady amazed us all by fighting back, and fighting dirty.
Morgan has been lucky because so far the Americans have been looking for the hacking of 9/11 victims, or the hacking of Jude Law's phone in New York, both of which could lead to Murdoch prosecutions, disgrace, and, in the dreams of rivals, disbarment from holding broadcast licences.
But the tiff with Heather Mills makes Morgan the story.
His biggest problem is not even Mills. It is Sir Paul McCartney. It was the story of Morgan listening to a private tape of a beloved Beatle in grief over a tiff with Mills that put yesterday's story on every news list. It got noticed.
And Morgan told the story himself, in the Daily Mail, in 2006. He wrote about how "heartbreaking" it was to hear the Beatle suffering so.
It has been part of the cheeky chappie's raffish charm to tell such risqué stories of tabloid derring-do ever since he moved on from editing the News of the World and the Daily Mirror to the lucrative world of talent contests and chat shows. The cuttings libraries appear to be full of references to hacked phones and dodgy relationships with cops, all told in the good-humoured vein of the classic tabloid satires Scoop! and The Front Page.
It makes denial harder.
'Piers Morgan is a Lying Liar' trumpeted Gawker, the political and media gossip website which is leading the turn against Morgan.
Gawker's writer then described his e-mail exchange with Meghan McPartland, a representative from CNN: "When I indicated to her via e-mail that Morgan had 'written in the past about listening into [Mills'] voicemail', McPartland replied: 'No, he never wrote about listening to anyone's voicemail. He said he was played a tape.' So be prepared for some epic parsing."
It might be a little late for parsing. Morgan will be listening to the backbeat of the story, which is the question of how long CNN can put up with a host wanted for questioning by Parliament and, potentially, by police back in his native land? Patience is reported to be wearing thin and the situation won't be helped by Paul McCartney announcing overnight that he intends to go to the police when he returns to England from his current US tour.
Worse for Morgan, however, are the stories that CNN is seeing opportunity in adversity. His ratings are up on Larry King, from whom he took over, but they are still disappointing at around a million, and he is consistently beaten by the lefty news commentator Rachel Maddow in the opposing slot on arch-rival MSNBC.
"The focus groups are equivocal about Morgan," a media source is quoted as saying. "Piers Morgan is not widely seen as a success in CNN. In some parts of the building, he's seen as an accident waiting to happen."
That moment may have come.
The solution? Fire Morgan on the grounds of low ratings - or, as one blogger suggests, send him off to a far away land to direct a lengthy documentary - and announce a bid to hire Maddow.
Anyone looking for an experienced talent show judge with charm and a hint of roguishness? ·
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