For the past four years the investigative website Press Gang has been dissecting the career of Piers Morgan. The result is a long series of articles entitled “A Pretty Despicable Man” (after a comment made by Morgan himself.)
Morgan has always denied involvement in phone hacking and the other “dark arts” of illegal news-gathering including bribing police officers and blagging confidential information out of financial institutions.
The crowd-funding site Byline.com has launched a fund-raising campaign to raise £5,000 towards the costs of researching and publishing an unauthorised biography of Morgan. It’s already reached near a quarter of its target.
In this article, specially written for INFORRM, Press Gang editor Paddy French explains why the book is designed to be an important contribution to the phone hacking saga.
FOR MORE than three decades I’ve been an investigative reporter specialising in corruption, at local political and national levels.
There’s one important law that governs corrupt practices: they always get worse. A simple example should demonstrate this.
Say you’re a police officer and you ‘take a drink’ — a bribe to you and me — to pass a juicy tidbit to a reporter. Now that initial drink will have cost very little — perhaps just a couple of drinks in the pub. However, the paper will have gained a tasty, exclusive morsel.
That will make the copper think — hang on a minute, they’re getting a better deal than me: after all, it’s me that’s taking the risk. Next time around, it won’t be a drink — it’ll be cash in a brown envelope.
The paper, anxious to keep up the flow of exclusives, will shell out. And so it spirals. That’s what happened to Britain’s tabloid press in the 1990s and 2000s.
IN THE 1990s a new form of corruption took hold of the tabloid media. It started with the Murdoch tabloids — and for a very simple reason.
Murdoch encouraged bright young hacks — ethically-light, ill-educated, thuggish — to become his editors. He provided them with the cash to out-compete their rivals.
It was in these years that the so-called “dark arts” of illegal news-gathering came into their own.
They included phone hacking, blagging confidential information from financial institutions and bribing police officers for access to sensitive information including criminal records.
Piers Morgan was one of the new breed of foot-soldiers pioneering the system.
When he appeared before the culture media and sport select committee in 2003, Morgan — by now Daily Mirror editor — praised the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to the skies.
His only fault with the watchdog — it wasn’t doing enough to tell the public what a fine job it was doing! It was all bombastic nonsense — eight years later the phone hacking scandal instantly destroyed the PCC.
Morgan even had the nerve to claim that the press, in 2003, had never been cleaner.
“I have worked in Fleet Street for fifteen years for 15 years, I have never known standards to be higher than they are today When I came into Fleet Street the atmosphere was pretty lawless, I would say, pretty lawless. As a young journalist on the Sun, for example, I was not really instructed how to behave, what to do. I could really act with impunity.”
All utter tosh, of course, as we now know.
Morgan’s Mirror was hacking, blagging, lying and cheating it’s way to exclusives — just like the Sun and the News of the World.
One of its targets had been culture, media and sport committee member Adrian Flook, Tory MP for Taunton.
When he’d been a prospective candidate, an unlawful criminal record check had been made on him by private eye Steve Whittamore.
Whittamore’s notes list the name of the reporter who apparently ordered the search — Tom Newton Dunn. Today he’s the political editor of the Sun.
THE FULL story of the “dark arts” scandal will probably never really emerge.
But what’s slowly emerging is that Piers Morgan probably marks a sea change between the regimes of previous editors like Larry Lamb and Kelvin MacKenzie.
The latter were cynical opportunists but Morgan — and his protégés Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson — moved the ball game to a more organised, more systemic level.
This is part of the tale I want to tell in “A Pretty Despicable Man”. Even though he left the Murdoch empire in 1995 to edit the Mirror, Morgan never really left Rupert’s fold.
He has, for example, never had a bad word to say about Rupert Murdoch vIn 2011 he was saying:
“I’m an admirer of the Murdochs — Rupert Murdoch gave me my first break i journalism. I’m certainly not going to join the queue to lambast him personally for this [the Milly Dowler affair].”
IN FACT, the truth is not that the Daily Mirror enticed Piers Morgan away from the Murdoch camp.
It’s probably more accurate to say that his appointment was the moment the Murdoch ethos finally conquered the Mirror.
My biography of Morgan will show that Morgan was the climax of a slow acceptance by leading Mirror executives that there was no way to compete with Murdoch except to use the same methods. Including all the illegal “dark arts”.
The chief executive of the Mirror at the time Piers Morgan was appointed, in 1995, was David Montgomery — a journalist with an icy reputation in Fleet Street but, more importantly, an ex-editor of Murdoch’s News of the World.
The Mirror executive who actually persuaded Morgan to jump ship was Kelvin Mackenzie, Morgan’s former editor at the Sun, who had already moved to the Mirror.
One of the tragic consequences of Murdoch’s spiritual take-over of the Mirror is that, to this day, the paper plods wearily in the same Murdoch trough — denying everything until there was no choice but also insisting on a weak regulator.
“A Pretty Despicable Man” will show it is very likely that Mirror management were completely aware of the “dark arts” right from the beginning — and early on made a decision to protect Piers Morgan whatever the cost.
The cost is only now becoming clear.
There are two elements to it: the financial threat to the existence of the Mirror itself.
The second is the paper’s disastrous decision to support IPSO rather than a Leveson-compliant regulator.
The financial costs have started to become clear as a result of Mr Justice Mann’s judgment in Gulati v MGN.
The paper has been playing hardball with victims in terms of the amount of compensation offered but Mr Justice Mann delivered a devastating verdict — awarding massive damages.
If this judgment is upheld on appeal, then the cost to a paper losing money and losing sales will be great.
The tragedy here is that a more measured and reasonable approach could have seen the Mirror — and sister papers The People and the Sunday Mirror — pay much smaller amounts.
That would be a tragedy for today’s Mirror is an excellent, honourable paper.
The paper’s decision to back IPSO rather than a tougher regulator is another legacy of the defend-Piers-Morgan-at-all-costs regime. This is wrong, both in principle but also for Mirror journalists.
A tougher regulator, enforcing better standards, protects Mirror journalists from the kind of ruthless, unethical behaviour that IPSO will inevitably permit.
These are some of the reasons why a critical, investigative biography of Piers Morgan is needed.
It’s not just a portrait of a key Murdoch lieutenant but also the story of a period when the tabloid media essentially captured large parts of the British establishment.
If you want to support the crowdfunding effort, here’s the link: http://www.byline.com/project/11
FOR A more detailed account of Piers Morgan’s career, see the four Press Gang articles already published: