We’re eight minutes in when I tell Piers Morgan that he is the person non-journalists most often ask me about. He doesn’t even blink. “What do you say?”
“I say, ‘Well, it’s very complicated,’” and for the next six minutes he tells me why I am wrong to say that.
It is not the last time I am in need of urgent correction during this Lunch. Impressively, I am frequently wrong about things about which I didn’t think I had an opinion. Piers Morgan could start an argument in an empty room.
He begins by asking why I delete my tweets. I say: “There’s always some guy who says something I can’t bear . . . ” “No, you lose your bottle,” he corrects.
“When did you start not caring about the replies?” I ask, and he gives a long answer about his upbringing in a family of thick skins. Which segues into his big issue with Life Today, which is that young people have no perspective, takes in Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson and Morgan’s grandmother and, in many ways, continues for two and half hours.
His life story is well-trodden. Born in Surrey, he went to a private prep school and has a double-barrelled surname courtesy of his stepfather (Pughe-Morgan) but switched to a state school for secondary — his family weren’t wealthy. He started in national journalism young, as the showboating editor of the Sun’s showbiz column, often featuring with his arm around the stars.
We first met when I was a media reporter and he was in his thirties, between his first and second National Disgraces. He’d been made editor of the News of the World at an insanely precocious 28 but had brought shame on his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, by publishing pictures of Victoria Lockwood, then wife of Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother, inside an eating disorder clinic. Murdoch, fearing privacy legislation, issued a rebuke and a year later, in 1995, Morgan left the News of the World to be editor of the Daily Mirror. He was an intuitive, bumptious and charismatic tabloid editor, straight out of the school of the Sun’s Kelvin MacKenzie, and able to channel all the best of his mentor’s joie de vivre without quite so much of the bile.
“Kelvin told me two things: ‘Never edit on a hangover and, if you’re in the shit, get out of it at a million miles an hour.’ When you’re in a hole, stop digging. And I look back at my editing career . . . I felt that a few times. Sometimes throwing your hands up and going ‘we fucked up’ is a better way to deal with it.”
The one time I think he was genuinely scared and out of his depth was his second National Disgrace — the share-trading scandal in which the Daily Mirror’s City Slickers columnists bought shares, tipped them in the paper and then sold them shortly afterwards. Morgan — who had invested a significant but not life-changing amount of money in Viglen shares the day before they were boosted in his paper — was investigated for insider trading. He apologised for breaches of the editors’ code but denied personal wrongdoing and was promoted to effective editor-in-chief of the Sunday paper as well.
The Mirror team was boisterous, amoral and successful. Richard Wallace, Morgan’s protégé and successor as editor, has just joined him at Murdoch’s four-month-old, and often zero-rating, news and opinion network TalkTV to lift the programming into something people might want to watch. Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News UK — whom you may remember from a different Rupert Murdoch public apology — worked for Morgan at the News of the World, and later succeeded him there. She is the mastermind of the TV channel. They stay close whichever side they work for.
I mention that I’ve always marvelled at his (and Brooks’s) ability to be on good terms with whomever is in power, regardless of their political affiliation. I’ve barely got the words “Vicar of Bray” out before I’m wrong again for another six minutes.
“Wait, I thought this was a compliment!” I protest. It does not stem the tide. This pattern will continue.
Thankfully, a member of Cambio de Tercio’s staff, who knows Morgan well, enters our private room and agrees to bring us all the usual food. I wonder, optimistically, if now he’s got a few rants out of his system, he might dial it down a bit. The restaurant is known for being in Kensington and for being expensive and has proved to have longevity with sports stars, minor celebs and politicians — rather like Morgan himself.
Will you have a drink, I ask? Our negotiations over arranging this Lunch have mainly focused on which hours of the week he can safely drink without having to broadcast afterwards. But our plans were shattered by his having to fly off secretly to interview Zelenskyy, a coup with which he finished the first series of his TalkTV show, before going to the US for a break in which he will film a documentary series where he interviews serial killers (“It’s how I like to relax”).
Rumours in the TV industry are that Morgan is paid £60mn by various Murdoch enterprises globally for a book, a column, his documentary series and a five-nights-a-week TV show broadcast in Australia, the UK and the US, where it airs on Fox News’s less favoured on-demand service, Fox Nation. Some critics have noted it feels too global to score anywhere. I have watched two whole episodes and a number of clips from social media, which Morgan frequently pronounces is the best way to gauge the success of this venture because hits and views are the numbers that matter.
I’ve seen several very good Zelenskyy clips, I begin to add . . . but he is furious that I haven’t watched his shows.
“What are the ratings?” he bellows. As I start to answer, he shouts, “We beat Sky News!” It is confusing, this mix of metrics, platforms, global reach and occasional hyperlocal 15-minute segment wins.
“Most people end up watching my show on the phone. You know, I’m on TikTok and Snapchat and all this kind of stuff now with clips. But, ultimately, it’s about content. I mean, our YouTube subscriptions are now 120,000 in three, nearly four months.”
When not defending his personal ratings — which rest somewhat above the rest of TalkTV but remain in the tens of thousands — he delivers a tight assessment of the merits of social media. “Twitter is for winding people up . . . it’s just a highly opinionated cesspit half the time. The trick is to use it to help yourself, right? I describe my overall thing as being in the opinion business. So Twitter is very good for that. Because you can fire up debates, you can see what pops or doesn’t pop, what might make a column because you get a sudden huge reaction. It’s all quite scientific.”
We concur, which brings that topic to an end, so I ask why he picked this old-school South Kensington Spanish restaurant. “I got brought here first of all by [former cricketer] Ian Botham. We got monumentally drunk. I thought this is great and I kept coming back. And then you get Wimbledon and people like Nadal come down. All the footballers come. And it’s because the food’s fantastic. The wine’s great. The owner’s a fantastic guy. He owns the one opposite, which is Rishi Sunak’s favourite restaurant.”
Cambio de Tercio
163 Old Brompton Rd, London SW5 0LJ
Iberian ham £29.75
Pan de Cristal £8.25
Baby anchovy salad £13.75
Roasted tomatoes x2 £8.84
Ham croquettes x2 £3.80
Ngiri x2 £6.60
Prawns x2 £6.60
Chicken croquettes x2 £3.80
Galician ribeye steak £37.25
Sons de Prades (glass) x2 £27
Still water £3.95
Filter coffee £3.50
Double espresso £4
Total (inc tax) £199.51
Some plates arrive. It is, indeed, delicious Spanish food. He lightly grazes. I panic eat. My mistake is that I tell him that I hate the culture war stuff. I prefer it when you do the big interviews, I say. “That’s incredibly patronising!” he explodes. There follow largely one-sided debates about trans women in sport and the name of the England women’s football team. I think this is the moment that I start drinking his glass of wine.
Any good coach would be administering a magic sponge to my face. I distract him with history. When I knew him, he was editor of a centre-left tabloid. He hung around with the Guardian staff and the Islington set in the Blair era and he sounded a lot like them, but more fun.
I remember him being surprisingly kind. He prizes loyalty. He is someone who gets in touch when it’s all gone bad. “I think when things go well, everyone’s your friend. I’ve been in places when things have taken an apparent downturn, although it rarely feels that way to me. So, like the Mirror, you know.”
This was his third National Disgrace, when he was fired by the Mirror for running fake photographs of British army abuses of Iraqi prisoners. In many ways, it was his least serious crime, published in good faith; he styled it out as being hoaxed and reminded everyone his brother had done several tours and had advised him the essence of the story was true. The facts were, let’s say, unestablished. That’s not how Morgan sees it now, though.
“Because I was ready to leave it [the Mirror], at nearly 10 years. And as I was kicked out I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, this is the right time, actually.’ And I reckon I’ll be vindicated over this in the end.”
An all-powerful god (let’s call him Simon Cowell) decided Morgan needed a televisual break. And he broke America via a spree of TV appearances. His twin modern-era skills — making a lot of money out of robust opinions and ignoring all criticism — were honed sitting next to David Hasselhoff on America’s Got Talent and opposite Donald Trump on The Celebrity Apprentice.
He is happiest when I make him walk me through the detail of his on-off friendship with the ex-POTUS. He can remember exactly when Trump unfollowed him on Twitter and knows that he was previously the only British person on the list. Trump, it seems, does not slide into one’s DMs for a chat. He has his staff print off something he would like to comment on, scrawls on it with his Sharpie and has it dispatched to the man he still calls “champ”. Morgan has amassed “hundreds” of these artisanal quote tweets. They’re currently on non-speaking terms, although the last time this happened — when Morgan criticised DJT’s Covid science — he subsequently went on Fox & Friends and told Trump directly through his favourite show that he knew where he was going wrong. The presidential call came through within 48 hours.
Morgan’s pivot to TV News came as the successor to Larry King on CNN, a huge gig in the US consciousness. Three years later he was taking on water in the ratings, due largely to his insistence that he knew what to do about the gun problem in the US.
He went quiet for a little while. He can remember vividly who got in touch with him during this time. One of those who was quick with the “How can I help? What do you need?” was Trump. When Morgan got the Good Morning Britain gig at ITV in 2015, Trump gave him an interview. And several more, including one to kick off the launch of TalkTV.
He was great for ITV, finger pressed to the pulse, using GMB like a tabloid front page. He interviewed Jennifer Arcuri, the US businesswoman who claimed to have had an affair with Boris Johnson, and Meghan Markle’s father Thomas. Not world leaders, but the thing that his viewers would talk about that day. He accumulated an 8mn Twitter following. I felt he lost the plot with the sheer volume of his criticism of Meghan Markle and was keen to bring this up. I needn’t have worried. She is the Banquo at this Lunch; the reason he walked off his own show, initially in anger after being challenged by the weather presenter about his views, and subsequently for good.
“I didn’t really fall out with anyone at ITV. I just wasn’t going to make some fake apology for something I wasn’t sorry about. Well, I think yeah, I shouldn’t have stormed off . . . I was just annoyed because I didn’t think it was the job of the deputy stand-in weather guy to be taking me on in a way that he did. Well, yeah, it might sound pompous, but I don’t mind getting it from guests. I wasn’t gonna get it from friendly fire.”
From this fourth National Disgrace, he was quickly picked up for the flagship show at Murdoch’s GB News competitor, TalkTV. Among, he is clear, many other offers. “But have we cracked it? Not yet. Are we in it for the long haul? Absolutely. And does Rupert Murdoch have a habit of over time making all these things work? Absolutely. His only instruction to me is get the show right.”
How much time have you got? “To get the show right? I’ve got a three-year contract,” he says.
“With TalkTV, the wider network, it’s work-in-progress. We’re trying to give it a more coherent voice. Part of the problem is a lot of it looks like radio on camera rather than television. But I don’t see any other show in our space which has led to interviews with the global resonance of Trump and Zelenskyy.”
As I drain his wine, Morgan tells me about his bout of long Covid. Didn’t drink for seven months, he gasps, couldn’t taste it. “I remember thinking, God, if I come out of this, nothing else matters to me. I’m so happy that I feel normal again.”
He won’t tell me the actual value of his contract because the man knows the importance of a good myth, so I ask what he spends his money on. “A boat. I don’t really buy ridiculous things.” He’s got two Aston Martins — one in LA, one in London. He has “a couple” of properties. “The best place to get to in life is where you’ve got fuck-you money, and I got to that place and it’s insanely attractive, you can walk off your set and nobody else would have done that.”
He says he is not confrontational at home (“Ask my wife!”) and likes to make his staff laugh, though he concedes he might have been a little more ferocious when editing the Mirror. “But it’s like anything, isn’t it? You know, we’ve had some very tense moments in this Lunch. And then we’ve had moments of wonderful humour.”
“Yeah, I just think you’ve got 10 per cent more showbiz since I knew you,” I say, wildly rounding down. “I don’t think I have though,” he says. “I dispute that. Like a lot of your generalisations.” Wrong for the final time, I stop the tape. And the expensive food is boxed up for me to take home.
As we leave, he says: “I’ll buy you a proper dinner here if I like the piece.” You won’t like it, I say . . . Oh, as long as it’s interesting, he says. Doesn’t have to be nice.
Janine Gibson is the FT’s head of digital platforms and projects
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