Piers Morgan: A Failure? The Aston Martin Says Not Yet

Piers Morgan: A Failure? The Aston Martin Says Not Yet

By Toby Harnden - November 2, 2014

LOS ANGELES - Piers Morgan is homesick. He does his best to put a positive gloss on his bruising exit from CNN, which cancelled his nightly talk show in March after three years. But he does little to dispel the sense that this is a man whose plans to conquer America have been derailed.

We are breakfasting in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, in Beverly Hills, where the former Daily Mirror editor announces, in sub-estate-agent patter, that he spent 2½ years “in Warren Beatty’s old suite, with its stunning 2,000 sq ft of roof terrace... at a knock-down rate”.

Before their daughter, Elise, was born three years ago, his wife, Celia Walden, put her foot down and decided that the sumptuous pad was “basically a sophisticated Hollywood creche”. So now they reside five minutes away, in what Morgan describes as “a leafy, lovely road, a Spanish hacienda-style place. It’s got a nice pool; you get up in the morning and the sun’s shining.”

Morgan, who is on the cusp of 50, regales me with tales of his Aston Martin Rapide (price: £130,000). He likes “putting the shades on, bombing down Sunset Boulevard playing Aerosmith very loudly and pretending that I’m a 25-year-old rock star”.

Wearing an open-necked black shirt and jeans, he seems relaxed and healthy. He enjoys the occasional pedicure, and his greying chest hair looks as though it may have been trimmed, but his teeth remain reassuringly crooked and lack the dazzle that is standard in Los Angeles.

A young blonde waves at him through the window as she sashays down Wilshire Boulevard. “Hello,” Morgan mouths flirtatiously, before joking, with a hint of relief: “Luckily she was quite attractive. You don’t want a really ugly one.”

But Britain’s most significant small-screen export to the United States since David Frost doesn’t seem a man who wants to stay. “The one thing I can say about CNN that I found increasingly depressing personally was simply being away from England,” he confides.

Amid all the “relentless mayhem” of being a prime-time television presenter, what he found hardest, he says plaintively, was that “I never had a proper British life”. He even defends Britain’s “sneering culture”, of which he is so often a target, versus the “balloon-inflating society” of America, in which celebrities take their egos oh so seriously.

When I ask whether he has ever considered American citizenship, he recoils. He has a three-year working visa, and that’s about as much as he wants to assimilate. “In my heart I’m pretty British, actually, in terms of my sensibilities. I love pubs — I grew up in one. I have a great one by where I live in Kensington. I love going to Arsenal and watching the cricket and all those kinds of things.”

He laments not being able to watch his three sons from his first marriage, Spencer, 21, Stanley, 17, and Albert, 13, in plays and sports matches. “Too many times you’re sitting at home and thinking, ‘I should be back in England.’ ”

All this surprises me somewhat. I have always — true confession — quite liked Morgan, in large part because he seemed, well, rather American. He is without cynicism, openly celebrates success (especially his own), enjoys blowing his own trumpet and relishes the opportunities life brings.

Although he is famously thick-skinned and has “a persona, which I play up to, of the pantomime villain”, I wonder whether the American gloating he was subjected to after his show was cancelled got to him. He had been waging an outspoken campaign against America’s gun culture, and the hectoring approach was polarising his audience. Morgan thinks it probably cost him his job.

“I think the guns thing played a fairly hefty part in CNN wanting me to come off that show. I do.” It was “never spelt out that clearly”, he says, but he was the only one in prime time who lost his nightly show, “and yet my ratings were higher than some of the others”.

He concedes he was “perhaps a little bit too aggressive, a bit too hostile”, adding that “if an American had been in Britain every night pounding away at one of our laws on TV, he wouldn’t be Mr Popular”. But there was also “a definite anti-British sentiment of ‘We don’t want this guy on our big political shows’ ” among some at CNN. Morgan believes his fellow presenter Anderson Cooper, the silver-haired son of Gloria Vanderbilt, deliberately undermined him.

And then there was his predecessor in the interview chair, Larry King, a sycophantic octogenarian who has been married eight times. King described the hiring of “a Britisher” as “a mistake” by CNN. To which Morgan responded via his favourite medium of Twitter that the old man was “a poisonous twerp” and “a daft old goat” who had left him with ratings that were in the tank.

CNN’s problems predated Morgan and remain. He maintained King’s ratings, such as they were, despite a continuing overall decline for CNN as the sober, centrist cable channel struggled to hold its own against the right-wing Fox and the liberal MSNBC.

“I don’t think it was a great achievement,” Morgan says judiciously, “and I wasn’t a phenomenal success, but nor do I think it’s fair to categorise it as a failure.”

He points out that the ratings of Cooper, who is paid an estimated $11m (£7m) a year for his 8pm current-affairs show, are hardly stellar. “He’s a bit wooden and stiff in a studio and he doesn’t deliver star ratings... he was paid three times as much as me, and for that you expect big ratings.”

The ultra-competitive former Britain’s Got Talent host is fond of pointing out how many Twitter followers he has (currently 4.27m). He looks pained when I ask him why Cooper has 5.32m. “He came out [as gay],” Morgan says. “It got him another million followers.” I suggest that maybe Morgan should follow suit. “I seriously considered it... We were quite neck and neck until then.”

Walden, a journalist 11 years his junior, has described herself as a “Twitter widow”, but Morgan dismisses this breezily by saying that “the amount of time I spend on Twitter, she spends double it on eBay buying handbags and clothes”.

Morgan has a new gig as “editor-at-large (US)” for MailOnline, penning three columns a week for the “rampaging online beast”. The only time he breaks off from our two-hour interview is when he checks the headline on his piece about Renée Zellweger’s alleged plastic surgery.

After he was fired by the Daily Mirror for publishing fake photographs of abuse by British soldiers, Morgan says he learnt the lesson of taking a bit of time to decide what should be next.

He is planning to make a documentary-style movie on guns — “We’ve got a meeting about it this week with one of the big production houses. I won’t say who it is” — and wants to bring his ITV Life Stories show to America.

For those who think the phone-hacking scandal may sink him — Trinity Mirror admitted for the first time last month that some of its journalists were involved in it, and The Independent newspaper made further allegations yesterday about illegal activity during his reign — he is not ready to offer any solace. “There’s been nobody arrested for any alleged offence on the Daily Mirror in my 10-year tenure. Full stop.”

As Morgan heads off to watch Arsenal play Anderlecht on TV with his house guest Gary Lineker, I ask him how he feels about those who delight in the fact that, finally, it may be time to label him a failure.

He reels off his record as one of the youngest and longest-serving Fleet Street editors before a second career in television. “I look back at the [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad hour, the Dalai Lama, Warren Buffett playing My Way on a ukulele live, Oprah, George Clooney, Bill Clinton.

“I’ve had a great near-decade in America, and three big shows. I’m fairly relaxed about the level of failure I’ve experienced over the past 25 years.”

Rejected in America and pining for a Britain that seemed content he had departed, Morgan is in some respects adrift in the middle of the Atlantic. But he has shown before that he has the tenacity and chutzpah to bounce back. I, for one, wouldn’t write him off just yet. 


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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