View from the top: Piers Morgan on the value of PR

Originally published PRWeek, Nov 12, 2002.
Daily Mirror Editor Piers Morgan talks to Joe Lepper about celebrity and politics
Almost a year since Piers Morgan’s last appearance in PRWeek when he bought a full-page ad to hammer home his latest message in his war on celebrity PR (PRWeek, 30 November 2001,), his relationship with the sector has, on the face of it, declined further.

Once again, Morgan is in the headlines over a spat with a celebrity; this time with Liz Hurley’s former lover Steve Bing. Having printed a prominent, full-page apology to Bing using words agreed by his lawyers, the treatment came across as satirical. As PRWeek went to press, Bing was considering legal action.

‘There is a blissful irony in Steve Bing’s lawyers going on radio and still not apparently understanding that this could be potentially humorous,’ says Morgan of the wrangle.

His recent success in the lengthy battle with Naomi Campbell over privacy has seemingly hammered home his contempt for the PR industry, in particular with the celebrity end of the sector. The victory was a particularly satisfying moment as, for Morgan, it was a victory not only over the super model’s desire to restrict information about her drug rehabilitation, but also against the ‘way that the PR industry hijacked celebrity through the last 15 years’, making it ‘boring and anodyne.’

Morgan stops short of completely dismissing the industry. Munching on a Pret-a-Manger sandwich in his office adjoining the Mirror’s newsroom and flanked by signed pictures from celebrities such as Monica Lewinsky and Sir Paul McCartney, he says: ‘The PR industry is in two camps. (Those that admit) their duplicity and accept that their primary duty is to their client and honesty is often the last thing on their mind’, and ‘those who don’t’.

‘I have a much better relationship to those who say, “Look, you know the score. I’ve got a client – you’re an evil newspaper – my job is to protect them and I’ll lie, cheat, defraud and stamp on your grave to protect my client”.

‘I have more respect for them than the ones that take themselves so ludicrously seriously – the ones who think that PR is somehow some great, virtuous existence and they are brought down by the archangel Gabriel to look after the kind souls of the world. It’s not like that,’ he says.

He refuses to name individuals he thinks are ‘beneath contempt – they know who they are’. High on the list though, must surely be those who prompted his ban on copy approval last year and his accompanying message in PRWeek.

But hidden beneath his generally dismissive attitude towards PR, there are a few individuals in the industry for whom Morgan has some admiration.

Among these he happily names Max Clifford, Matthew Freud, Alan Edwards and Neil Reading.

Clifford, in particular, comes in for praise: ‘I have great respect for people like Max Clifford, who I know is reviled by some quarters of the PR industry who think he is a joke. All I can tell you is that if I was in trouble, I’d go to Max Clifford and not some of the more clever-dick PROs out there who think that he’s beneath them.’

Those with a poor relationship with Morgan at the time of the copy approval episode included the PROs behind comedian Frank Skinner, whose autobiography the Mirror was serialising, and TV couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, all of whom reportedly made demands for copy approval. Morgan responded to demands to see copy before publishing an interview with Madeley and Finnigan with the word ‘uncensored’ stamped on the original article.

But much of Morgan’s antagonistic relationship with the PR industry can be put down to the paternal, protective approach he takes to the paper he has edited since 1995. When talking to him one feels more than anything that he hates anyone daring to believe they have the upper hand.

Even when he was in need of PR support himself during the city slicker scandal two years ago, while finding advice from practitioners ‘quite helpful’ he still believes that the best policy was ‘me going out there holding my hands up, calling myself a twat and getting on with our lives’.

This fear of losing the upper hand is at the root of another war of words, this time with arch rival The Sun, which has included vicious, personal editorial attacks on its editor David Yelland. But on that front, he is now softening. Morgan admits that Yelland’s assertion in a Financial Times interview last month that the Mirror had surrendered was true, but not for the reasons that Yelland stated.

Yelland believes he has achieved ‘total victory’ in the circulation war between the two papers and is now reportedly turning his attention to the Daily Mail and its editor Paul Dacre.

‘I don’t see ourselves now as competing head-to-head with The Sun or any other paper. I see that we are creating slowly but surely our own market place of one paper,’ he says. ‘When Yelland said we have surrendered, I think we have surrendered our position in the red top market quite happily.

I can’t absolutely rule out that I won’t give The Sun a whack from time to time, what I can say is that the repositioning of our paper means that it’s less and less likely that we would want to position ourselves against them.’

The approach Morgan has taken with the Mirror’s news agenda since 11 September does indeed point to a widening gap with its traditional rival, which has been more sympathetic to the Government over the ‘war on terror’. The general hardening of news since what Morgan calls ‘the biggest story of my lifetime’, has seen the paper take on more controversial journalists, notably doyen of the political Left John Pilger, and negative coverage of reality TV programme Big Brother and other such popular culture, for the first time.

This turnaround was highlighted in Morgan’s speech to the Society of Editors in October last year: ‘For the first time in 30 years, people in this country are rejecting the Big Brother-style trivia … and are realising there really are more important things in the world.’

The news agenda gap may be widening but so is the gap in circulation.

The Sun has seen a 4.75 per cent rise in circulation compared to last year, while the Mirror has seen a 4.46 per cent drop. Perhaps people aren’t realising that there are more important things?

Morgan argues that despite this the paper has enjoyed, in the last year, the most stable sales in around 25 years.

He says: ‘I knew when we went into this that from the moment of the official relaunch there would be a bit of short- term hit. The best analogy is Radio One when they ditched Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates and all those guys in the night of the long knives.

‘You knew the station would lose a bit of rating to start with and then there would be a re-rating, with a different audience coming with them.

That’s what we are trying to do, and I think that it’s what the Mirror should have done 20 years ago,’ he adds.

Morgan believes the paper’s tougher news stance, particularly over the war on terror, has led the Government’s director of strategy Alastair Campbell to think the Mirror is now a ‘lost cause’ which, he adds ‘is fine by me, because it means I don’t have to have much to do with him’.

Over the last year he has had more contact with Tony Blair – of whom he speaks highly – than Campbell, who receives considerably less praise: ‘Tony Blair is a pragmatist. He understands why we are doing what we are doing. The Daily Mirror historically has not been pro any war, unless its absolutely unavoidable. He (Blair) understands that we needed to be slightly more critical than we had been, particularly when Mr Campbell was political editor here.’ While he believes Campbell has been ‘a brilliant PR man’, selling the New Labour project ‘brilliantly’, he also believes that Campbell, ‘takes it all so personally.’

Arsenal fan Morgan (a corner of his office is dedicated to team memorabilia) compares Campbell to Alex Ferguson, the notoriously media unfriendly manager of Premiership rivals Manchester United: ‘Alex Ferguson treats the media with derision. He’s always banning the media from Old Trafford, shouting at them, abusing them. Alastair Campbell very much takes his lead from Sir Alex and they both think they are running superpowers, they both think the media is garbage and they think it’s perfectly acceptable to ban them and ridicule them.’

He believes that Campbell should recognise the role that the Mirror and other papers play as effective opposition in the current political climate of a weakened parliament and party opposition: ‘Newspapers like the Daily Mirror perform a much more valuable function now in pricking their balloons a bit and being a bit more critical.’

And this is a role to which, he says, he is committed. So not much hope for those who would like to see Morgan leave his powerful post? In a word, no. Perhaps it is wishful thinking from many PROs that this high-profile critic of PR might soon leave his job. For that section of the industry there will be disappointment: ‘I’m 37, I’m not exactly a spring chicken – not the “boy Morgan” that Private Eye used to love calling me. But I’m not very old by editing standards. I’d like to carry on doing what we’re doing.’

Morgan wants to continue some notable recent successes, including considerable praise from his peers in scooping three newspaper of the year awards from What The Papers Say, at the British Press Awards and the Picture Editor Awards.

A final question worth asking is would one of the PR industry’s fiercest critics ever join its ranks? He says with a broad grin: ‘I would rather staple my eyelids to my rear.’

His critical stance on the industry remains solid.

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