CNN’s decision to replace retiring veteran interviewer Larry King with “America’s Got Talent” judge Piers Morgan may leave many Americans asking … who? But for Britons, Morgan is a familiar face.
Morgan was once one of Britain’s youngest talents on Fleet Street. But it remains to be seen if the onetime a master of the tabloids can rejuvenate CNN’s flagging primetime ratings in the U.S.
After working as a newspaper reporter in South London in the late 1980s, he became show-business editor at The Sun in 1989. It was the start of a rollercoaster 1990s for Morgan, as he was catapulted to editor of The News of the World five years later and then editor of The Daily Mirror by 1995 at age 29.
His reign was marked by a determination to scoop every story. Former Daily Mirror Managing Director Charles Wilson wrote that, “If you threw him into a haystack he would come out clutching not a needle, but a news story.” However, such a ferocious appetite for news and gossip caused its fair share of disputes, most notably with the royal family.
In September 2003, Mirror reporter Ryan Parry obtained a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace, managing to gain widespread access to the private lives of the royals and taking photos of the queen’s breakfast table. While the story incurred the wrath of the Windsors, Morgan certified that The Mirror’s work had helped expose serious flaws in palace security. Eventually the dispute was settled, with Morgan agreeing to hand over unpublished material and covering the queen’s legal fees.
Morgan always stood by his particular strategy, specifically defending tabloids against allegations of invasions of privacy. When model Naomi Campbell took Morgan to court over a breach of privacy, he declared in court that “celebrities who regularly invade their own privacy abrogate their right to the same privacy as someone who has not chosen that path.”
In a more serious case in 2000, Morgan’s editorship hung in the balance when it was revealed he had bought £20,000 worth of shares in the computer company Viglen a few days before a column in his paper tipped the organization as a good buy. He was found guilty by the Press Complaints Commission, but kept his job.
Morgan’s convictions certainly sold copies and made him a young editorial success, yet eventually it went too far. Some in the media had long predicted that Morgan’s brazen style would hit a tipping point.
In 2004, The Daily Mirror published a string of images depicting British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. When it was revealed that the photographs were fakes, Morgan had to publish the headline “Sorry…We Were Hoaxed.” Shortly afterward, he was fired, ending a dramatic nine-year tenure.
Morgan wasted no time licking his wounds, instead quickly completing his popular memoir, “The Insider,” which detailed his tumultuous 1990s and focused on his troubled relationships with Princess Diana, Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch. Many disputes continue to this day; he recently stated that he would never have Madonna on his new CNN show.
As Morgan continued to write more books, he also began a fruitful journey into the TV world. In the U.S., Morgan is known for winning 2007’s “Celebrity Apprentice” and as a regular judge on “America’s Got Talent,” performing the Simon Cowell role of being brutal but honest. In the U.K., he already has his own interview show “Life Stories,” again making the headlines for bringing the usually aloof then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown close to tears when discussing the death of his first daughter.
Brian Stelter, who recently wrote an “obit” on Larry King Live in The New York Times, said that interview swayed CNN executives. “Morgan has proven himself as an interviewer in Britain,” he says. “His most important interview was with Gordon Brown. That really made an impression on CNN.” The question now, Stelter says, is whether he can pull that kind of performance off every week.
Morgan is now back in a familiar territory: a ratings war. When King departs Thursday night, he’ll leave a legacy, but also a show that is third in the rankings behind 9 p.m. ET rivals, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
If Morgan is to be a success, he needs to change his “America’s Got Talent” persona, says Scott Collins, media reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “American viewers need to have a level of warmth and engagement with the presenter,” Collins explains, “and I think the question for Morgan is how does he do that? On ‘America’s Got Talent,’ he was the third leg of the stool; playing off the other two with a certain aloofness that worked fine. But as interviewer, on his own, Americans need to find a way in.”
In a CNN video, Morgan says that while he wants to be “slightly polarizing,” he won’t go down the partisan route that his main competitors have pursued. “I don’t think chasing Fox or MSNBC is the way for CNN to go,” Morgan stated. “You have a unique brand … and I think it’s very important that we stay exactly where CNN is, but just do it in a louder, more aggressive way.”
Stelter believes Morgan’s loudness will be a welcome change. “The one thing you could say about Larry King is that he isn’t loud anymore and doesn’t stand out. Morgan is going to make some noise, get into fights with celebrities, pester people on Twitter, and use some old English tabloid tricks.”
Collins concurs, saying that the bigwigs at CNN don’t want to be opinionated like their rivals, but want to bring some “show business razzmatazz” to primetime, “but without the dancing girls and trombones.”
And if there’s one thing Morgan is good at, it’s being noticed.