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Tabloid editor: 'I was wrong'

No, it's not a belated April Fool. As the number of celebrities pursuing red-tops in the courts grows ever larger, Mirror boss Piers Morgan admits: we have overstepped the mark. Well, once or twice

Monday April 14, 2003
The Guardian

'Yes, Anthea, I feel guilty about what we have done to you. There's no denying it: on behalf of the newspaper industry, I do." It had taken years of anguish, self-loathing and obstinate defiance, but I had finally done it. I had at last publicly apologised to a celebrity for making their life a misery.

Tears for poor, downtrodden celebrities don't naturally well up inside me - particularly when you see someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones celebrating her ludicrous "privacy" win against a magazine that dared to try to spoil her £1m deal with another one. Moral: how dare you invade my privacy when I am making so much cash invading it myself?

Being a tabloid journalist necessitates a rhino's skin. You can't afford to be too sentimental, too worried about the target-rich environment of celebrities and public figures. It's a rough old trade, fiercely competitive and normally devoid of mercy. But just occasionally, we tabloid reptilians do step back and take a look at our actions, rather like the mercenary who, in the quiet of night, looks in his cracked little shaving mirror and wonders if everyone at the end of his telescopic sights really deserves the fate he is inflicting upon them.

Last autumn I was approached to make a BBC1 series about fame and the media. The brief was to give viewers an authentic insight into the unholy alliance between popular papers and famous people. The subjects were my choice and reflected threetypes of tabloid "victim". Victoria Beckham and Jade Goody fell into the "Yes we've had a lot of rubbish written about us but it doesn't really bother us and it's all a bit of a game, isn't it" category. Heather Mills McCartney and Paul Burrell made up the "Bemused and rather hurt Fleet Street hero to zero for no really sensible reason" brigade. And Peter Mandelson and Anthea Turner placed themselves squarely in the "We're gonna chew you up, spit you out and then dance on your 'orrible little graves" camp.

The series illustrates how and why tabloids choose and pursue their prey, and how justified or unfair that star hunt can be. It also exposes the often ruthless way that celebrities stalk and collude with the media for personal gain, the hypocrisies in the way they use and abuse the papers and then whine about their lot, and the merits of being able to laugh at the adverse headlines and adopting a "sod the lot of you" mentality towards journalists.

Rarely has the relationship between fame and the media been as fractious as it is now. Celebrities are queuing up to take us on in court, encouraged by the ever growing batteries of lawyers, PRs, managers, agents and sycophantic make-up artists. And we, frankly, are queuing up to defend ourselves against this onslaught of egos writing cheques that their shapely little bodies can't cash. (copyright, appropriately, Top Gun).

My views on Naomi Campbell are well known, but even she pales into insignificance next to the aforementioned Zeta-Jones. Have we really reached a stage where celebrities can sell their wedding to one magazine and sue for privacy when another magazine gets a picture from it? Has the world gone stark raving mad?

I knew La Zeta when she was a rather nice Darling Bud of May. She has morphed into a hideous caricature of a self-obsessed, nauseatingly self-congratulatory, whining Hollywood crone. And she seems to symbolise the current mood of celebrities who view newspapers as extensions of their PR firms. In my series, I was struck by how differently people saw the fame game. To Posh Spice, it was a bit of a giggle. She likes being in the papers, likes being photographed and is not averse to working with paparazzi like Jason Fraser. She adores a spot of tabloid gossip ("not career-wrecking gossip, mind" she memorably affirms) and knows how bloody lucky she is to have a close, stable, loving family life, endless free designer clothes, and a husband who captains England.

But as with Anthea, you can tell that she would swap all her material trappings for a successful career again. Victoria likes singing, and Anthea likes presenting. And all the baubles and mansions in the world can't alter the fact that the press won't give either much chance to do what they love any more.

And there lies the truth about celebrities and their press cuttings. What really hurts them is not the harmless, often inaccurate tittle-tattle about their lives (Victoria's mother on reports of David's alleged falcon training is genuinely hilarious), but the stuff that damages their careers.

Heather Mills McCartney couldn't care less whether people think she and Stella McCartney like each other (they don't, by the way), but by God she cared when the Sunday Mirror ran an incorrect story about her landmine charity. Because it led to sponsors dumping her, money not getting to war zones and, well, children dying who wouldn't otherwise have.

You might think of Heather as a hard, shameless, publicity-mad gold-digger who nabbed Macca without our permission. But I found her smart, direct, quite a laugh when she lightens up a bit - and understandably pretty pissed off when someone smears her charity.

Jade Goody, the personification of the raging 15-minutes-of-fame reality-TV circus, was a sweetie. She hadn't seen herself in Big Brother or read any of the outrageous "Get this fat pig out of there" press coverage. So I showed her the clips and read her the journalistic poison. And she laughed, and laughed. And pointed out that, since she has endured endless taunts about her dad spending most of her life in prison and her mum being a one-armed lesbian, why should the Mirror's Kevin O'Sullivan calling her a Michelin-sized fishwife bother her?

Peter Mandelson was fascinating for different reasons. I couldn't get a single political journalist to say anything nice about him on air without qualifying it. They would happily say he was brilliant and clever, but all of them wanted to stress that he was also a lying toerag who deserved all he got. Interviewing him, I found him skilfully or perhaps wilfully disingenuous when pinned down on his various mishaps, but probably a better man for it all now. He seemed more humble, less aggressive, more - dare I say it - normal, less Prince of Darkness. The journalists, by contrast, still seemed dementedly obsessed by him in quite a revealing way.

As for Paul Burrell, his was a classic tale of someone treated as a saint by all the press throughout his time as Diana's rock - then as Lucifer's disciple once he sold his story to me. He doesn't regret doing it, but I look at what happened to him and regret how absurdly poisonous and hypocritical Fleet Street can be when piqued.

The reality of the fame game is rather like being a football fan: it's great when you're winning, and an unpleasant brand of slow torture when you're losing. You only have to see Anthea's tormented, genuinely traumatised weeping face in our interview to see that the "game" can become a vicious and nasty experience. And in her case, just because she fell in love with a married man, shattered her squeaky-clean image, and ate a chocolate bar on her wedding day.

I apologised to her on air because - as she put it in a clip that I kept in to display broadcasting integrity bordering on the self-damaging - "Piers, knowing what I do about you, I could write one story of a hero, a marvellous gentleman - and another that would make you out to be quite a seedy character. And neither is actually right." Yet the truth is that they both probably are, depending on whether you're talking to my mother or David Yelland.

And that cuts to the heart of the tabloid problem. We do a lot of amazing stuff, communicating domestic and world events in dramatic fashion, educating, informing and entertaining the masses with skill and flair and professionalism. We also take people like Anthea, Heather, Paul, Jade, Victoria and, yes, even Peter, put them into various boxes to suit our agendas, and toy with them in headlines as a matador toys with his bulls. Much of it is deserved, as they have all courted the press and they have all made money from us.

But look at it from the bull's standpoint and you also see a rather unedifying sport at work, with the Fleet Street matadors extracting commercial gain from celebrity misery, prodding and goading until our victim is destroyed in front of a baying crowd of punters.

And if tabloid journalists don't admit that this is how we are viewed by the world outside our newsrooms, then we can bring no sense of gen-uine compassion, humanity and basic fair play to what we do. Either in real life, like wars, where real people lead nightmare lives; or in the world of fame, where real people lead fantasy lives. Perhaps we should all be made to sit with Anthea Turner for two hours and explain why we took such joy in ruining her life.

Tabloid Tales, a six-part series presented by Piers Morgan, starts on BBC1 on Tuesday April 29 at 10.35pm

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