Piers Morgan and I are talking hypocrisy. The former British newspaper editor-turned- reality TV star (he presents both the US and UK versions of the Got Talent franchise and is in discussion to do the same in the UAE) has been accused of worse in his time – insider share dealing while helming the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper, publishing faked photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners (which, despite protestations that he, too, was duped, led to Morgan’s dismissal in 2004). But it’s the charge of hypocrisy that smarts.
The ‘H’ word is something Morgan despises. It is the trait he most repeatedly derides in others, especially the celebrities he spent his many years at newsprint’s frontline mocking for their alleged duplicity at, on the one hand, selling coverage of personal ‘moments’, while on the other pleading invasion of privacy with every snap of the paparazzo’s shutter.
Has such a position altered, I wonder, now that he has joined the celebrity ranks? This is the man whose star is now so perkily ascendant that he splits his time between projects in both his native UK and Hollywood (where he gets to ‘drink champagne and judge dancing dogs with David Hasslehoff’), who has published a litter of best-selling books, hosted a brace of TV shows (culminating in a recent ‘golden handcuffs’ deal with British channel ITV, the crown jewel of which is a much-hyped prime-time chat show) and appeared on celebrity editions of The Apprentice. Surely he now sees things from the other side?
‘No, it’s kind of confirmed what I thought, really,’ answers Morgan with jaunty ease. ‘They really are a bunch of pampered little prima donnas who don’t know how lucky they are. Most of the world is either starving or impoverished and the last thing a celebrity should ever do is whinge and moan about paparazzi or intrusion or any of that garbage, because most people do real jobs.’
Strong words. But Morgan has also fronted a BBC show, You Can’t Fire Me, I’m Famous, in which he interviewed fallen British celebrities. That he did so shortly after his ignominious departure from the Mirror, may reveal nothing more than a canny knack for an opportunity on Morgan’s part, but the fact that he did so with something akin to sympathy and, at times, even compassion? He has since followed it up with a similar series – The Dark Side Of Celebrity, in which the likes of BritArt star Tracey Emin and Holly- wood hard boy Mickey Rourke discuss the perils of fame – suggesting the grey areas of celebrity fascinate him rather more than he likes to admit, while his own apparent fascination with the species (he is endlessly dropping names, at one point even whipping out his phone to show me a pic of his girlfriend with former enemy and new ‘best mate’, Naomi Campbell) speaks of something else again. Or does he simply think we’ll all be dazzled by the contents of his star-stuffed address book?
I repeat a quote to him from Ivanka Trump during his appearance on the US version of The Apprentice about his treatment of others. He interrupts, but not in defence. ‘She actually said she had an issue with my bedside manner,’ he corrects with relish. ‘I said, “Well what do you know about that bedside manner, Ivanka?” She said, “That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.” And I said,’ he finishes with a satisfied smirk, ‘“It’s called a sense of humour.”’ Is there at any point where you think your sense of humour might overstep the mark? ‘No, there’s a point where other people don’t get it. That’s not my problem.’
There’s no doubt that Morgan gives good copy – he is endlessly quotable, his wayward contrariness, the more you talk to him, spreading and growing like especially dirty gossip. Ever one to avoid easy pigeonholing, however, Morgan is keen to display his other side.
He is here in the UAE to launch the Inspire Dubai awards, which aim to honour ordinary members of the community, the template of which comes from the Pride of Britain awards set up by none other than one Piers Morgan eight years ago.
Even a cynic can see there’s something honourable in here – perhaps the desire to do things of which, as he recently told Dubai’s Marketing & Media conference, his mother would approve. (He actually cited her as one of his three rules of journalism: Would mater give it the nod, did it pass the ‘David Beckham wedding test’ (when deciding if a celebrity deserved a degree of privacy) and, finally, the Private Eye test – would he want it to be reported in the UK’s notoriously caustic satirical magazine? As Piers himself noted, he didn’t always meet his own stringent moral criteria.)
The other reason Morgan’s here is to make a documentary for ITV. It will be, he says with the kind of practised intonation that suggests he’s gifted this particular ‘sell’ many times before, ‘glitzy, glamorous, fascinating and fabulous – the Dubai story.’ Or at least the part of it that appeals to rain-soaked, credit-crunched Brits longing for a slice of the good life. Piers, it would seem, is a man for all seasons, effortlessly rolling with the punches, putting on whatever face – panto villain, sympathetic fellow sackee, even (and it’s my turn to smirk as I type this) the proud voice of Britain’s moral majority – best suits.
So when I ask him if he has any regrets, if he’d do any of it differently, how to interpret the following reply? ‘I think there’s a fearlessness with youth [Morgan was, when first appointed to the top job on News Of The World at 28, one of the UK’s youngest ever newspaper editors], which when you get older and have marriages, divorces and kids of your own, you stop being quite so reckless, perhaps, with the consequences of stories,’ he says. ‘It all seemed quite a laugh to me [then]. But as you get older...you think, well, maybe it wasn’t quite so funny after all.’
A glimpse behind the mask or a little of what he thinks a slightly morally outraged journalist (I have been defending Britney Spears’ behaviour in the light of her treatment by the press) wants to hear? And what, I ask him as our interview draws to a close, of the hypocrisy of having a go at reality TV stars when you are one yourself?
‘Shameless,’ he replies with a chortle. ‘Absolutely shameless.’
Hypocrite? Contrarian? Manipulator? Or just a bloke who, as he claims, got lucky with how he jumped after a tricky exit from a much-loved job? That’s for us to decide. Piers, meanwhile, has dinner at Zuma to attend and, later, a flight to the Maldives. Whatever the answer, we suspect it’s a conundrum over which he, for one, won’t be losing any sleep.
Panto Piers on...
How can you intrude on someone’s privacy when they invade their own? When they’re publicity whores like that, what can you do?
Trinny Woodall, You Are What You Wear presenter
‘She squealed like a baby [on Celebrity Apprentice, UK], p***ed off her entire team and they all hated her. Even her husband’s left her now so I don’t think I’ll be judged on her ludicrous antics.’
‘With hindsight I concluded that drug addiction, if you were trying to recover from it, was a health issue, rather than a criminal issue.’ (On being sued for publishing pictures of the model leaving a London Narcotics Anonymous meeting.)
To his PR, about a Gulf News journalist waiting for an interview
‘They wrote a p***-takey little piece about me today. Tell them to f*** off!’
See www.inspiredubaiawards.com for more