An American Perspective on the British Press

Tony Blair's Love Affair With the British Tabloids
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 15 2005 4:35 PM

An American Perspective on the British Press

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Daily Mirror

In the fall of 1997, Piers Morgan, then the editor of Britain's Daily Mirror tabloid, joined the recently elected prime minister and his wife, Cherie, for lunch. The talk turned to the government's short-lived proposal to increase the salaries of Blair and his Cabinet; the plan had been abandoned after the Mirror and other papers criticized it.

Cherie Blair, a successful lawyer whose career had been curtailed by her husband's election, was unhappy about the lost income—British prime ministers are relatively poorly paid—and began to whine unattractively about how much her family needed the extra money, according to Morgan. After Morgan had taken the opportunity to deliver an impromptu lecture on the mood of the electorate ("I don't think the average Mirror reader expects their first Labor prime minister in 18 years to be filling his boots quite so quickly"), Morgan looked at the scowling Cherie.

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"Oh come on, then, if you're that hard up, let me help," he said. He tossed a 20-pound note across the table. "Get the kids something nice for Christmas."

As rude as it seems, it was in character with Morgan's general behavior during the nine years he edited the Mirror. "What the fuck are you doing, you devious little turd?" is how he once opened a telephone conversation with Alastair Campbell, Blair's chief spokesman and Machiavellian political attack dog.

These incidents are only a random sampling of what Morgan recounts in The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade, a gossipy memoir of his 11 years as a Fleet Street editor. (He was fired from the Mirror in 2004 after publishing fake photographs purporting to show British troops engaged in Abu Ghraib-style atrocities in Iraq.) By his own account, he treated everyone with the same obnoxious glibness—celebrities, politicians, members of his staff, Rupert Murdoch, even the odd member of the royal family (though they were spared the cursing).

You can't believe everything the name-dropping, self-aggrandizing Morgan says; by his own account he is a "cocky little git." But even if you take, say, 20 percent off the top for exaggeration and fantasy, his book nonetheless has the strong stench of truth, providing a devastating exposé of the unhealthy and extraordinarily close relationship between the tabloid press and the British government.

Daily Star

Britons have always loved newspapers. Although circulations have declined in recent years, Britons still buy more than 12 million national papers every weekday, among the highest rate per person in the world; the papers as a whole reach between 60 percent and 70 percent of the population. Readers have 11 daily national papers to choose from, from the scurrilous to the serious, the sensationalist to the sober. On one extreme there is the cleavage-stuffed Daily Star tabloid (circulation 854,480), whose cover today has a huge picture of a starlet in skimpy lingerie, as well as a story revealing that "Prime Minister Tony Blair has been voted the sexiest MP of all—by gays." On the other extreme is the Financial Times (circulation 419,386), whose front cover today is dominated by a large photo of Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, a fully-clothed 79-year-old who was ousted from his post as chief executive of American International Group, the world's biggest insurance company.

Snobby readers who dismiss the tabloids as dumbed-down, tawdry, and inconsequential do so at their peril, though. As Morgan makes clear, they have immense political clout, and they use it.

During the Morgan era, Blair had a country to run, a health service to save, weapons of mass destruction to find, a war to start, and four children to bring up. Yet, according to Morgan's calculations, the prime minister and he enjoyed a total of 22 lunches, six dinners, six sit-down interviews, 21 informal one-on-one chats over tea and beer, and endless telephone conversations together. But even as Morgan was advising Blair on how to run the country ("I don't agree with your foreign policy," he announced grandly during a chat over beer at No. 10), he is pursuing the sort of British tabloid agenda that makes the New York Post look like Foreign Affairs.

Morgan was, for instance, cooking up anti-German sentiment ("Achtung, Surrender—For You, Fritz, Ze Euro 96 Championship Is Over," was his headline, over a picture of a tank, before a 1996 soccer match). He was indulging in childish feuds with his enemies, offering cash rewards to anyone, for instance, who could unearth dirt on the editor of Private Eye magazine, where Morgan is known as "Piers Moron." With an eye firmly on circulation, Morgan went to great lengths to expose public officials and celebrities—by sending one of his "top investigative reporters" to a pub to buy pot from the home secretary's son; setting up stings to reveal adultery among B-list television stars; paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for scoops on the royals; and publishing pictures designed, for instance, to expose the cellulite on Princess Diana's legs.

Blair's courting of the press wasn't exclusive to Morgan; Blair offered the same charm offensive to editors of other tabloids, including the Murdoch-owned Sunand News of the World. It was a dangerous game—trying to flatter (and use) two papers he disdained and who hated each other besides—but, as the prime minister responded when Morgan warned him not to forget "your friends" in his rush to suck up to Murdoch: "Piers, I had to court him. It is better to be riding a tiger's back than let it rip your throat out."

By Morgan's account, Blair never tired of playing the angles. After Morgan was fired, he kept an old dinner appointment at the Blairs' house. Cherie offered him champagne, saying that her children had just finished their exams and that "you've been sacked, of course. So there's lots to celebrate!" For his part, Blair banged on about Morgan's legacy and, not wanting to alienate someone whose career was likely to be resurrected, suggested that Morgan had a great future ahead of him. (True: Morgan now co-hosts a television talk show and writes a column in the Evening Standard; his book, for which he received an advance of more than 1 million pounds, was serialized in the Daily Mail and has been discussed in just about every London paper, sometimes several times.)

As Morgan left, Blair told him to keep in touch. "Call me if you think of anything that can be useful to me," he said. "I appreciate your opinion—I really do."

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.

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