Unexpected names appear on short lists from time to time, but few were as surprising as Piers Morgan’s, which somehow squeaked its way into the running to replace the retiring Larry King’s on CNN’s prime-time evening show Tonight and then inexplicably beat out the competition. On the announcement of such, Americans who pay attention to these things might well have asked themselves, “Who?” To British observers, however, so stupefying was the choice that one could not help but wonder aloud if Morgan had lobbied for the position solely in order to get himself out of England. Across the Atlantic, his name rather lives, to put it delicately, in the mud.
Back in the old country, Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan is best known for publishing in the Daily Mirror a set of photographs that ostensibly showed British soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq but turned out to be actually “calculated and malicious” fakes; for his bellicose and often objectionable appearances on various British television shows (the most notable being a spat with satirist and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop on the political comedy show Have I Got News for You); for making himself hostage to fortune (he was widely mocked when, having suggesting that President Bush was “an idiot to fall off” his Segway, he then did exactly the same thing on television, breaking three ribs); and, overall, for a brazen self-confidence that enjoys a complicated and unequal relationship with his actual abilities.
Those of us who watched his unlikely transfer to American television and wondered if the move might inaugurate a new and more mature chapter in his career have been disappointed. Redemption eludes him as yet. Morgan has occasionally respectable moments, but they continue to be punctuated with the same old flippancy, coupled with a tendency, which is less than ideal in an interviewer, to badger his guests. Piers, it seems, will be Piers, and he appears to take to heart his favorite slogan, “One day you’re the cock of the walk, the next a feather duster”: For every day on which he gratifyingly dismantles a hopeless chancer such as Touré, the next he embarrassingly browbeats three other guests into submission on irrelevant topics or, conversely, asks them superfluous softball questions that would be more at home in an infomercial. He almost makes one yearn for the days of Larry King’s hard-hitting, substantive interviews.
And yet, in private, he’s quite charming. When I was up at Oxford, he took part with gusto in a debate at the Oxford Union and then stayed up late in the Gladstone Room, happily drinking and talking with everyone who wished to meet him, until the very last person admitted to fatigue. Then, he was engaging and patient, but from what I can gather, something irregular happens to Piers Morgan when he is put in front of a camera or given the editor’s chair; something that turns him into a vainglorious and cavalier host with something to prove. Were he to conduct his business from home, with a drink in his hand, it might well be a different story.
Unfortunately for CNN, while Morgan learns his trade live on air, the channel’s numbers are tanking. Whatever faddish desire to switch things up inspired network executives to replace the experienced — not to say aged — Larry King with an untested parvenu must now be concerning them. CNN’s figures for that hour are at their lowest ebb since 1997, with just 39,000 people between the ages of 25 and 54 tuning in. Overall, 284,000 people watched per night last week, but this is a pathetic shadow of the debut audience, which topped 2.1 million viewers in January 2011. It appears that, in this role at least, Morgan is currently more feather duster than cock of the walk. And the trend is not in his favor.
Piers Morgan’s career has been defined by bravely taken chances. Some of these have paid off. His brashness and killer instinct as show-business editor of the Sun led Rupert Murdoch to make him the youngest newspaper editor in British history, when he became editor of the News of the World at age 28. But the very same proclivities that have made him a household name have led him down some regrettable paths and damaged his reputation — on two continents now, albeit his main delinquency in the United States is being a terrible interviewer. Indeed, one is left with the feeling that, whatever qualities his star offers, his is a story of bluster and overpromotion. Eventually, that will catch up with a man and, in America, it has.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.