When CNN signed Morgan to replace the venerable Larry King as its primetime interviewer, “they haven’t hired Mother Teresa,” as Morgan himself put it. But until the abuses of the British press were brought so sharply to light earlier this year, CNN surely did not realise what it had got itself into.
Thanks to Jay and the Leveson inquiry into the seamy underside of the British media, CNN now knows a lot more than it did when it signed Morgan to a multimillion-dollar contract in 2010.
Repeatedly pressed by Jay and Leveson to explain his past statements and career – which may or may not have involved phone hacking – Morgan’s memory became worryingly unreliable. By the end of Jay’s questioning the imperious interviewer familiar to viewers of Piers Morgan Tonight was reduced to sullen, one-word answers delivered with curt annoyance.
The difficult question for CNN is: what does it do with Piers Morgan now?
As the excesses of Britain’s tabloids came to light in the US media, CNN replied to enquiries that “Piers Morgan has been firm and specific in his denial, and we continue to be supportive of his programme.”
Morgan himself flatly denied any involvement: “I have never hacked a phone, told anyone to hack a phone, nor to my knowledge published any story obtained from the hacking of a phone.”
But as a witness at the Leveson inquiry, when asked to explain his guide to hacking into telephone voicemail from a 2001 entry in his own published memoirs, Morgan said: “I’m sorry – it was 10 years ago, I can’t remember.” Questioned further, Morgan couldn’t offer even the vaguest recollection where the “little trick” might have come from.
Confronted with a statement that he had heard voicemail messages left by Paul McCartney on Heather Mills’s phone, Morgan clammed up, saying “I’m not going to discuss where I heard it or who played it to me.”
And so it continued, with Morgan saying his knowledge of phone hacking was merely from hearing rumours, that as editor of the News of the World or the Daily Mirror he was never “directly involved” in the hiring of private investigators.
Most eyebrow-raising was over Morgan’s claim that, as editor, he only knew “5 percent of what his journalists are up to at any given time”. That may be true in a general sense but given tabloid culture’s famously hands-on editors, the real question is what that 5 percent may have included – and that’s what Morgan’s new bosses at CNN would dearly like to know.
A CNN source told the Wall Street Journal in August that the network’s executives had closely read Morgan’s memoirs and questioned him about his career:
A lot of the questioning, this person said, surrounded not telephone-hacking practices but Mr Morgan’s firing from the Mirror in 2004, after he authorised the newspaper’s publication of photographs showing Iraqis being abused by British soldiers that the British army alleged were fakes.
If CNN didn’t do enough due diligence a year ago, the Leveson inquiry is doing that job for it. And it comes at a time when Morgan’s ratings are diving – although there is no way of knowing if Morgan’s tainted past as a British tabloid editor has contributed to his failure.
In the most recent month, November, Morgan’s ratings declined to their lowest point since he replaced King, lagging in third place far behind Fox News’s Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in the daily 9pm slot.
Come January, Piers Morgan Tonight will no longer enjoy its year-on-year comparison with the feeble ratings of King’s last spell in the interviewer’s chair. At that point CNN may decide that the baggage is not worth the fare. Especially as Leveson is now hinting at calling Heather Mills as a witness – and her memory may be much clearer than Morgan’s.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.