Some boys grow up – not Morgan and Clarkson
They may be childish and petty, but these two have become media giants, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30
As a child, I acquired a lifelong devotion to that fictional hero, William Brown, who, in the imagination of his devotees, is forever cavorting with his gang of Outlaws, creating hilarious mayhem in his blameless suburban neighbourhood, fighting with the cowardly HubertLaneites and upsetting the bourgeoisie at every turn.
I thought of William as I tried to understand the broadcasters and journalists Jeremy Clarkson and Piers Morgan, who are at present taking their feud to new levels of childishness in the press and in social media.
Yah boo sucks, Clarkson's "a pot-bellied, petrol-smelling twerp", shouts Morgan in his Mail on Sunday column. Nyah, nyah, nyah, "he's a ghastly little weasel", bellows Clarkson in the Sunday Times.
Why do I bother? Because both are media giants. Morgan has 4.1 million followers on Twitter and though Clarkson has only 3.16 million, that's only because he's a much less assiduous tweeter.
By our humble measures, these people are fantastically successful.
Clarkson, who says he was expelled from public school for "drinking, smoking and generally making a nuisance of himself", became a journalist in the north of England who branched out into road-testing cars for motoring journals.
In 1988 this led to Top Gear, a TV programme which consists essentially of Clarkson and two mates driving madly around unlikely locations all over the globe, taking adolescent risks in exotic vehicles and being politically incorrect in their badinage. It now has 370 million viewers in 170 countries.
Clarkson regularly gets into trouble over throw-away offensive remarks, such as referring at a press conference in Australia to the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a "one-eyed Scottish idiot". This led to outraged protests and calls for his sacking from Scottish politicians and lobbyists for the blind. Having milked it for maximum publicity, Clarkson eventually apologised for his reference to Brown's monocular vision, adding: "I haven't apologised for calling him an idiot."
There are books and journalism to add to his fortune and Clarkson is also a member of what's known as the Chipping Norton set, which in happier days included Prime Minister David Cameron and Charlie Brooks and his wife Rebekah – once Rupert Murdoch's right-hand woman, whom Clarkson had introduced.
Sussex-born Piers Stefan O'Meara was only one when his father, a dentist from County Offaly, died. He would take his stepfather's surname of Pughe-Morgan and later shorten it to a form more suitable for a tabloid journalist: he is popularly known as Piers Moron. For while Clarkson is popular, Morgan isn't.
After a spell as a reporter in London local newspapers, Morgan was given a job on the Sun's showbiz column and in 1994, at 29, became – at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World – the youngest editor of a national newspaper since Hugh Cudlipp, 24, was handed the Sunday Pictorial in 1937. He shared with Cudlipp his great energy, courage and enthusiasm, but lacked his genius.
His stock-in-trade was invading the private lives of celebrities, whom he claimed were fair game. Ticked off by the Press Complaints Commission (PPC) for a breach of its code of conduct when he published photographs of Princess Diana's then sister-in-law leaving an addiction clinic, and with Murdoch distancing himself, Morgan decamped in 1995 for the Daily Mirror.
He survived a rebuke from the PPC for another breach incurred by buying shares tipped by Mirror journalists, but was fired in 2004 after publishing fake photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soldiers.
By then, he'd made an enemy of Clarkson by printing big stories implying an extra-marital affair. In 2003, on the last Concorde flight into London, Clarkson expressed his displeasure – as well as his irritation with Morgan's endless bragging – by emptying a glass of water into Morgan's crotch just before they landed on a runway full of television cameras.
At the 2004 British Press Awards he punched him and broke his own finger.
Since then, Morgan has become a celebrity-obsessed interviewer and gossip-columnist, a judge on British and American talent shows and, from 2011, the successor to the legendary Larry King on CNN's nightly flagship chat show.
He alienated every gun owner in the US by an ill-informed and counter-productive anti-gun campaign which illustrated an inability to understand America that had him fired this month, to Clarkson's tweeted jubilation.
In the latest round, Morgan has called Clarkson chicken for turning down his challenge to a boxing match for charity. Morgan's in the news for incautious remarks he made about phone-hacking: Clarkson for an alleged racist joke he cracked in Burma.
Neither is in the class of William Brown, who often made bad judgements and brought disaster upon himself and others, but was honourable and idealistic. And, in Hubert Lane, William had a morally inferior foe.
Besides, he was 11. Clarkson and Morgan are respectively 53 and 48.