When the next history of the British media is written, there should be a chapter seeking to explain why it so often ends up being about Piers Morgan. Within 48 hours of Meghan and Prince Harry turning a much-needed spotlight on racism in the industry, Morgan’s sudden departure from ITV’s breakfast show shifted the attention not just to him, but to the issue of free speech. His comments tested the tension between freedom of expression and truth, just as two news channels are to be launched that could test the boundaries of the UK’s regulated, impartial TV media.
This is not about whether Morgan will end up working for Rupert Murdoch’s News UK streaming service or Andrew Neil’s GB News (though the prospect of jobs at the channels undoubtedly eased his passage from ITV), but about whether it can possibly be right to publicly disown the truth of somebody else’s mental distress.
The pretty obvious answer is that it cannot – and yet Morgan’s departure has still somehow managed to stir up a row over what impartiality means in broadcast news. It may be tempting to ignore this, but a failure to reassert the principles of impartiality will make it easier for broadcasters to succumb to the economic and political pressures pushing them towards the sort of partisan TV media that is common in the US.
But first, a recap for those struggling with the frenzied news cycle of the past few days. The morning after Meghan told Oprah Winfrey that she had contemplated suicide and received no help from the royal family, Morgan called her a liar. “I don’t believe a word she says, Meghan Markle. I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report.”
The charity Mind, which supports an ITV mental health campaign, joined many others, including his own colleagues, in accusing him of being irresponsible and harmful. Meanwhile, 41,000 people complained to media regulator Ofcom. When a mealy-mouthed comment about not disputing the real issues of mental health failed to stop his own colleagues criticising him on air, Morgan stomped off.
In a departure note posted to Twitter on Wednesday morning, Morgan wrote: “I said I didn’t believe Meghan Markle in her Oprah interview. I’ve had time to reflect on this opinion, and I still don’t. If you did, OK. Freedom of speech is a hill I’m happy to die on.” Inevitably, he posted a picture of Churchill with the old saw: “Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”
Some of Morgan’s old colleagues at CNN rallied to his defence. Anchor Jake Tapper called the reaction “insanity” and tweeted: “This is what happens when you live in a country where there is no First amendment.” Tapper suggested that it would be better for complainants to “tweet Piers what you think of his comments” rather than go to the regulator, part of whose job it is to prevent public service broadcasters causing harm and offence.
Tapper is a brilliant presenter (as is Morgan in many ways), but his idea that Twitter is the place for redress underlines just how far down a nasty rabbit hole the American idea of freedom has led us: to a place where conspiracy theories and hatred can be disseminated by US social media giants without any sanction at all. After all, it was almost exactly a year ago that presenters such as Sean Hannity on Fox News were given the freedom to accuse the media of “scaring the living hell out of people” with the “new hoax” of the coronavirus.
The rules regarding harm and offence governed by Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code are written in the sort of legalese that would never go viral. Yet, along with public opinion, they are more or less the last bulwarks ensuring that the British broadcast media remains committed to offering as unbiased a version of events as is possible, unlike the newspapers, which are under no such mandate.
The UK system is far from perfect, of course. Rumours that the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre is the prime minister’s preferred candidate for the top job at Ofcom and the very history of BBC licence fee negotiations alone demonstrate this. But in a world in which the business model for news has been ripped up, broadcast regulation means that the influential media is not governed by commercial interests alone.
Still, Morgan’s last Good Morning Britain show on Tuesday was watched by 1.29m viewers, more than its much quieter BBC rival with 1.25m. The problem is that outrage sells, just look at the history of tabloid newspapers in the UK. Murdoch, who has possibly made more money out of the British media than anyone else, knows this. My money is on a new Piers Morgan morning show on the soon-to-be streamed News UK. The good news is that brilliant journalists of colour such as Ranvir Singh and Clive Myrie are already being tipped to replace the former host on Good Morning Britain.
• Jane Martinson is a Guardian columnist