The human Marmite of British journalism, Piers Morgan, is about to be spread very thinly. He has signed a global commentary deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. A nightly talkshow will be central to the plans of a new venture, talkTV, which is to be launched “early next year”. Morgan’s show will also air on Fox Nation, a streaming spinoff from Fox News, in the US and Sky News in Australia, making him a daily presence on three continents. He can also be enjoyed – or avoided – in print, where a twice-weekly column will appear in the Sun and the New York Post, and in a book deal with Murdoch’s HarperCollins publishers.
Morgan, who stagily stormed off the set of Good Morning Britain in March, will seemingly no longer be “silenced” by “cancel culture”. He will instead be given global amplification as part of a new battle for the small but economically significant audiences for right-leaning news. The media village gossip is part of a much larger pattern of change affecting all mainstream newsrooms and challenging how broadcasters think about bias, opinion, news and their own presenters. It is also part of a testing of the generational tensions within journalism, where the hunger for diversity and broader representation is creating economic opportunities for those mining the often older, whiter, righter and richer demographic.
The talkTV venture is clearly a personal project of Rupert Murdoch, who turned 90 this year, and it reassembles his dream team of the News UK chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, and Morgan – both once rising stars on the pages of Murdoch tabloids. The project is tinged with the sense of a last hurrah: Fleetwood Hack going on the road, or indeed an old firm of bank robbers getting together for one last job.
The project does feel strangely old-fashioned in a world where the subscription newsletter service Substack, backed by venture-capital millions, has been siphoning commentators with large followings. Stories of how a successful Substackers can pull in $1m a year have unsettled columnists, and the emerging world of even higher rewards for talking heads on streaming platforms such as YouTube creates as much intrigue as incredulity.
The question for talkTV is therefore whether a mainstream media dinosaur gatekeeper such as News UK can compete with the multiplatform rightwing bloviators with low production costs who are steadily gnawing away at core audiences. As Fox News in the US has demonstrated, combining the leverage of legacy with the costs and reach of technology platforms has proved highly successful for companies who are unconcerned with reflecting a diversity of opinion, or have a famously tenuous relationship with the truth.
It is also significant that News UK not so long ago ruled out producing a fully fledged TV channel, suggesting it was “not commercially viable”. The arrangements and formats of talkTV have yet to be finalised – it will be reportedly be available to be streamed on smart TVs and as a traditional channel. In News Corp’s global results announcement in August, its chief executive, Robert Thomson, attributed a very upbeat picture for the media divisions to global content deals signed with Facebook and Google: “These deals, which are confidential, will add revenue annually into nine figures and are a profoundly positive sign of the ongoing transformation of the news landscape.”
The unveiling of the Morgan/Murdoch vehicle follows a series of disasters at GB News, the rightwing news channel launched in June that has been beset by technical and editorial issues. Their own star defection from mainstream media, Andrew Neil, left after an amateurish launch made the station a laughing stock. It has been reported that Neil was locked in a legal battle with the channel as he tried to extricate himself from the mess. It is tempting to speculate that Neil was aware of the shadow moves by Murdoch and his key executive, Brooks, to recruit Morgan and launch a rival to GB News, though whether this played any part in his desire to leave is uncertain. Just as the Conservative party under Boris Johnson moved rightwards to squeeze out Brexiteer threats, so Nigel Farage and his beer garden of followers on GB News may find themselves outflanked by the more professional talkTV.
Mainstream news broadcasting, which is constrained in the UK by Ofcom from having an explicitly political lens to its coverage, lurches along in a sea of social media interest optimised for emotion and outrage. The hard, expensive work of reporting the news has always suffered in relation to the cheaper business of discussing the news. Facebook, one of the most successful advertising companies in history, has suffered a series of recent embarrassments on the public relations front (uncovered by Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal), with its content moderation reportedly goes easy on individuals with large followings. Despite outrage at its real-world political effects, Facebook’s lightly moderated publishing strategy remains fundamentally unaltered – because it is wildly, wildly profitable.
In this sense, the arrival of talkTV says as much about Murdoch’s keenly opportunistic business instincts as it does about ideology and culture wars – or indeed his own desire to have something else to watch amid pandemic TV bingeing.
Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism