There were a few days in mid-December when it looked like the nation might have won some respite from its daily diet of shouty culture wars. But then, on 17 December, just days after Boris Johnson’s election victory, Piers Morgan signed his new contract with Good Morning Britain, and the most enthusiastic cheerleader of national disharmony was granted two more lucrative years behind his breakfast desk.
Morgan insisted that this would be his last term of office, and that he will “sail off into the sunset” in 2022. His original tabloid mentor, Kelvin MacKenzie, argued a year ago that Morgan would not be happy until he “absolutely owns breakfast” and “is making £10m a year”. I don’t imagine he is quite there yet.
In the four and a half years since Morgan took up his seat – “back by unpopular demand” – I’ve done my best to avoid watching Good Morning Britain because, well, obviously, who in their right mind wants to start the day with Morgan at their breakfast table? But in fact there is no escape. You don’t need to be among the million viewers who tune in to Good Morning Britain to feel its daily presence in your life. Anyone with an eye on this country’s media, whether print, social, broadcast, will have absorbed Morgan’s more strident opinions – about vegan sausage rolls or Donald Trump or gender identity – by osmosis.
As part of a somewhat perverse new year’s resolution, for the past few weeks I have reversed my abstention, and watched Good Morning Britain – “the nation’s most talked about show” – as much as work has allowed. After the increasingly disconcerting political events of last year, I felt some need to begin the decade immersed in the nation’s prevailing gobby mood; where better to start? I have come to think of this hair-shirt commitment as Morganuary.
The exercise has reminded me of another story I once wrote for this paper, when, at the time the movie Super Size Me came out, I was required to eat only fast food for a week. Before and after my seven days of Big Macs and Bargain Buckets and Double Whoppers I had to undergo blood tests. The results, magnified on a hospital screen, showed an alarming rise in all sorts of fatty deposits in my veins. As I near the end of Morganuary I can’t help feeling I should have taken similar before and after fMRi scans of my brain activity. I imagine neural pathways muddied with bombast, and clogged with undigested gobbets of vitriol.
Morgan has, as you will know whether you like it or not, begun this decade as he finished the last, as the nation’s self-appointed headline-generator in chief. His long-running obsession with Meghan Markle became, as if at his personal direction, also the nation’s primary obsession: having amplified the persecution of the Duchess of Sussex, Morgan then choreographed the fallout of her escape from that persecution. Along the way there has also been the usual quota of viral sidelines. Inevitably, Morgan chimed in with Laurence Fox and his acoustic struggle to highlight the plight of white male TV celebrities, along the way explaining his definition of racism to colleagues including mixed-race weatherman Alex Beresford and guests in what GMB regulars enjoy calling “diversity corner”.
Counter-intuitively, one effect of social media has been a dramatic narrowing of the range of topics that capture the collective mind. Morgan with his 7 million Twitter followers is a master of the kind of circularity that online debate demands – all links lead back to him. As Roger Ailes, creator of Fox News, observed of the so-called infotainment age: “People don’t want to be informed, they want to seem informed.” Morgan is a prime mover in that principle.
I should make a very obvious point, belatedly, here: that Morgan is never alone at his Good Morning Britain desk (though he sometimes seems to believe himself to be). He is, for a start, not there at all on Thursdays and Fridays, or over the weekend. And beside him, from Monday to Wednesday, sits the unflappably charming and sane Susanna Reid, winner of numerous awards for television valour. Reid is paid more than £1m a year; leaving aside the manifest absurdity of that wage, there can hardly be a regular viewer of Good Morning Britain who does not entertain the idea that she earns every penny.
The industry cliche has it that news anchors are finally hired on the basis of how convincing they appear with the sound off. Reid has taken that principle to a whole new level. Though she is an incisive interviewer – witness her brilliant evisceration of Nicky Morgan talking nonsense about nurses before the election – much of her best work is nonverbal. There are YouTube compilation videos of Reid’s grimaces and eye rolls during Morgan’s never-ending monologues. “Susanna Reid dies a little inside every time Piers Morgan opens his mouth…” has nearly 800,000 views.
The more you watch the pair at work, you can’t help but feel Morgan and Reid, for better and worse, dramatise precisely, depressingly, the public mood, in which those who talk loudest feel empowered to drown out those you might want to hear. Much of the time Morgan and Reid are engaged in inane banter about ratings or Gwyneth Paltrow, but arguably no television double act has better reflected a fracturing national psyche since Steptoe and Son. Just as Albert Steptoe never gave Harold’s dreams of a more civilised life a moment’s thought, so Morgan blunders over Reid’s every effort at compromise or nuance.
Reid worked for 20 years at the BBC and once reflected that she had the corporation running through her “like the words on a stick of rock”. Her role on the show represents the collective memory of a more civilised, easygoing national sofa, before the arrival of her co-host and his confrontational desk, before trolling, before Brexit. Talking recently to the Radio Times, Reid noted, along with the rest of the nation, how “[Piers] has pushed me to get more opinionated. I don’t agree he should be left to chew these people up and spit them out like one of his rare steaks. Piers too needs to be held to account for what he says.”
The latter is obviously easier said than done. Take last Monday. Even in the short time I have been watching I have noticed that some mornings matter to Morgan much more than others. Mondays are particularly critical because he can set the dogs of particular items running all week. The three stories that he has decided are dominating that morning’s agenda are all out of his own back pocket, or at least he makes them seem so.
First, there is the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, which for Morgan inevitably becomes an occasion for personal reminiscence of his time watching basketball in Los Angeles when he was hosting his talk show for CNN. Second, there is the latest chapter in the ongoing Meghan Markle story, a trail for another exclusive interview with Markle’s estranged father, Thomas. And finally there is the kind of “story” Morgan gets up for. This is generated by a stray comment that Hugh Grant has made in promoting his latest movie, suggesting that the December election result was “a catastrophe” and, because of Brexit, Britain “is finished”.
In one of his many reflections on his decade editing the News of the World and the Mirror, Morgan once observed that “on newspapers every day is a feud. All editors need one to get by.” Morgan always needed several. Most days he rips into his current nemeses – Gary Lineker, Alastair Campbell, feminists, Meghan Markle, assorted “snowflakes”, Lord Adonis – but the feud with Grant seems more primal.
As he gets into his stride about how much he despises Grant – one of Morgan’s gifts to the nation has been to normalise the idea that it is natural for presenters to own up to “loathing” and “hating the guts” of particular public figures – you are reminded that one of the moments in his career of which Morgan is most proud was the day he ran out of his office “punching the air delightedly and shrieking an order: ‘Get the hooker!’” This after Grant had been arrested with a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard.
The drama of finding and buying off Divine Brown for the News of the World is presented in Morgan’s memoir, The Insider, as if he had taken possession of the Pentagon papers. Grant had the temerity not to be overly chuffed about that treatment in the News of the World, or about the fact that his phone was subsequently hacked by other journalists. Grant is many of the things that Morgan can’t abide: he went to private school and to Oxford (Morgan, who grew up with his mother and stepfather at a village pub in Sussex, was educated privately until he was 13, then went to the local comp after his family fell on harder times).
Using all this stored animus, Morgan revs himself up at 6.40 to a quite alarming pitch about the romcom actor’s lack of patriotism while Reid winces silently beside him. Inevitably, an immediate poll is called for by Morgan (it is an overlooked fact that the national either/or of Brexit was primed by countless such online barometers of staged anger). “Do you agree with Hugh Grant that Britain is finished?”
It is then that Good Morning Britain’s hold on the national conversation kicks in. As you watch Morgan and Reid argue about Grant, you can also watch Morgan’s mansplaining immediately amplified in real time. Some of this comes from online reaction – unchecked outrage about Grant’s throwaway line is by now trending on Twitter – some comes from online newspaper journalists, who appear to watch Good Morning Britain in the way that their predecessors used to watch the tickertape of newswires.
Hardly has Morgan half-uttered the words “Shut up” to his co-host than an online news story in the Sun is breathlessly reporting the fact: “Piers Morgan has admitted he pushes co-host Susanna Reid to her absolute limits when the pair host Good Morning Britain. This morning the pair exchanged fiery comments whilst presenting GMB live on air, signalling no end in sight to their stark differences in opinion,” the paper announced.
“Susanna attempted to shut down her fellow presenter by saying: ‘I don’t want to talk about Hugh Grant any more.’ In this particular moment, Susanna knew how to wind up the former newspaper editor as he was almost caught saying ‘Shut up’ on camera. He let out a ‘Shu–’ before quickly correcting himself…”
By now I am far enough into Morganuary that it can seem that no reporting of a world event is complete without input from Morgan. There is a genuine weirdness in watching this unfold. Morgan writes newspaper columns for the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. There was a time when that would have meant that rival tabloid newspapers would have operated a blanket ban on coverage of him. Now, perversely, certain rival online editors appear to work on the principle that if a tree falls in a forest and Piers Morgan has not tweeted about it, has it really happened?
Here, for example, is how the Express – ostensibly the biggest rival to the Mail for the hearts and minds of middle England – first reported the tragedy of the helicopter crash in which basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter died: “Piers Morgan pays tribute to ‘icon’ Kobe Bryant after death aged 41” the Express headline reads. And this is how the story that follows is constructed: “PIERS MORGAN took to Twitter alongside many celebrities to pay tribute to basketball legend Kobe Bryant, who has passed away at the age of 41… The Good Morning Britain presenter, 54, shared a photo of the basketball star in his Lakers kit and wrote in view of his 7.1 million Twitter followers: ‘Few bigger icons in the history of world sport than Kobe Bryant.’”
This habit of filtering world events through Morgan’s eyes is very far from an isolated case. On Monday morning there are by my count at least a dozen clickbait stories in the papers featuring Morgan’s reaction to the world. The previous week, in the Express alone, I had counted 16.
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Does any of this matter? It used to be observed – partly because of the grounding principles of the BBC in our media – that something like Fox News, which set the tone for the extremist populism of Trump, could never gain a foothold in this country. With BBC news under siege from all sides, Good Morning Britain, operating in that no man’s land between news and highly partisan presenter-dominated comment, goes some way to proving the opposite.
Morgan’s main opponent in this war is consensus. Increasingly of course, that means he casts himself as the defender of “common sense” and plain speaking in straw-man arguments about whether “clapping should be replaced with ‘jazz hands’ to make it more inclusive”; or in rants about plus-sized models, gender-neutral clothing or men carrying babies in papooses.
“Culture war” seems a grandiose term for what Good Morning Britain does. But the effect is to add to that pervasive impression that public life is a zero sum game in which for me to win, you have to lose. Morgan jokes continuously about his rival morning show on the BBC (which brings in twice the viewers but emits a fraction of the “noise”). “I want to destroy them, I want to dismantle them, I want to wreck them,” he says, only partly tongue in cheek.
We might think of this kind of tone as an invention of cable networks and shock jocks in the United States. If you trace its history closely, however, the language of Breitbart and Fox News – that mixture of laddish mischief and bigoted cruelty – was lifted wholesale from the Sun and the News of the World in the 1970s and 80s. Rupert Murdoch first injected it into the American bloodstream in the pages of the New York Post, and then into television through Ailes’s Fox News. The lowest common denominator principle was to “Give people what they want”.
Morgan was in many ways the wunderkind of that impulse. In 1994, Murdoch scenting an ambition he could work with, promoted 28-year-old Morgan from being editor of the Sun’s celebrity gossip column, Bizarre, to the editorship of the planet’s most read paper, the News of the World. He no doubt sensed that Morgan understood, at heart, that profit should always come before principle. Morgan tested that idea a couple of times, most notably in his bold anti-war stance while editor of the Mirror at the time of the invasion of Iraq. A crash in sales, however, saw him send a note of apology to his then boss, Sly Bailey. “One thing I won’t be doing is sitting here defiantly telling myself how I’m right and they are all wrong,” he wrote. “The readers are never wrong. Repulsive maybe, but never wrong.”
That definitive populist wisdom is something Morgan has carried with him ever since; the sense that news was a business, or a game played with public sentiment, and one that you would be a mug not to play to win. “Sometimes the job does feel a bit like playing God with people’s lives,” he said of his time at the News of the World. “I get, ultimately, to decide every week who lives and who dies by the NoW sword… The obvious glee with which my newsdesk rehearse the weekly stories of misery and mayhem created by our revelations slightly unnerves, as well as excites.”
That excitement has never quite left Morgan, even now he slurps his tea for the breakfast cameras. He would like you to believe that most of it is for show, these days, and that perhaps it always was.
In interviews, he says: “My persona in public is a slight pantomime villain. I constantly fuel this because it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s provocative, it gets everybody going, it encourages debate. All the things I like.”
The thing he most doesn’t like is the suggestion that any of that villainy might ever have been for real. Morgan has long performed triple-salchows on the thinnest of ice around the hacking scandal that led to the closure of the News of the World, and 14 criminal convictions. By his own admission before the Leveson inquiry, he knew about illegal voicemail hacking some years before it became a public outrage but he has always strongly denied any involvement in the practice. These denials have never been tested before a jury because his former employer, Mirror Group – now Reach plc – has preferred to settle any claims out of court – £70m has been set aside to cover compensation payments and legal fees and significant sums have already been paid out.
Two live cases may yet require Morgan to answer more legal questions. Princess Diana’s former lover, James Hewitt, is suing Mirror Group for damages arising from unlawful information gathering during Morgan’s time as editor at the Mirror, while Prince Harry also has a suit pending against the Mirror and the Sun on similar grounds.
Morgan did not mention that latter case in the latest instalment of his headline-making interview with Thomas Markle on Monday, though he was once again pointedly critical of Meghan’s recourse to the courts in her privacy battle against another of his employers, the Mail on Sunday. He did not feel the need to highlight any conflict of interest.
When news of Hewitt’s suit against the Mirror was tweeted by Hugh Grant, Morgan was, as ever, however, quick to respond:
“Great! Always wanted to get the Major into court so we can discuss his treasonous adultery with the wife of our future king. This will be fun! Ps Just a reminder, again, ‘Saint’ Hugh – one of us has a criminal record, and it’s not me. So stick your moralising up your a**.”
Watching Morgan at breakfast over a period of time, and despite all his self-mockery, that old tabloid nastiness is never too far from the surface. Though by all accounts an affable and charming colleague and friend, in his professional life, even at 7am, he retains the right to a bully’s instinct for taking advantage of vulnerability. That instinct, which he exploits more effectively than any other journalist in our tribal times, drives attention where he wants it: towards him. He knows how to feed that playground impulse that made you run toward a scrap when the cry of “Fight!” went up.
On Wednesday morning, Morgan was obsessing about his no-show at the National Television awards, and slagging off another of his hate figures, David Walliams. I watched Reid trying to get a word in edgeways, and felt her lucrative pain a few times when she had to give up. I could sense my resolve to keep my Morganuary habit going into our post-Brexit February waning. As with all new year’s resolutions, a month suddenly seemed like more than enough.
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‘Morganuary’: a month of clashes
Author Afua Hirsch is asked to defend her New York Times piece “Black Britons know why Meghan Markle wants out – it’s the racism”.
“You can’t just say these things are racist when they’re not,” Morgan froths.
‘I’m telling you that as someone who’s lived the experience of being a person of African heritage in this country that there are narratives that are regularly…” Hirsch replies, before being cut off by her host.
A discussion about “Harry and Meghan’s new life” becomes another robust debate about whether the treatment of the couple by the UK media had been racist. Morgan says not. This prompts lawyer and activist Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu to say: “You are a man privileged to have power and influence, and you’re using your power so irresponsibly to spout some personal vendetta with nasty and vile comments.”
Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy also ends up having to fact-check Morgan’s view that race and gender were not a factor in the media’s treatment of Meghan Markle. “If you don’t mind me saying, how on earth would you know?” she counters. “As someone who’s never had to deal with ingrained prejudice, you’re not in a position to understand people who have.”
He also picks a fight with GMB’s mixed-race weather presenter, Alex Beresford, about, you guessed it, race and Meghan Markle.
After saying he had been championing the anti-woke frontman and Question Time celebrity Laurence Fox, Morgan clashes with him over Fox’s comments that the inclusion of a Sikh soldier in the film 1917 was “forcing diversity on people”. Morgan points out that he was “sort of insulting, actually, to Sikh soldiers who had served”.