The Rise and Rise of Piers Morgan

The Rise and Rise of Piers Morgan

Why his GMB departure is their loss, his gain, and will be a short-lived step away from the spotlight.

[Written by Dan Sumsion (he/him)]

[Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash]

Piers Morgan has joined Harry, Meghan and Nigel Farage in the celebrities who have announced their departures from public life this week, but they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Ask any member of the public how they would describe Piers Morgan and there’s a good chance it would begin with ‘t’ and rhyme with ‘bat’. In a 2018 poll by DevonLive on UK’s most hated celebrities, Morgan came in at a comfortable 5th place, flanked by Jeremy Kyle and Jeremy Clarkson – if someone places this trio at their dream dinner party, scan for the nearest exit. Interestingly they all enjoy their fair share of notoriety, but Morgan has a cut-through that dwarfs the other two combined. He enjoys name recognition in at least two continents and is loved and loathed in as many. 

It is hard to imagine any other public figure pioneering morally dubious journalistic practices, being sacked for publishing falsities and still enjoying a bombastic and lax relationship with the truth (eyes away from No. 10 please). But it is a testament to Morgan’s shrewd media mastery that he can transcend the norms which constrict his colleagues and establish a seat for three decades at the centre of the action. At 29, Morgan became the youngest ever editor of a national newspaper, appointed by Murdoch himself to man the ship at the News of the World – a widely circulated UK publication for that time.

His career would plummet to new lows amidst the phone-hacking scandal that saw the closure of the paper. In one year a government investigation into Morgan-led insider dealing would be wound up, and he would lose his job as editor of the Daily Mirror over hoax photographs of British soldiers torturing an Iraqi detainee and would fall foul of the Leveson inquiry (where his evidence was dubbed ‘utterly unconvincing’ – ouch.) Any one of these scandals would be enough to put the average journalist’s career on the rocks, but…you guessed it, Morgan isn’t the average journalist. It speaks to Morgan’s brass (if not steel) neck that if asked about any of said incidents he’ll defend his actions with a smug righteousness. This is not typically afforded to those who commit what could be classified as an English original sin – throwing British troops under the bus with images as legitimate as any others you could find with a quick Google Images search.

And yet it is Morgan who would land Donald Trump’s first international interview. Pilloried by other journalist types, (an unedifying Twitter spat with BBC veteran John Simpson who Piers derided as a ‘pompous old prune’) he was received much better by the public at large. He possesses the rare ability to transcend the media bubble which preoccupies many journalists. Often the Beeb is lambasted for promoting the values of a small ‘metropolitan, liberal elite’ and asking questions wholly irrelevant to the interests and values of the at-home viewer. Morgan rightly assessed that a confrontational Paxo-esque interview would put Trump on the back-foot, resulting in a defensive and revelation-free thirty minutes. It was no Maitlis/Prince Andrew game-changer but Morgan was at least fairly credited with granting viewers a fresh perspective of the, now former, President who had until then fell firmly into caricature.

So how is it that Morgan can reach such highs and lows whilst maintaining a permanent place in the public eye? The answer lies in his sphinx-like ability to reincarnate with the zeitgeist – an ability granted by his acute eye for the public mood in the first place. When asked in a 2018 Radio Times interview whether it was exhausting constantly going against the grain of public opinion, Morgan retorted in true Piers Morgan style – ‘I think I am the grain of public opinion.’  He is right on this; he senses national feeling and embodies it like a weathervane with a penchant for being liked. He continues, ‘I don’t ever argue an opinion I genuinely do not think is my opinion, but my opinion can change.’ And change it does – Morgan can go from scrapping it out with Alistair Campbell on a second referendum to tearing a clean chunk out of the health secretary in front of millions with a slickness that has leftie Twitter types scratching their heads wondering how they found themselves agreeing with Piers Morgan. 

In the same interview, he can come undone when asked which politician he currently admires the most – forthcoming answer there is none – and why would there be? Morgan is too shrewd to pin colours to any mast when he can enjoy a healthy disdain for all politicians. If the British electorate holds most all politicians in low regard, if outrage and outbursts generate views, if Morgan can go at any given politician at any given time – well, what’s the point in liking them if everyone else doesn’t. It is noteworthy, and perhaps a little concerning, that the current government rowed back on their Good Morning Britain boycott much earlier than that of Newsnight. Morgan’s cut-through explains it, but whilst ITV’s breakfast show is locked in a fierce ratings-battle with BBC Breakfast, heading onto their respective Youtube pages, it’s evident which garners more views. 

Why watch Dan Walker toe the line and keep things impartial (yawn) when you can flick two channels and watch Morgan take some shiny, gammon-faced minister and verbally kick their head in for ten minutes on national television. Where politics is about nuance, broadcast journalism is not – and Morgan gets this like no other. In an era of unsureness (Brexit, Trump, Covid) Morgan satiates an appetite for certainty. Things are often not what they seem, but to tune in and see this ‘household’ name paint things black and white must be reassuring and a much easier morning digest. Even Morgan’s greatest detractors recognise it for what it is – good television. Ian Hislop, long time sparring partner of Morgan’s, confessed to finding ‘his harangue of Hancock pretty good’. 

The late Rush Limbaugh, who dominated American conservative talk radio for decades and mastered the craft of painting the world in Trump-esque colours, also understood how to satisfy the human craving for certainty that liberal democracy couldn’t provide. However, Limbaugh was anchored by political perspectives in a way Morgan was not; he was unpinnable, Morgan’s reach is infinitely wide. To provide ‘definites in a world of maybes’ is one thing, but to be able to consistently redefine what those ‘definites’ are, is another talent altogether. Regardless, Morgan’s weakness is in losing this canny distance from whatever it is he is ranting about. It’s his fleeting interest, his chosen outrage of the day, that prevents him getting absorbed enough in any one subject to the point that his sense of perspective and canny eye for public feeling can become distorted. Accusations against Meghan Markle for lying about feeling suicidal reveal Morgan in a moment of anger, an anger which blinds him from his usual astute sense of ‘the grain of public opinion’ and therefore blind to what his morning audiences will find acceptable.

Like Icarus, Morgan is no stranger to flying too close to the sun. But unlike Icarus, Morgan never quite hits the ground – he just dusts himself off, dances round an apology and scans for his next target (or often shoots a ‘vegan sausage roll’ style bullet just for effect). And even then, where Morgan is at his most unedifying, he is still producing telly that sells…and sells…and sells. It is no wonder Carolyn McCall – ITV’s dynamic boss – herself has publicly sided with Meghan but won’t go at her ex-employee for his own comments. It all makes for compelling television, so long as it doesn’t become a cliche. 

Where the News of the World died, Morgan carried its flame – the human embodiment of the tabloid press. No guiding values, just a keen eye for the public mood and a ranty, unfaltering voice through which to communicate such confected outrage. The Twitterati have recently been whipping up a frenzy about the import of GB News onto televisions across the UK but to focus solely on Andrew Neil’s new pet project (‘its Britain’s FOX’, they cry) is to miss the point. ITV has already taken what sells from FOX – the on-air, to-camera rants – and shaped it to appease British appetites. 

Morgan’s departure was only ever going to go one way. Anyone who reckons Morgan’s walkout during Alex Beresford’s piece to camera today wasn’t an idea that jumped to him as Beresford did the same to him yesterday isn’t watching closely enough. Undoubtedly, Morgan is always considering his next move, and will be setting his sights at a spot-on Neil’s new channel; they are likely figuring out a slot for him at this moment. Without Susanna Reid for a bit of clear-headed balance, full-Morgan will ensue.

Morgan’s detractors will no doubt misread this as a faltering in Morgan’s scandal-ridden and internationally hated career. But this is just another savvy Piers Morgan maneuver in his unending rise to the top. GB News will be the dream avenue in which Morgan can do what he does best – making people angry, staying relevant and getting his wings burned.

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