Racism, the culture wars, and the self-cancellation of Piers Morgan

After Megxit, Morgxit. Yesterday, Piers Morgan—whose longstanding animus toward Meghan Markle has reached a deranged fever pitch since she and her husband, Prince Harry, sat for an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey—stormed off the set of Good Morning Britain, a breakfast show that he co-hosted on ITV (the same network, incidentally, that broadcast the Oprah interview in the UK). He had been challenged on air by a colleague, Alex Beresford, who suggested to Morgan that he dislikes Meghan because she snubbed him socially. “Has she said anything about you since she cut you off?” Beresford asked. “I don’t think she has, but yet you continue to trash her.” At that, Morgan stood up and walked out. “Sorry,” he said, “can’t do this.” Beresford shook his head. “This is absolutely diabolical behavior,” he said. “I’m sorry, but Piers spouts off on a regular basis and we all have to sit there and listen.” Susanna Reid, Morgan’s co-host (who has also regularly sparred with him on air), cut in for a break. It wasn’t yet 7am.

Initially, Morgan wasn’t gone for long. He came back to conclude his argument with Beresford; later, he hosted an interview with Thomas Markle, Meghan’s estranged father, that watching journalists variously called “uncomfortable” and “sickeningly gratuitous.” By the end of the day, however, Morgan would be gone for good. ITV announced, in a terse statement, that Morgan had permanently quit Good Morning Britain, and that the network had accepted his decision. It offered no further details, but Carolyn McCall, ITV’s CEO, had moved earlier, on an earnings call, to distance herself from comments Morgan had made about Meghan’s mental health. (Meghan told Oprah that she had suicidal thoughts while she was a working member of the royal family; Morgan said on Monday, “I don’t believe a word she says. I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report.”) Mind, a mental-health charity that has worked with ITV, had disavowed Morgan’s remarks; Meghan reportedly lodged a formal complaint with the broadcaster, and thousands of viewers complained to Ofcom, Britain’s media regulator, which confirmed yesterday that it was investigating. This morning, Reid addressed Morgan’s absence on air. She was unable to muster many kind words, beyond acknowledging that Morgan had devoted fans. “Piers and I have disagreed on many things, and that dynamic was one of the things that viewers loved about the program. He was without doubt an outspoken, challenging, opinionated, disruptive broadcaster,” she said. “Shows go on, and so on we go.”

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Last night, Morgan broke his silence in a tweet that he hashtagged “#TrustYourGut.” This morning, he amped up the defiance—bragging about yesterday’s ratings, tweeting a Winston Churchill quote about free speech, doubling down on his Meghan skepticism, and saying, “I’m off to spend more time with my opinions.” He was off, it turned out, to share more of his opinions with reporters outside his home. “If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly-held opinion about Meghan Markle and that diatribe of bilge she came out with in that interview, so be it,” he said, over the clicking of cameras. “Although the woke crowd will think that they’ve canceled me, I think they will be rather disappointed when I re-emerge.” Already, Morgan’s comrades in Britain’s (and America’s) anti-woke brigades have come rushing to his defense. “When every single person on your TV screens or on the radio is identikit, dull as ditchwater, toeing the line, and spouting the same ‘acceptable opinions’ every single day so that the Twitter mobs don’t demand they are canceled, well, the thought police won’t stop there,” the right-wing broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer said on talk radio this morning. “They’ll come for you next.”

If this all sounds a bit Fox News-y to you, you wouldn’t be the only one. In recent years, liberal commentators have fretted that a US-style culture war is gaining ground on the British right—a dynamic fueled by Brexit, and its attendant nativist politics of xenophobia and chest-thumping national pride, that has since manifested in ever-more contrived rows whose particulars remain thoroughly British (the flag, patriotic anthems, national heritage) but whose totems and lexicon (statues, campus free speech, “wokeness”) increasingly feel Americanized. The governing Conservative Party has mainlined the politics of social grievance as its voter base has started to cross traditional class lines. On the media front, Fox News has entered the conversation: two new channels that are in the process of being set up—one by Rupert Murdoch, the other by rivals including Andrew Neil, a veteran conservative journalist with longstanding ties both to the BBC and the Murdoch empire—are banking on the growing popularity of brash anti-liberal commentary, and have already earned the moniker of British Foxes. No sooner had Morgan quit yesterday than he had been linked with both ventures.

The danger a British Fox could pose should not be dismissed out of hand; we need only look to the US to see that. But it’s far from clear that the American language of grievance—and the “cancel culture” wars, in particular—really resonate in the same way in the UK. And, most pertinently, Britain does not need to import this language at all. The Brits practically invented modern, media-driven outrage, albeit in print, not on screen; Murdoch was a menace in the UK long before Fox was a glint in his eye. Morgan cut his teeth at Murdoch tabloids, and went on to edit one of them. Britain, of course, exported Morgan to the US; he hosted a primetime show on CNN from 2011 through 2014, when the network literally canceled him, due to poor ratings. He is not, whatever he may say, being metaphorically canceled now—at least, not by anyone other than himself. If anything is true of the British media industry, it is that rich, white motormouths with tedious views about free speech and the royal family will never want for a professional home. As Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor, wrote yesterday, Morgan’s job at Good Morning Britain may have fallen victim to the culture war, but that’s “different from saying Morgan himself is a victim of it; in some ways he has been a beneficiary.” In many ways.

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Meanwhile, a much more important conversation—about systemic racism in British society and the media, more narrowly—has been overshadowed by Morgan’s theatrics. In the Oprah interview, Meghan and Harry called out racism in Britain’s press; the country’s Society of Editors declared categorically, in response, that “the UK media is not bigoted,” which itself prompted a backlash from well over a hundred British journalists of color, as well as from the editors of The Guardian, the Financial Times, and HuffPost UK, who called the statement proof of “an industry in denial.” Yesterday morning, Morgan stuck around long enough to hear Beresford, who identifies as mixed race, attest to the “covert and overt racism” he has experienced at work. “I wish I had the privilege to sit on the fence,” Beresford said afterward, but “in order for me to do that I would have to strip myself of my identity and that’s not something I can do.” Royal feuds and “cancel culture” nonsense are not the only dynamics that straddle the Atlantic.

Below, more on the British media and the interview: 

  • The palace breaks its silence: Yesterday, Buckingham Palace finally commented publicly on the Oprah interview: it put out a statement, in the name of the Queen, that said “the whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan,” and that “the issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning.” It went on: “While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.” (Some observers noted that it took the palace much longer to respond to Meghan’s claims than it took for it to address a recent Times of London story accusing Meghan of bullying staff.) 
  • Burn it down: In a column for the New York Times, Hamilton Nolan tackles the “widespread conviction,” in the wake of the interview, that we should fight to make the monarchy better. “You cannot turn a bottle of poison into a refreshing drink, no matter how much sugar you pour into it,” he writes. Instead, “a just and proper response to what we have learned would be for the entire United Kingdom to come together, join hands in a great circle around the institution of the monarchy and burn it to the ground, while singing ‘Sweet Caroline,’ to maintain a positive spirit.” (When he isn’t assailing Britain’s “mortifying lack of revolutionary gumption,” Nolan writes about the Washington Post as a public editor for CJR. You can read his writing for us here.)
  • The bigger problem: Last week, Moya Lothian McLean wrote, for the British magazine gal-dem, that hopes for a pluralist, anti-racist British press have been “strangled” by a shortage of trainee programs and available staff roles, especially for young journalists from marginalized backgrounds. “For underrepresented voices, such as those belonging to people of colour, freelancing is often the route into journalism they are forced to take,” McLean wrote. “Self-employment offers almost no opportunity for training; instead wannabe journalists have to figure it out as they go along.”


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, jury selection began in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd last summer. Due to the massive profile of the case, prospective jurors were asked extensive questions, including about their media consumption; those who were seated were told to avoid media coverage going forward. Due to pandemic restrictions, only three reporters are allowed inside the courtroom, though TV cameras have been let in, too—granting the viewing public the ability to watch a full criminal trial for the first time in Minnesota’s judicial history. Court TV is broadcasting the trial. The Post’s Steven Zeitchik assessed its preparations.
  • Just weeks after finalizing their acquisition of HuffPost, management at BuzzFeed made sweeping cuts to HuffPost’s newsroom: forty-seven staffers—many of them senior and thirty-three of them union members—will lose their jobs in the US, and HuffPost’s operations in Canada will be shuttered completely, leading to the loss of twenty-three more jobs. In a meeting yesterday, Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO, told staff that the cuts were the “most responsible thing” to do; according to Laura Wagner, of Defector, the password to join the meeting was “spr!ngisH3r3,” and Peretti made staffers check their inboxes for three hours afterward to find out whether they were among those cut.
  • Yesterday, a judge in New York State dismissed a libel suit that the Trump campaign brought against the Times last year, over an opinion piece in which Max Frankel, the paper’s former executive editor, wrote of a “quid pro quo” between Trump and Russia in 2016. (Frankel was not a defendant.) The judge ruled that the piece was protected opinion, and that the campaign had failed to demonstrate “actual malice” and did not have standing to sue. As Bill Grueskin wrote this week in CJR, the campaign also sued CNN and the Post; the former suit was also dismissed, but the latter is still pending.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Christopher Ali, Hilde Van den Bulck, and Bo Lee explore why trust in PBS has remained high, despite declines in its viewership and in media trust, generally. They found that the broadcaster could use this trust to assume “a more prominent role in the media ecosystem,” but that in order to do so, it will need more funds to invest in news programming and digital experimentation.
  • Also for CJR, Ariana Pekary, our public editor for CNN, writes that the network has been guilty of amplifying misinformation from Trump’s late Twitter account. “On CNN, as nearly everywhere else, opinion has become news,” Pekary writes. “What a politician or pundit says is presented as equivalent to actual events that have occurred. The news becomes a rolling argument, not an account of what happened that day.”
  • To mark International Women’s Day, Reporters Without Borders published a survey on sexism in journalism; it found that the internet is “the most dangerous place for women journalists,” followed by their own workplaces. And the Reuters Institute found that women hold just twenty-two percent of top-editor jobs in twelve countries that it sampled. The figure ranges from zero percent, in Japan, to sixty percent, in South Africa.
  • Writing for Al Jazeera, Anabela Lemos and Ilham Rawoot, of Friends of the Earth, raise the alarm about deteriorating press freedom in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, where reporters covering terrorist violence, the natural-gas industry, and links between the two have come under threat. Last year, Ibrahimo Abu Mbaruco, a local radio reporter, went missing; last month, Tom Bowker, a British journalist, was expelled from the country.
  • Yesterday, the British government launched a national action plan to combat the abuse and harassment of journalists; it calls for police officers to receive special training, for prosecutors to robustly handle crimes against reporters, and for government bureaucrats to study the extent of the problem. Leading media unions expressed support for the plan.
  • And Roger Mudd, a longtime correspondent for CBS and short-time anchor on NBC, has died. He was ninety-three. In his decades reporting on DC and national politics, Mudd covered corruption scandals including Watergate, and was Ted Kennedy’s interlocutor for an excruciating 1979 interview that effectively ended Kennedy’s presidential hopes. 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.