The Media Today

Piers Morgan, Donald Trump, and the doomed transatlantic culture wars

April 27, 2022
Photo by: zz/KGC-254/STAR MAX/IPx 2022 4/24/22 Piers Morgan is seen on April 24, 2022 outside the BBC Broadcasting House Studios in London, England, UK.

“WOKE INSANITY.” “SNOWFLAKE SOCIETY.” “THE WORLD’S GONE NUTS!” These are just a few of the slogans that burst forth from an animation of an exploding human brain in the opening titles of Uncensored, Piers Morgan’s new vehicle on TalkTV, a Murdoch-backed channel that launched in the UK on Monday night. “As Nelson Mandela might have said, it’s been a long walk to freedom of speech, but now I’m back,” Morgan—whose last appearance on British TV saw him storm out of his studio, then his network, after a colleague called out his rabid commentary about Meghan Markle—said, before issuing an “urgent trigger warning,” sneering at “ideological imperialists waving your digital snitch-forks,” and flashing up a (remarkably bad) cartoon depicting Markle as Pinocchio. “We’re global, we’re gonna annoy all the right people, and I’m UNCENSORED,” he shouted. (“He” being Morgan, not Pinocchio.)

Morgan’s first guest on his new show was a Mr. Donald Trump of Palm Beach, Florida, where Morgan traveled to do an interview. Word of the sitdown made international headlines last week—Murdoch tabloids in the UK and the US, I’m sure coincidentally, splashed it on their front pages—when a promo clip appeared to show Trump storming off-set after Morgan bravely called out his lies about the 2020 election. (It would be “THE MOST EXPLOSIVE INTERVIEW OF THE YEAR,” the clip promised, in a Hollywood-style voiceover.) Trump denied that he stormed out, with Taylor Budowich, his spokesperson, claiming that Morgan’s team had edited the interview deceptively in “a pathetic attempt to use President Trump as a way to revive the career of a failed television host.” Morgan, predictably, relished the blowback—“He says it’s a rigged election, and he now says I have a rigged promo”—but also said that he and Trump had had some “nice exchanges,” too. “What I would say is watch the interview,” he said.

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On Monday night, after yet more promos and Morgan’s opening diatribe, we got to see the real thing. There were indeed some nice exchanges. Morgan started out by asking Trump about post-presidential life, before cycling through topics including Russia (Trump: Putin thinks people “are all stupid and afraid”; Morgan: “I totally agree”), whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan incentivized Putin to invade Ukraine (Trump: “they would have never done this” otherwise; Morgan: “I agree”), and US domestic politics. (Trump: “I think it’s more polarized now”; Morgan: “I don’t disagree.”) When we finally got to the exchange on Trump’s election denialism, Morgan did indeed accuse Trump of inciting the insurrection, but the rest of his commentary was hardly hard-hitting; he referred to the fact that Biden won fairly as “my belief,” before pivoting to “the bottom line” that Trump is relitigating 2020 all wrong. “When you talk about having a stolen election,” Morgan told him, “you’re on better ground, it seems to me, with the Hunter Biden laptop story.” Accountability journalism, meet political consultancy.

Morgan is the tentpole of a tripartite nightly lineup on TalkTV: before him, Tom Newton Dunn, a political journalist and veteran of the Murdoch empire, hosts a British political news show that’s pitched as straight down the middle (with a right-wing flex here and there); after Morgan, Sharon Osbourne—who quit The Talk, on CBS, last year after blowing up at a cohost who suggested that she was covering for Morgan’s racism—hosts a show that is also called The Talk. The rest of TalkTV’s daily programming consists of airing video of broadcasts from talkRadio, an established station, also owned by Murdoch, whose content often indulges similar culture-war themes. TalkTV is leaning explicitly on other synergies with existing Murdoch properties: Newton Dunn’s show is populated with talking heads from Murdoch print titles, while according to The Guardian’s Jim Waterson, “friends from Fox” have helped TalkTV with programming advice and set design. Morgan’s show is also available on the Fox Nation streaming service in the US, as well as on Sky News in Australia. “Whether you live in Britain, America, Australia,” Morgan said during his debut, “it’s time we went back to being real democracies.”

TalkTV is not the only recent entrant in the right-wing British TV space. (For what it’s worth, Morgan and TalkTV have denied that they are overtly right-wing. Okay.) Early last year, media reporters talked excitedly of rival “British Foxes” with plans to launch soon. One, backed by Murdoch, subsequently scaled back its ambitions, citing the financial difficulties of launching a rolling-news channel before later reformulating a broadcast plan around Morgan; in between times, the other venture, GB News, got underway but was quickly beset by problems, including (but not limited to) amateurish technical glitches, low ratings, an advertiser exodus, quarreling bosses, and a deeper philosophical aimlessness that landed the network somewhere between serious news and culture-war red meat without it committing to either. (TalkTV was reportedly keen to avoid replicating the technical glitches, in particular. Newton Dunn’s words were badly out of sync with his mouth when he came on air Monday; otherwise, the channel has so far achieved a basically professional aesthetic.) GB News is still around, though observers have questioned whether it can survive the launch of TalkTV. Morgan has claimed that Nigel Farage, a British politician turned GB News host, sent Trump, with whom he is friendly, an anti-Morgan dossier that nearly derailed the latter’s interview. On air, he called Farage a “treacherous little weasel” at “a little-watched network.”

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I wrote last year that GB News’s early travails hadn’t surprised me: launching a new TV network of any description is hard, and I doubted that it was really serving a gap in the market given that Britain’s media ecosystem is already saturated with right-wing outrage, just not on TV. When the plans for TalkTV were announced, I wrote that it might be a more serious proposition due to Morgan’s infamy and Murdoch’s resources, and what I’ve seen so far hasn’t changed my assessment: the new network already looks much slicker than GB News, and it is, ultimately, trying to build a less ambitious product from a firmer, pre-existing bedrock. (TalkRadio was already one of GB News’s established competitors.) TalkTV is reportedly willing to pay to secure agenda-setting guests (though Trump, perhaps surprisingly, did it for free), and the ratings so far have been strong. The real test will come when the novelty wears off—GB News also posted strong numbers before sliding—though analysts say that TalkTV might not need stellar ratings to be considered a success if it can steer eyeballs to other Murdoch properties and generate broader hype. Morgan achieved this with Trump even before his show launched. 

I also wrote last year, however, that US-style culture-war content doesn’t have much of an audience in the UK, and that trying to serve the same red meat to right-wingers in three very different countries was unlikely to work out. Here, too, TalkTV’s debut has not changed my assessment. Newton Dunn’s show might find an audience domestically, but it is hardly a departure from the established norms of British political journalism; Morgan, for his part, may carry his show to UK popularity by sheer force of personality, and Fox Nation, for instance, doesn’t need it to do well in America. But it’s unlikely to become a transatlantic—or transpacific, for that matter—culture-war juggernaut. Again, as I see it, outrage politics in the UK and Australia—at the mass level—have different roots and manifestations than in the US, despite some elite-level importation of US-style themes. Efforts to reconcile them looked doomed to plop into the ocean.

The meat of Morgan’s interview with Trump illustrates this point well. For all his risible self-promotion about speaking truth to Trump’s power, Morgan fell between two cultural stools. He didn’t actually take Trump on, in the very British tradition of the interviewer who’s not afraid to speak his mind. But nor did he kowtow to Trump’s election denialism—a basic requirement for many right-wing media consumers in the US. America, it should be noted, spat Morgan out once before, when his CNN show was canceled for low ratings in 2014. As The Guardian’s Mark Lawson noted in a review of his new show, that was partly attributable to Morgan “being viewed in the US as an asshole Brit, only one of which objections applies in the UK.”

As Morgan’s debut show came to a close on Monday, it transpired that we wouldn’t be finding out if Trump actually did storm out of the interview, or why; we’d have to wait for Tuesday’s show for that. Last night—after fifteen more minutes of mutual griping about Markle, trans athletes, and Twitter—Morgan finally addressed how the interview ended: Trump, Morgan maintained, was still angry about the election confrontation, but the real problem, he said, was Budowich, the spokesperson, who tried repeatedly to shut down the interview because it had run over time. When Morgan finally rolled the tape, it showed Trump answering a chummy question about golf, the interview ending quite normally, and Trump getting up and leaving; he could be heard muttering “very dishonest” as he left, but he didn’t storm out. In a statement before the interview was broadcast, Trump described it as “long and tedious.” Sometimes, even he tells the truth.

Below, more on British media:

  • Mail gaze: Over the weekend, observers from across the political and media spectrum condemned the Mail on Sunday, a right-wing tabloid, after it ran a story, based on anonymous quotes from Conservative Party lawmakers, claiming that Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, likes to cross and uncross her legs in Parliament as a “Basic Instinct ploy” to distract Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The speaker of Parliament declined, as one female Conservative lawmaker suggested, to strip the story’s author of his press pass, but did ask David Dillon, the editor of the Mail on Sunday, to come in for a meeting. Dillon, however, defended the piece and rejected the proposed meeting, characterizing it as an assault on press freedom.
  • #MeToo: Yesterday, The Guardian and the BBC published a joint investigation detailing allegations of sexual misconduct that multiple women have made against Tim Westwood, a prominent DJ who used to work for a BBC radio station. “The women, who are all black, decided to tell their stories in the aftermath of anonymous allegations of inappropriate behaviour about Westwood circulating on social media in June 2020,” Alexandra Topping and Aamna Mohdin write. “In a statement at the time, Westwood denied any wrongdoing, saying the allegations online were fabricated, false and without foundation.” He has continued to deny the allegations in their entirety.
  • Nad for business: Nadine Dorries, Britain’s culture minister, said that she may intervene to stop Newsquest, a local newspaper chain, from acquiring Archant, a rival publisher, on competition grounds, noting that the merger would bring a majority of local titles in a region in the east of England under common ownership. “Such concentration of ownership has the potential to impact the plurality of views available in local newspapers in East Anglia,” Dorries said. She has asked regulators to look into the matter.
  • Can’t live, if living is without you: After the government pledged to freeze the “license fee” by which British taxpayers fund the BBC, bosses commissioned an unusual study in a bid to prove its worth—researchers asked skeptics of paying the license fee to live without BBC services for nine days, with 70 percent of participants changing their position at the end of that period. Participants “underestimated the amount of BBC content and services they consumed such as high-profile drama, live sport, children’s channels and audio platform BBC Sounds,” Deadline’s Max Goldbart reports.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.