Culture

How Piers Morgan Became the Most Divisive Man in British Media

The 'Good Morning Britain' host has spent decades cultivating the persona that makes him a one-man clickbait machine.

by Mark Wilding
30 July 2019, 8:33am

Illustration: Dan Evans 

As millions of people took to the streets for the 2017 Women's March, Piers Morgan spent the day on Twitter.

Just after 9AM, he posted: "Imagine if there were a load of men-only marches today? The feminists would go crackers." Around 90 minutes later, he tweeted again. "I'm planning a 'Men's March' to protest at the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists," he wrote. "Who's with me?" Within hours, the posts had been liked and retweeted tens of thousands of times.

Throughout the day, Morgan posted over 100 tweets about the march, held to coincide with Donald Trump's inauguration. Morgan branded the event "absurd", "sexist" and "anti-democratic". That evening, Madonna gave a speech in Washington in which she claimed to have "thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House". Morgan called for her to be arrested.

Two days later, Good Morning Britain – the breakfast television show hosted by Morgan and Susanna Reid – invited Women's Equality Party leader Sophie Walker to discuss the march. Morgan wanted to speak about Madonna. For several minutes he pressed his guest to condemn the singer's comments. "I am for free speech and we're not getting free speech as women," Walker replied. "Either under Donald Trump or on this programme, because you're more interested in pantomime than political debate."

Morgan accused Walker of double standards: supporting free speech for Madonna but not for Trump. "You're making absolutely zero sense," he said, pointing at Walker with his pen. After several times of trying, Reid finally interjected. She turned to her co-host with visible frustration. "Firstly, I don't think Sophie should be held accountable for every single person who took part in that march," she said, "and secondly, Madonna does not have any influence on policy and how it affects millions of women."

Regular Good Morning Britain viewers have grown familiar with this type of exchange. There are YouTube compilation videos dedicated to Reid's facial expressions during Morgan's monologues. One, titled "Susanna Reid dies a little inside every time Piers Morgan opens his mouth…", has over three-quarters of a million views. (As tempting as it might be to see Reid as a long-suffering victim, she recently told British GQ that, while she often disagrees with her co-host: "I am loath to say it, but he's a genius.") She is the straight woman to Morgan's caricature, her eye rolls and sighs carrying the weight of a nation's frustration. We are all Susanna Reid.

Or are we? Because Morgan, like Brexit – a subject on which he is a self-styled authority – divides the nation. When he became a permanent fixture on Good Morning Britain close to four years ago, the news was trailed with the slogan: "Back by unpopular demand" – four words that can helpfully be used to describe Morgan's entire career.

In just over three decades, Morgan has gone from local newspaper reporter to one of Britain's most well-known television personalities. He has edited two of the country's top-selling newspapers, forged an unlikely career as a TV talent show judge and hosted his own US chat show, surviving a series of controversies and setbacks from which he has bounced back to occupy positions of ever greater influence. At some point it became clear that, far from impeding his advancement, controversy was the fuel for his career progression; for every outraged reader or viewer, there were others urging him on. Morgan realised earlier than most that, in a world of extreme opinions, it pays to be divisive.

Dylan Jones, the editor of British GQ, told me: "Piers likes to kick up dust, he likes to poke people in the chest, and if people start poking back and he gets the reaction then he's happy."

In 2005, Morgan was hired to write a regular interview column for the magazine. Jones said Morgan's appetite for confrontation was a large part of his appeal: "When you're working in the political arena it helps to use journalists who are quite robust – and Piers is nothing if not robust." Alastair Campbell, the former Labour spin doctor who has maintained an antagonistic relationship with Morgan spanning several decades, offered a similar assessment. "A lot of people in journalism, they can give it but they can't take it," Campbell told me. "Piers doesn't mind taking it."

According to the polling company YouGov, Morgan is Britain's fourth most famous contemporary TV personality (ranking behind Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Simon Cowell, but one place above long-time nemesis Jeremy Clarkson – a fact that no doubt pleases him). He is the 253rd most popular, ranking him below Jeremy Kyle, but above Anthony Worrall Thompson.

He is also a one-man clickbait machine. In just 30 days between May and June, the Daily Express website ran 68 stories featuring Morgan in the headline. In the space of 24 hours, the paper reported he had verbally attacked Meghan Markle and Nicola Sturgeon, prompted eye-rolls from a host of The One Show, attended the Chelsea Flower Show and been branded a moron by Irvine Welsh.

Since joining Good Morning Britain, Morgan has expressed outrage about plus-sized models, vegan sausage rolls, safe spaces, gender neutral clothing, men carrying babies, vegetarian sweets, the loss of Formula 1's "grid girls" and the cancellation of Lincoln's Christmas market. His views on women's bodies, Britain's black youth and the Women's March have sparked condemnation from the likes of pop superstar Ariana Grande, UK rapper Giggs and actor Ewan McGregor.

A pinned post at the top of Morgan's Twitter feed reads like a manifesto: "My New Year's Resolution for 2019 is to be just as annoying, argumentative & insufferably right about everything as I've been in 2018. Zero apologies in advance to all whiny PC-crazed snowflake imbeciles who will be horrifically offended by absolutely everything I say or write."

Morgan’s overriding theme is scorn for the "snowflake" generation, which he perceives as being ready to take offence at any opportunity. During a recent appearance on Question Time, Morgan said: "I'd like to take these D-Day heroes, before it's too late, take them on a tour of our schools, and talk to our kids, in a way that gives them proper perspective." Through his appearances on Good Morning Britain, and his columns for the Mail and Mail on Sunday, Morgan has positioned himself as Middle England's foremost "voice of reason", standing firm on the front lines of a culture war, urging a nation to come to its senses.

While Morgan has numerous mainstream media platforms to offer his views, on most days he can also be found issuing a stream of forthright opinions on Twitter, where he has more than 6.7 million followers. His pronouncements regularly secure likes and retweets in the tens of thousands. Most are followed by a volley of condemnation from verified accounts engaging in what Morgan would describe as "virtue-signalling" – but, occasionally, the replies offer a glimpse of the other side of the great Morgan divide.

In 2017, a fan tweeted: "Keep going Piers, the silent majority are with you." Morgan retweeted the post, adding: "Oh, I know. The snowflakes just scream louder."

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Piers Morgan at 'The Mirror'. Photo: David Willis / Alamy Stock Photo

Throughout his journalism career, Morgan has made himself part of the story. He started out on local London papers, including The Wimbledon News, where a colleague described "a pseudo-posh bloke" who was "obsessed with the hot new movie Top Gun and tried to twiddle his pen round his fingers like Ice Man". After two years, Morgan moved to The Sun, where he was mentored by the paper's notorious editor Kelvin MacKenzie. Before long, he was editing the paper's showbiz column, "Bizarre".

At MacKenzie's urging, Morgan styled himself as a "friend of the stars", and the paper ran daily updates of him grinning alongside celebrities such as Madonna, David Bowie and Paul McCartney. After five years at "Bizarre", he was told to board a plane to meet Rupert Murdoch. Morgan has recalled hurriedly reading every news magazine he could find on the flight, then regurgitating the contents while being quizzed by Murdoch as the two men walked barefoot along Miami Beach. At a party that evening, Murdoch introduced Morgan as the editor of the News of the World.

Morgan was Britain's youngest tabloid editor in half a century. He relentlessly pursued the News of the World's agenda of sex and sensationalism, splashing on kiss and tells that led to a series of resignations among senior civil servants and cabinet members. In his memoirs of the time, Morgan wrote, "I am developing a curious moral code as I go. Sometimes the job does feel a bit like playing God with people's lives," adding: "Editing a paper like this does not allow much room for sentiment." When news broke that Hugh Grant had been arrested in Los Angeles with a sex worker, Morgan ran into the newsroom and screamed: "Get the hooker!"

Less than two years into his tenure, Morgan left to edit The Mirror, where he stayed for nearly nine years. In his best-selling memoir The Insider (one of four in a series), published in 2005, Morgan recounts regular contact with figures including Elton John, George Michael and Tony Blair, providing an extraordinary insight into power, politics and celebrity. Critics noted inconsistencies, such as Morgan's claim to have met Blair 56 times – including for tea at 10 Downing Street at a time when John Major was still prime minister. Morgan has said: "Is it a record of 100 percent historical import? I would say no."

It could be said that The Insider reflects Morgan's attitude to tabloid journalism – not always accurate, but thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.

Morgan was a bold editor, publishing big stories with little regard to protests from celebrities, spin doctors and libel lawyers. At times, his boldness tipped over into recklessness. In the run-up to England’s Euro '96 game against Germany, he was forced to apologise for running "ACHTUNG! SURRENDER" as a front page headline, above pictures of Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce wearing tin helmets. In The Insider, Morgan happily recalls: "An incredible 956 letters of complaint have already come in, an all-time record." After being outbid for paparazzi photos of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, Morgan ordered mocked-up pictures of the couple kissing and claimed the scoop.

While he frequently courted scandal, Morgan was also capable of gravitas – and was responsible for covering some of the biggest news events of a generation. After 9/11 he hired columnists including John Pilger, and repositioned The Mirror as a serious tabloid. He opposed the Iraq War at a time when a majority of the public supported military intervention – a principled stance that helped the paper win awards, but sent circulation plummeting.

In early 2004, The Mirror received photos purporting to show British troops abusing Iraqi civilians. Morgan ran the most sensational image, showing a hooded man being urinated on by a soldier, on the front page. Within days, the story began to unravel as the Ministry of Defence cast "serious doubts" over the photos' authenticity. Morgan refused to back down, but after the scandal had raged for nearly two weeks, his employers conceded: "The Daily Mirror has been the subject of a calculated and malicious hoax." Morgan was fired.

His resurrection as TV host was swift. Morgan had made sporadic forays into TV; while still at The Sun, he appeared on The Word, alongside Peter Stringfellow, to judge dancing schoolgirls in a "Wild Child 1992" contest – a concept most charitably described as "of its time". In the months after his sacking, Morgan declined an invitation to appear on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! but shortly afterwards landed a Channel 4 political chat show alongside journalist Amanda Platell. Reviewing Morgan and Platell for the Guardian, Charlie Brooker said: "Morgan spends the entire programme looking twice as smug as a man who's just learned to fellate himself."

Those involved remember the show more fondly. Executive producer Eamonn Matthews told me Morgan and Platell offered something lacking from other politics shows: Morgan's willingness to ask questions that made guests uncomfortable.

"Most political chat shows, to some extent or other, play the game, because otherwise they don't get the guests back," said Matthews. "Piers would just steam in." The show lasted two series (Matthews suggested problems securing repeat guests was a factor in its demise). Soon enough, Morgan was approached by his friend Simon Cowell to appear on America's Got Talent as a judge. He made his debut in 2006.

Morgan has written admiringly of the crowd's response to Cowell during the filming of American Idol: "The place went completely crazy, transforming into a seething cauldron of booing, jeering, screaming and cheering. Half of them loved him, half of them loved to hate him. It was pure theatre, and the pantomime villain had just arrived." Morgan cultivated a similarly villainous persona on America's Got Talent and its British spin-off. Recalling the response to one of his particularly savage verdicts, he wrote: "Cue complete mayhem. The audience went wild, booing and hissing me … It was great TV."

Victory in the first Celebrity Apprentice, where Morgan met Donald Trump, brought greater US recognition. In 2010, he was invited to replace Larry King at CNN. The only problem was Morgan's exclusive contract with NBC. Morgan emailed NBC president Jeff Zucker: "I'm a journalist at heart, not a judge of piano-playing pigs." Zucker released him from his contract.

CNN promised audiences its new host would be "dangerous". Before the show began, Morgan told US TV critics: "I love being polarising … I think television should be provocative." But several months in, King told the BBC: "He was going to be dangerous. He was going to be water cooler talk. He's good. He's not that dangerous." Morgan invited his predecessor back on the show. "I'm from Brooklyn," said King. "In Brooklyn, if you say you're dangerous, you better be dangerous." Morgan conceded: "I suppose I’ve always oversold myself."

Morgan later wrote: "If I asked my viewers what the show, and me, really stood for – I'm not sure they'd know the answer … I need to find my own voice about something I really care about." He chose a subject that could hardly be more divisive: the second amendment. His calls for gun control led the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to start a petition for him to be deported from America; it attracted more than 100,000 signatures. Despite the controversy, Morgan failed to arrest sliding ratings. After three years, CNN pulled the plug.

donald trump piers morgan
Donald Trump and Morgan in 2008. Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

For a man who has twice been fired after standing up for his principles, it is hard to pin down Morgan's political beliefs. He has described Margaret Thatcher as his "schoolboy heroine", while writing in 2007 that she was "the only Tory I have ever voted for". He became friends with Gordon Brown, but his best known relationship is with Donald Trump. Of his former TV co-host Amanda Platell, observing that she was a Tory spin doctor before editing the left-wing Sunday Mirror, Morgan wrote: "She's nearly as adaptable politically as I am."

Contrary to his broadcast and online persona, he is reported to be much more gracious in person. Dylan Jones described him to me as "a very funny, charming and opinionated man". His memoirs reveal a capacity for self-deprecation that is lacking from his Twitter feed. While he declined to contribute to this article, he emailed to say: "I'm sure I'll enjoy reading the profile, however diabolical it is. As I'm sure some of your interviewees will have attested, I love reading about myself. Just spell my name right..."

Despite his stance on the Women's March, those who've worked for Morgan describe him as a champion of female colleagues. Dawn Alford, who worked as an investigative reporter for him at The News of the World and The Mirror, said: "He's a feminist at heart, I'm sure he is." Alford said Morgan "was gung ho and he was loud and he was a massive personality in the newsroom. But he would listen to you and ask your opinion." She added: "I think you'll be very hard pressed to find any reporters that worked under his tenure that have much of a bad word to say about him."

There has, however, been no shortage of bad words uttered about Morgan over the years. An ongoing feud with Ian Hislop results in regular references to "Piers Moron" in Private Eye. In 2004, he was punched by Jeremy Clarkson at the British Press Awards. Frequently, Morgan's bloody mindedness leads his enemies to conclude that life is just too short.

For many years, Morgan engaged in a war of words with Sun editor David Yelland, for little discernible reason other than Yelland had secured the job that Morgan once wanted. When I emailed Yelland about this animosity, he told me he and Morgan both had "different lives now" and had shaken hands last year. "Let bygones be bygones," he said. Asked to comment on their relationship with Morgan, one former newspaper editor wrote back: "The last thing on earth anyone would want to do is to waste time in a pissing match with PM."

In the Morganverse, it can be hard to discern what is real and what is theatre. Just a few days before we spoke in early June, Alastair Campbell attacked Morgan on Twitter for his cosy relationship with Donald Trump. Morgan responded with a photo of the former spin doctor alongside Tony Blair and George Bush, describing the men as "smirking illegal war-mongers". Nevertheless, Campbell told me: "I find it hard to dislike Piers on a personal level, even though I think he has done quite a lot of unlikeable things and has some very unlikeable views." Asked about his frequent public disagreements with Morgan on matters such as Brexit, Campbell said: "It's a way of getting your message out. I don't think he takes it personally, and nor do I."

I asked Campbell if he thought of Morgan as a principled man. The question was followed by a long pause. "Put it this way: I think he's got a value system," he said. "But at the heart of it, I think, is himself. That doesn't mean he doesn't care about other people – I think he does care about other people – but I think at the heart of his value system is himself. So you could argue that as a principle, I don't know," he laughed. "I don't think he has the sort of principles that I would respect and admire and I would hope to have."

Just a few hours before I spoke to Campbell, Good Morning Britain aired an exclusive interview with Donald Trump. It was the third time Morgan had pulled off such a stunt and, as on previous occasions, reactions to the interview among journalists had been mixed. Some felt the interview was a missed opportunity and an exercise in sycophancy. Others grudgingly conceded that Morgan had secured yet another scoop – from a contact he'd been cultivating since winning The Celebrity Apprentice more than a decade before.

Campbell told me: "To be fair to Piers, the only two people who ever said to me, 'Trump's going to be president,' were my son Calum, and Piers. And I think he maybe saw something in what was happening in America." Campbell added that he believed Morgan would have voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump: "But Piers at that time saw Donald Trump as a big opportunity for himself, and he took it."

Writing in his third volume of memoirs, published in 2009, Morgan offered an alarmingly accurate prediction of the Trump phenomenon: "Nobody embodies modern America more than Trump," he said. "He's tough, ruthless, charming, passionate, patriotic and, above all else, a winner." Attending a party held by Trump, at which his host slapped him on the shoulder and asked, "This is the greatest party ever, right?" Morgan felt compelled to agree. Recalling the incident, he wrote: "America needs a leader who can do that, who can look them in the eye, slap them on the shoulder and say: 'We're the greatest country in the world, right?' And the whole country feels compelled to shout back: 'Yes, Mr President!'"

Morgan could see something in Trump that it took many others almost a decade to recognise. He knew Trump could be perceived as "too brash and too arrogant", that he was "a polarising figure", but he also saw Trump's "huge popularity … among many mainstream Americans". Morgan also knew that controversy was no barrier to personal advancement – and that to be polarising was not a weakness but a strength.

More recently, Susanna Reid has pointed to the way in which Trump has informed Morgan's own TV persona. In 2017, asked by the Guardian about Morgan's reputation when he'd joined Good Morning Britain two years before, she said: "Well, ummm. It was pre-Trump becoming president, so I think that side of him wasn't fully formed, but he was definitely the provocateur."

Morgan has himself suggested he plays a character for TV. In 2009, he told The Mirror: "My family don't recognise me on television. They say, 'Why don't you just be yourself?' And I tell them it's because a lot of people know that I'm simply playing a role – plus, it's quite lucrative." In a recent interview with The Radio Times, he said: "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."

Not everyone sees a difference between the on and off-screen persona.

Toby Young, the journalist and right-wing commentator, has known Morgan for many years. In an email, I asked Young about Morgan's criticism of a recent Gillette advert that called on men to tackle sexism. "Most people in his position would feel obliged to parrot the progressive orthodoxy about toxic masculinity, but he's unapologetic about being an alpha male," said Young. "He's one of the few male celebrities who's prepared to defend traditional masculinity – and not in an ironic, professional wrestler kind of way. He means it."

Young sees Morgan as part of the Intellectual Dark Web, or IDW, a group of self-styled free thinkers and contrarians aligned with values of free speech, which includes the podcaster Joe Rogan and the controversial Canadian professor Jordan Peterson. "He's left-of-centre on economic issues, but an opponent of Social Justice Warriors in the culture war (although not when it comes to gun control)," said Young. "That's a familiar combination for opinion writers in publications like Quillette [a publication where Young is an associate editor] and in the IDW more generally, but unusual in mainstream, popular TV where presenters tend to be either bland and uncontroversial, or in one political camp or another."

In one of the most watched YouTube clips of Good Morning Britain, Novara Media senior editor Ash Sarkar clashes with Morgan in a debate about the Stop Trump protests. Morgan calls Obama her "hero", prompting Sarkar's reply: "I'm literally a communist, you idiot." It was the second time Sarkar had appeared on Good Morning Britain. On both occasions, she said she received unprecedented abuse online. "He's able to speak to a demographic of people in this country who are constantly furious, constantly gripped by the sense that political culture has gone to the dogs and they're waiting to latch on to these symbols of national decline, whether these symbols are the existence of trans people or a brown woman on the telly," she said.

In Don't You Know Who I Am?, his second volume of memoirs, Morgan described fears about his ascent into celebrity. "There is a massive difference between being a star with a genuine talent … and someone who the public know but consider vaguely ridiculous," he wrote. Watching Morgan on Good Morning Britain, he can appear like a man being pulled in both directions. Earlier this year, he skewered UKIP's deputy leader Mike Hookem by forcing him to admit he opposed his own party's Islamophobic immigration policies. A YouTube clip of the exchange has attracted 19,000 views. Nearly quarter of a million have now watched Morgan theatrically choking on a vegan sausage roll.

Morgan's persona is that of a man at odds with the absurdity of the modern world – awash as it is with snowflakes, vegans and gender fluid celebrities. But the former tabloid editor has in other ways perfectly adapted to the internet age, offering constant controversy to fuel the social media outrage machine. Morgan has never been shy of offering his opinions; they just haven't always proved so professionally advantageous. At The Mirror, his opposition to the Iraq war saw circulation take a dive; his campaigning on gun control failed to boost ratings at CNN. On Good Morning Britain, perhaps he has finally picked the winning side.

straight white sandwich
Illustration: Dan Evans

At the start of May, Morgan led a campaign against gay sandwiches. He posted a photo to Twitter of an LGBT sandwich on sale in Marks & Spencer, a twist on the classic BLT, with added guacamole. "Is there no cynical virtue-signalling depth struggling companies won't now plunge to make a profit?" he said. Shortly afterwards, he tweeted again: "Jeez, it's not even 9am on a bank holiday weekend Saturday morning & I'm already enraged. Why is the world going so completely PC bonkers? #GaySandwiches."

Within a couple of hours, Marks & Spencer pointed out that the sandwich had been launched to celebrate Pride and raise £10,000 for a charity helping homeless LGBT young people.

Undeterred, Morgan picked up his campaign the following day, posting a Trumpian tweet in which he decried the way "struggling firms" were being allowed to "sexualise sandwiches". Later that week, Good Morning Britain broadcast a ten-minute discussion of the sandwich. Morgan opened the debate: "It just smacks of a cheap, cynical, corporate act of tokenism: a ten grand donation to charity from a company that makes £880 per minute, I worked out, in profit."

Debating the merits of the sandwich with the journalist and LGBT activist Benjamin Butterworth, Morgan changed tactics. "Could you have a white straight male sandwich, celebrating people like me? Could you do that? Or would people like you go nuts…" he began, prompting Reid to intervene: "No, Piers, the problem is, your community, straight white men, is not historically a persecuted community which has had to struggle."

Morgan replied: "I think we've never been under more attack, actually."

Reid closed her eyes and sighed.

@mark_ wilding / @danxdraws