If Piers Morgan were a nightclub bouncer, he would try to start fights. Before the launch of his latest broadcasting career – on Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV, a screen-led sibling to the tycoon’s Talk Radio and Times Radio – he Twitter-challenged the Guardian to come and take him on if we were stereotypical enough.
“The only way the PR campaign for @PiersUncensored could possibly get any better,” Morgan taunted, “is if the @guardian review it and says it’s terrible, unwatchable & the end of civilisation as we know it. Don’t let me down you whiny woke wastrels!”
OK then, you preening pugilistic publicist, let’s see what we can do.
Startlingly, even for such an established egotist, Morgan started by comparing himself to one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“As Nelson Mandela might have said, it’s been a long walk to freedom of speech!” Morgan opened the show, a higher voice than usual suggesting nerves that would have been touching in someone of less industrial self-confidence. Morgan was also cocky about the likely audience: “If [Putin] is watching … and he will be!”
A long opening monologue promised the Piers show to herald a TV “no cancel zone” that will be an “island of sanity” in “a world gone mad.” So totalitarian are the “fun police” that someone, like Morgan, who dares to tell the truth has multiple newspaper columns and a new TV station built around him. This splenetic soliloquy also showcased the weakest part of his broadcasting persona: the Jeremy Clarkson tribute act revealed when he is allowed to speak uninterrupted for too long.
But, as extensively reported (and not just by himself), Morgan’s debut coup was an interview with Donald Trump, who the host characteristically introduced as “the most famous and divisive man in the world, present company excepted!”
Recorded at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, this fight for the World Heavyweight Orange-Skinned Narcissist title brought publicity and clicks for Talk TV, but lacked news value due to Trump’s current status as an amateur golfer in Florida.
As a result, this is the second successive media launch – after Andrew Marr’s move to LBC last month – that would clearly have hoped to kick off by interviewing the prime minister (whether Boris Johnson or a successor). However, the oddity of 10 Downing Street being occupied by a politician who rarely submits to questioning and, if then, by the police meant that Marr opened with Michael Gove and Morgan with Trump. The host has also boasted of his closeness to Joe Biden but, for different reasons of what might come out of his mouth, the President is no more likely to give a long-form interview than Johnson is.
Admittedly, Trump is the first defeated White House incumbent since Grover Cleveland in 1888 who might plausibly seek a second term (Cleveland did, and won). The strongest news line Morgan got was a very heavy hint that Trump will have another go, although he might usefully have glossed for viewers that the politician’s refusal to declare at this stage relates, as he hinted, to campaign finance scrutiny that begins on day one of an official race.
But then Morgan, not for the first time, seemed more interested in his own contributions than his guest’s: the chat was irritatingly cut into fillets with before and after comments from the presenter, rather than trusted to flow as a conversation.
The Sunday papers that trumpeted Talk TV’s debut also featured prominent adverts for Marr’s LBC show. The strikingly similar sales lines – Piers Morgan Uncensored and Marr Gets His Voice Back – imply these shows will sidestep the pettifogging editorial balance the presenters suffered at the BBC and ITV.
In fact, both hosts remain subject to Ofcom regulation, as does another big mouth newcomer, GB News, so claims of saying the unsayable are marketing bravado. And, as the regulator cleared Morgan’s Good Morning Britain interviews with government ministers during lockdown – the most forensically offensive ever seen on British television – it is unclear how much further he could go in a studio. The only line drawn at ITV was over his on-air bawling-out of a colleague and subsequent storming from the studio.
If Morgan flounces off this set, they’re stuffed, and that is not the only drawback of a solo show. Morgan’s most similar broadcasting venture – his CNN evening talk show from 2011-14 – failed, though that can be attributed to his being viewed in the US as an asshole Brit, only one of which objections applies in the UK. But for all Morgan’s self-obsession, the clear highlight of his TV career – the six years on ITV’s Good Morning Britain from 2015, which genuinely transformed breakfast television – owed much to co-host Susanna Reid, expert at goading or controlling him as necessary. Talk TV may discover that he’s best in a double act.
Although Murdoch’s Sunday Times listed a full Monday schedule for Talk TV from 6.30am, that in fact doesn’t start until Tuesday, with Julia Hartley-Brewer’s breakfast show.
On launch night, before Morgan v Trump, viewers got The News Desk, which will run week nights at 7pm, fronted by Tom Newton Dunn, whose lips were initially out of sync with his words, an ominous echo of the technical problems that blighted the birth of GB News last year.
Newton Dunn is a fluent broadcaster who would probably have had a BBC career if not demonised by being political editor of The Sun. From a studio desk, he links reports mainly from Murdoch newspaper reporters on Zoom. The tone throughout was at the populist end of the spectrum. The prime minister’s threat to unleash “the terrors of the earth” on whoever made misogynist allegations against Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner was discussed as if it were a startling Johnson coinage with no footnote that it’s a quote from King Lear. A closing “news panel” avoided mention of the threat to the PM over his law-breaking, which was perhaps wise as one of the commenters was James Slack, now Sun deputy editor, whose Downing Street leaving party is one of the events investigated by Sue Gray and the police.
On this early evidence, Talk TV is much slicker than GB News but far less resourced and rigorous than Sky News (a Murdoch creation that he no longer owns.) Perhaps learning from GB News being hobbled by an advertiser boycott, there was nothing that would obviously concern corporations or Ofcom, although the return to TV (from 4-7pm on Tuesday) of Jeremy Kyle, a controversialist dropped from ITV over allegations of lack of duty of care to contestants, will be watched carefully.
The launch night seemed short on commercials, some breaks between segments filled with promo clips. In an increasingly crowded news broadcast market, will there be enough finance to pay Morgan’s salary, or viewers to satisfy his ego?
Sorry if that’s not wokey or whiney enough for him. But he’s going to have to do much worse than this to prevent liberals falling un-woke in front of his show.