"Right now, I do not think that Trump deserves to be re‑elected." Interview by Decca Aitkenhead.
Piers Morgan arrived on Good Morning Britain five years ago with a playbook apparently modelled on that of a teenage boy joining a new school midterm. Most of us will have known a new kid in class whose strategy was to make a name for himself by picking as many pointless playground fights as possible. With inexhaustible zest, Morgan has applied that adolescent logic to his career.
The 55-year-old presenter has provoked public and unedifying spats with, among many others: the girl band Little Mix (wear more clothes, trollops!) gender-fluid stars (man up, Sam Smith!), body-positive models (lose weight!), millennial snowflakes (get a grip!), countless celebrities from Madonna to Kim Kardashian, women who don't like wearing high heels to work, wokeness in all its forms, JK Rowling, vegans, worse still vegan sausage rolls, and, of course, Harry and Meghan.
His list of bêtes noires is so long and ludicrous, people tend to assume he makes half of it up, but he has always sworn he means every rant sincerely. Then again, he also affects to love being loathed and goes to great lengths to provoke maximal outrage, writing multiple columns a week for the Mail and tweeting frenetically to his 7.4 million followers. The jewel in the arch-controversialist's crown is his friendship with President Trump. For the past four years he has boasted of their closeness, lavished praise and choreographed a pair of television interviews more in the grammar of Miss World than journalistic inquisition. Within woke millennial circles, the liberal left and chattering classes, hating Morgan is de rigueur, if not compulsory.
Morgan used to be the boy wonder of Fleet Street — he landed the top job at the News of the World at just 28 and was on course for a distinguished career as a campaigning editor. Under his editorship the Daily Mirror's 9/11 coverage won multiple awards before he was sensationally fired in 2004 for printing photos purporting to show British military abuses without verifying their authenticity. They were fake. He relocated to America and in 2010 landed his own nightly show on CNN. Things went well, until 2012's Sandy Hook massacre, following which he became consumed by gun control. American viewers got tired of being told off by a hectoring Brit, and CNN terminated his contract in 2014. And so he returned to our screens to pick his pointless fights with anybody and everybody.
In the upside-down world of the coronavirus crisis, however, Morgan has emerged as something approaching a national hero in his efforts to speak truth to obfuscating power.
"Definitely not the hero Gotham wanted," wrote the Times columnist Caitlin Moran, one of his fiercest erstwhile critics, "but the hero, it turned out, Gotham needed." Beneath the headline "I never thought I'd say it but thank goodness for Piers Morgan" a Herald column opened with: "Is there an argument that Piers Morgan right now has the most important single voice in Britain?" The Guardian described him as "the voice of the nation", noting drily, "how things change".
Just how far they have changed was confirmed in the column Morgan published on the day we spoke on the phone late last month. In the past he has sometimes criticised Trump in print, notably over gun control, but never in terms even close to this. Enraged by the president's "batshit crazy" disinfectant corona cure, Morgan opened his blistering broadside with the words "Shut the f*** up, President Trump".
He startles me again when we talk. In the 10 years I've known him, I can't recall many examples of Morgan conceding his own mistakes — but how things have changed indeed. "Let's put all the stupidity and the nonsense and the silliness and the point-scoring and the culture wars behind us. All that stuff has to be changed," he declares. "We have to put all our concerted energy into being different people coming out of this. Better people. Because this whole crisis, I think, has been a recalibration for everybody, about everything. And to me, if it doesn't make everybody recalibrate in some way, there's something intrinsically wrong with you."
I wonder how Morgan would feel if Trump unfollowed him. "I'd be fine," he says shortly. Really? Morgan hesitates for a second. "Given the scale of this crisis, I literally don't give a flying f***." By the following morning Trump had unfollowed him.
Listening to Morgan on the phone is like watching GMB with your eyes shut. He talks nonstop for more than two hours, barely drawing breath, swelling and subsiding as if surfing his own waves of rage at the government's handling of the corona crisis. One of the earliest commentators to grasp the scale of the Covid-19 threat, Morgan has won his new fanbase by doggedly hounding ministers on air every day, demanding facts and action on the provision of testing and PPE, and the rising death toll, refusing to be fobbed off with empty spin about "ramping up". Even the hard-left Labour activist Owen Jones tweeted: "Yes, I'm going to say it: huge kudos to Piers Morgan for holding the government to account." When Morgan isn't shouting at hapless politicians, he is interviewing virus survivors and the bereaved, cheering along Captain Tom Moore, pledging to pay every NHS worker's parking ticket and savaging celebrities caught breaking lockdown rules.
Cynics might dismiss this as the zeitgeist-chasing of a notorious self-publicist, but I don't think that's fair. The more he talks, the more it is clear there is nothing confected about his passion. Corona has struck his close friends and family and he was tested himself last weekend after developing symptoms (the test came back negative but he was forced off air last week). He has a military brother and a late grandmother who used to tell him all about growing up in the war. If he has been relishing anything at all about this crisis, I'd say it's his sense that history has delivered the great defining test of his lifetime.
When the crisis began, Morgan delivered a rallying cry to his troops on GMB. "We have a chance here to make history," he told his ITV colleagues, and he returns to the theme several times during our call. "Those that are doing their jobs well will be remembered in history as people who, when it really, really mattered, stepped up. There will be those who stepped up and those who didn't." The line practically hums with the adrenalised eloquence of a man having a good war.
He tries to pretend to be no more than vaguely amused by his rehabilitation, but from his assiduous retweet of every new convert I'd say it holds more for Morgan than he likes to let on. "I don't disagree with that," he concedes.
Back in early March, Morgan's alarm at the government herd immunity policy wasn't well received. "People, even friends, began getting very vocal with me on Twitter, accusing me of being a scaremonger. I was getting a lot of kickback — really quite nasty. I was being portrayed as a kind of enemy of the country. It was unpatriotic to question the government's strategy. I just kept saying it's going to be a lot worse than you all realise." He began to fear it was worse than even he had grasped when ministerial GMB guests proved incapable of answering even basic questions.
"I think Boris pumped his cabinet full of pro-Brexit ministers, so what you've got is a bunch of young, very inexperienced people who've never had to handle anything like this, whose real expertise was sucking up to the boss over Brexit, and many of them are getting found out." With the exception of the "stellar" chancellor, Rishi Sunak, "most just seem to me utterly clueless and completely out of their depth". When Helen Whatley, the care minister, couldn't give an accurate number of Covid deaths in care homes, Morgan lost his rag and shouted so much that 1,981 viewers complained to Ofcom.
Morgan would replace the cabinet with a government of national unity. He would give Keir Starmer a seat, "because he's got a very calm, forensic, legal mind", and recall all our former prime ministers. His bitter feud with Alastair Campbell dates all the way back to the Iraq War, but Morgan would "certainly have him" back on board. "To me it's not about partisan politics. It really doesn't bother me whether this is a Labour or Conservative government right now. What bothers me is: how are they handling this crisis?"
He's equally unimpressed by the media's performance at the daily briefings. "I don't like it," he says. "I think it's very poor, generally. They all seem to be very polite and cosy in there." Perhaps they subscribe to the view that the height of a crisis is not the time to be combative. "I've never understood that argument," he exclaims. "I think it's a ridiculous notion. I think any journalist who thinks that they have to be measured and polite and wait until this is all over, they're not proper journalists. I would argue the journalists who don't accept bullshit, who do interrupt, who do get proper answers, they're the ones who are doing proper journalism. The ones who sit back and let people just spout complete bollocks, they're not."
Some viewers complain that he constantly interrupts guests. "I only interrupt if the person is answering a completely different question, or what they're saying is total waffle or is completely untrue." Does he ever watch himself back and think, "Piers, shut up!"? "I don't ever watch myself back precisely for that reason," he says with a laugh. "No, I don't pretend that watching me is a particularly comfortable experience right now. But I don't think it should be." He hotly denies bullying, though, and tweets triumphantly days later when Ofcom dismisses the complaints against his Whatley interview.
He claims GMB's viewing figures are soaring, and gets into fierce Twitter fights with anyone who disputes this. Ratings wars have always been right up Morgan's street, playing to his bombastic competitiveness. What's new and surprising is his admission of his own failings.
He used to pick media fights, he confesses, for no better reason than boredom. He was lying in bed with flu, "bored out of my brains", when he fired off his infamous tweet attacking Greggs vegan sausage rolls. "Did I really, really feel in my heart of hearts that the great hill I was to die on was the Greggs vegan sausage roll? No. But was there anything else to get my teeth into at the time? No, not particularly. I like arguing with people, I like controversy, I like being at the centre of a firestorm. But there's also, for me, now a sense of self-awareness. Looking back on some of my antics through the last few years, I think a lot of it was just blaaaaah."
Really enjoyed the Greggs vegan ‘sausage’ roll. 🤮🤮🤮🤮🤮 pic.twitter.com/TigxlUdguU— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) January 7, 2019
Papoosegate? In 2018 Morgan mocked Daniel Craig for carrying his baby in a papoose, sneering "Oh 007.. not you as well?!!! #papoose #emasculated Bond", and inciting yet more social media uproar. "Yeah. It was daft and sort of pointless and irrelevant in the general scheme of things. So I think this has been a recalibrating crisis in many ways. And one of the good things I hope that comes out of it is that we all calm down a bit, including myself, about stuff that actually we now know is completely insignificant. People fighting endless cultural wars over stuff that I just felt was so unimportant."
Some would say that's a bit rich, coming from him, but he claims it was the absurd triviality of the culture wars that "would enrage me into being irrationally over the top about it — and that's got to change. And it will change. Because we've all now been given the biggest possible wake-up call, and we've all been given a chance to think about ourselves and our behaviour leading up to this. And that is going to be a good thing that comes out of all this."
I tell him I thought his vendetta against Meghan Markle, in revenge for her dropping their modest friendship after meeting Harry, diminished Morgan and made him look ugly. With hindsight, would he have dialled any of it down?
"Yeah, probably," he says softly. "I think that's a perfectly fair criticism. It's probably not wise, if you're a columnist, to make things too personal. Have I taken things a bit too far? Probably. Do I think that will govern and temper how I talk about them going forward? Absolutely."
People say I'm too critical of Meghan Markle - but she ditched her family, ditched her Dad, ditched most of her old friends, split Harry from William & has now split him from the Royal Family.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) January 8, 2020
I rest my case. pic.twitter.com/xgKLTt2Y0Z
The single greatest lesson he has learnt from lockdown is that "I've been at my best as a journalist on stuff that really matters. It's the stuff that is substantial, particularly when people's lives are at stake, that seems to galvanise my personality into the best possible place. And it's times of relative peace, calm, quiet and dare I say boredom that might occasionally bring out the worst in me. Having squabbles with people who are never going to change their mind in a million years about stuff that no longer seems remotely important."
Morgan seems to be conflicted now about his relationship with Trump. The problem, he says, with both the president and our prime minster "is that they're emotional, flamboyant characters, and in peacetime that's got them elected and made them very popular", not least with Morgan. "But that kind of buccaneering emotion, and shoot-from-the-hip style, is a disaster in wartime. You can't bullshit your way through a death toll." Yes, I agree, but wasn't it precisely Trump's inadequacy in a crisis that alarmed the liberals Morgan has spent four years calling hysterics? He says: "I found the hysteria about him, for a long time, ridiculously over the top and pathetic." I'm not sure it looks that way now.
He claims he has been surprised by Trump's inability to pivot to a more presidential tone in the crisis. Morgan expected electoral self-interest to inspire a "comforter-in-chief" performance. I'm not sure why because, moments later, he admits: "Trump's biggest Achilles heel has always been his complete inability to show empathy." Perhaps because he doesn't actually feel any? "Quite possibly, yeah."
He cannot name a single world leader performing worse than Trump in the corona crisis, and wishes Angela Merkel were the American president. When I ask if Trump deserves re-election in November, he stalls uneasily, as if torn between loyalties. Eventually, reluctantly: "Right now, I do not think he deserves to be re-elected. You don't deserve it if you make things deliberately worse, by airing these stupid, crazy theories about detergents or urging people to 'liberate' themselves in Democrat states. He is rousing people to view Democrat senators as tyrannical people. And they're all heavily armed with semi-automatic weapons, and if, God forbid, they lose their jobs, have no income, are angry and are persuaded by Trump that his political opponents are being tyrannical, I can see some very ugly scenes. Aided and abetted by the president. And it's shameful."
His worry, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that lockdown restrictions will be lifted not too late but too soon — though he concedes he might feel differently if he weren't able to earn a living during it. His lockdown life doesn't sound too bad at all. He has to drive himself to work now, in an Aston Martin coated in bird droppings — "I think that's called a double first-class problem" — and does his own make-up before going on air. His make-up artist left him three pages of instructions that bamboozled him, so he watched some blending tutorials on YouTube until his GMB co-host Ben Shephard advised ditching the complicated stuff and just fluffing on some powder.
After work he decompresses in bed for two hours, exercises on his new Peloton bike and spends the rest of the day and night watching the news and reading Twitter. It doesn't sound much fun for his wife, the Telegraph journalist Celia Walden. "Erm, well, you know, my life at the moment is all-consuming with the story, and she understands what it's going to be like for a while." His middle son from his first marriage is living with them during lockdown, and the couple have a live-in nanny for their eight-year-old daughter. She also does the cleaning, so there have been no rows about housework. "But we never row anyway, so nothing's changed." They never row? "No! I spend all day at work shouting at people. I couldn't possibly start when I come home."
The corona has cost him one lifelong friendship. He and Lord Sugar have always sparred on social media, trading insults and slights for fun, so I'm taken aback when he says their Twitter rows about the virus are horribly real. "It's gone way beyond a joke, and for me it's ruined our friendship." What? "Yeah." His voice is flat and uncharacteristically glum. "I think we're done as friends. I can't see through the behaviour."
You are a utter disgrace @piersmorgan I don't know who the hell you think you are on your self appointed tirade against the GOV. I wonder if Mrs Morgan senior ( your mum ) is proud of you. You need help. You are a bully. https://t.co/N5OMJl0pBs— Lord Sugar (@Lord_Sugar) April 28, 2020
I wonder what Morgan will do when this is all over. He intends to leave GMB when his current contract expires late next year, but can't name a single ambition. I hope he doesn't get bored again. Then again, I hope his starring role in the corona drama doesn't tempt other broadcasters to try to mimic the US cable-TV style. Morgan sounds aghast. "Oh no, I don't think we need to go down the American route where every cable news channel is now 24/7 shouting. No! And nor do I think particularly there should be any more of me. One's probably quite enough for the country."
He pauses to laugh. "But do I think it's worth having one of me? Yes."
Written by: Decca Aitkenhead
© The Times of London