Piers Morgan: ‘If Meghan Markle did to you what she did to me, you would be p*ssed off’
The contrarian on his war with wokeness, and rifts with Meghan Markle and Donald Trump
Piers Morgan attends the 2019 British Academy Britannia Awards. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Piers Morgan is angry. Even by his puce-faced standards, he is fuming. The Good Morning Britain (GMB) presenter, Twitter bruiser (7.6 million followers and counting, as he will frequently remind you) and frenemy of Donald Trump is waging war on woke. “Wokery has been hijacked by extremely illiberal people bordering on fascist – ironically given how much they hate fascism,” he tells me while shadow boxing invisible foes.
We’re in a dressing room at Television Centre in west London, from where GMB is broadcast. Morgan is having his photo taken and letting rip. Liberal fascists are taking over the world, he says; John Locke, the father of liberalism, will be spinning in his enlightened grave. The very folk once renowned for their tolerance are now shutting down opinion like there is no tomorrow. And, if it goes on like this, Morgan thinks there may well be no tomorrow. You want examples of fascist wokery? He’ll give you examples, all right.
There is the fascist transgender lobby, who won’t accept that trans women are different from biological women; the fascist feministas who won’t accept trans women are women full stop; the fascist killjoys who scream “Sexist!” when Morgan tells GMB’s weather presenter, Laura Tobin, that she looks hot in her tight, red, fake-leather trousers; the fascist students who no-platform everyone who offends their snowflake sensibilities; the fascist gloomsters trying to cancel classic comedy shows; the fascist language police who remade “mankind” as “peoplekind”; the fascist celebs who fly thousands of miles to environmental conferences in private jets to order us to become carbon neutral.
And he has barely started. Don’t forget the fascist former royals who boycott the press while milking it for all it is worth; the fascist remoaners who won’t accept Brexit; the fascist Trump haters who won’t acknowledge any of the president’s achievements; the fascist vegan army who force-feed us kale and meatless sausage rolls. And – perhaps wokeness at its very worst – the fascist toy manufacturer that has blacked up our beloved Wombles as a pathetic act of political correctness. Angry? You bet he is.
And knackered. It is 9.30am; he has just done a three-hour stint on TV and has been up since 2.30am. “Whenever there’s a really big story, I can’t sleep. It’s adrenaline. This whole year has reminded me of running the Mirror during the big stories.” Today’s big story is that Trump has been discharged from hospital and is telling the US not to be scared of Covid-19. Morgan is trending on Twitter for tearing a strip off Trump while also saying they may still be friends. Another example of the liberal fascists – why should the two be mutually exclusive, he says.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines woke as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. But Morgan says the word has been corrupted. He prefers his own definition: “Woke means being constantly self-righteously certain that your ultraliberal, virtue-signalling opinion is not only always right but anyone who disagrees is an idiot.” It’s funny, I say – take away the ultraliberal virtue-signalling bit and you could be talking about yourself. “Yeah! I am absolutely prone to self-righteous outbursts and thinking I’m right. The difference is I’m happy to have debate.” It’s true. We spend the next two and a half hours doing just that.
Morgan’s new book, Wake Up: Why The World Has Gone Nuts, is a fast, entertaining read. He has a point – society has become increasingly polarised in recent years and cancel culture is terrifying – although many of his targets are paper tigers or simply ludicrous. Morgan (55) says debate has to become more open and nuanced: “Stephen Fry said you don’t change the opinions of arseholes by behaving like an even bigger arsehole.” But isn’t he guilty of that? “Yes. And when I’ve waged various campaigns, I very rarely win. The louder you scream and the less you cross the divide and sit with your opponents, the less you achieve.” He is still learning and evolving, he says. “Contrary to public myth, I’ve never actually thought I’m perfect, even if I’ve conveyed that impression.”
Does he ever give himself a headache? “Yes!” And does he ever shut up? “Yeah. At home, I’m very quiet.”
He invites people with views he can’t stand on to GMB so he can annihilate them
At the beginning of the book, Morgan says these battles have been fought largely on social media, primarily Twitter. He points out that only 20 per cent of British and American people use Twitter; of those, 10 per cent post 80 per cent of tweets. In other words, we are talking about a tiny bubble. If he finds the tone so upsetting, wouldn’t the simple thing be to get off the platform? He grins. “Yes, but I like it. My problem is I like combative debate with people and I like going after people and I like people coming after me. I thrive off that.”
Rather than no-platforming, Morgan does the opposite. He invites people with views he can’t stand on to GMB so he can annihilate them. But that simply fuels the culture wars. Last year, the journalist Benjamin Butterworth came on the show to defend the notion that there are 100 genders. Morgan ridiculed him, claiming he identified as a two-spirit penguin. It felt as if he was punching down.
“Hang on, hang on, get your ducks in a row,” he says pugnaciously. “He had signed a petition to have me fired. He was trying to cancel me. That’s why I gave him a hard time. And did he win that argument or did he make himself look a bit ridiculous? I think he made himself look a bit ridiculous.”
Maybe, but so did Morgan, who was reduced to mimicking Butterworth’s voice. When I mention it, he looks as close to contrite as I have ever seen him. “To be honest, I regret that. That actually does stray into being a bit of a bully. You lose the argument when you do that. You’re right.”
Morgan’s Twitter bio is a quote from his grandmother, Margot Barber: “One day you’re cock of the walk, the next a feather duster.” It is a perfect summary of Morgan’s yo-yo career, although he has never remained a feather duster for long. Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan, who grew up in Sussex, joined the Sun in his early 20s, dropped his double-barrelled name and ran the showbusiness column Bizarre. At 28, he was made editor of the News of the World; by 30, he was editing the Daily Mirror.
Morgan has a planet-sized ego, but unlike Trump he is not a pathological narcissist
Morgan had a great run as editor of the Mirror – it was a lively red-top ferociously opposed to the Iraq war – then it all ended in disgrace. He was sacked in 2004 for running photos of alleged Iraq war atrocities committed by British forces that he couldn’t stand up. The newspaper later apologised under the headline “Sorry … we were hoaxed”.
He went from newspapers to TV, judging Britain’s Got Talent and its American version. In 2008, he won the first series of Celebrity Apprentice in the US, hosted by Trump. In 2011, he replaced the legendary talkshow host Larry King on CNN. Three years later, Piers Morgan Live was axed. Since then, he has been omnipresent on British TV, presenting GMB, the documentary series Killer Women With Piers Morgan and Piers Morgan’s Life Stories.
Morgan has a planet-sized ego, but unlike Trump he is not a pathological narcissist. That is what makes him fascinating: he is self-aware. Nor is he content to be a reactionary old git. He is not approaching his attack on wokery as a steel-toe-capped rightwinger, he insists. “I’m a liberal to my bootstraps. I ran the Daily Mirror for 10 years.” But he says he is horrified by what he is seeing. He talks about the vitriol aimed at JK Rowling after she mocked an article referring to “people who menstruate” rather than women. “Are we really at the stage where JK Rowling, one of the most woke people you could ever meet, ends up being a hashtag #RIPJKRowling? That’s horrendous.”
But his attack on wokeness goes way beyond JK Rowling. Take mental health, for example. He thinks that encouraging people to talk about it turns us all into bleating wimps. “It’s OK to man up. It doesn’t have to be a shameful thing to say, which makes people want to go off and kill themselves. Life is bloody tough. It comes back to the Rocky Balboa quote: ‘It’s not how many times you’re hit, it’s how many times you get knocked over and pick yourselves up.’ And I think that’s what life is.”
It can seem incredibly insensitive, I say. “I’m not trying to diminish people who have things like clinical depression. I interviewed Alastair Campbell this week. I know how serious that has been for him and his family, but I do think there is a massive difference between that and general life anxieties.” He suggests that we should distinguish clearly between mental illness and mental health. “Mental illness is a clinically diagnosed thing. Mental illness can be classified and treated. But right now everybody is being encouraged to think they are mentally ill in one way or another.”
What he really hates is victim culture – rewarding people for failure. He talks about giving schoolchildren a participation prize for coming last. “What message does that send kids, telling them they’ll never lose in life? When I got fired from the Mirror, I didn’t get a participation prize. I just got humiliated, shamed and sent home. They even asked for my fax machine back. There’s a real world out there, Simon.”
Morgan has four children: three boys from his first marriage, one daughter from his second, to the journalist Celia Walden – the daughter of the former Tory minister George Walden – whom he married in 2010. In the book, he writes: “If you came last in a race on sports day, you won nothing but well-deserved ignominy and ridicule.” If he had a child who always came last, would he feel differently? He looks slightly embarrassed. “I did say to my kids from the day they were born: ‘I’ll never criticise you if you give 100 per cent.’”
And so to Trump. Morgan has been damning of the US president’s handling of the pandemic. In April, he wrote an article in the Mail on Sunday headlined “Shut the f**k up President Trump”. Trump unfollowed him on Twitter within 24 hours.
Many people ask why it took you so long to condemn him, I say. Ah, there we go again, he responds – typical wokeys, refusing to recognise that Trump rescued the US economy pre-pandemic, took decisive trade action against China, forged a relationship with North Korea. Yes, I say, but they would not praise that, because they had already written him off as a racist, a misogynist and a liar. “I’ve never seen Trump be racist when I’ve been around him,” he says. “What he does is pander to racists. He doesn’t want to lose their vote, because ultimately Trump is about winning. I don’t think there’s a principled bone in his body.”
Often it is hard to separate the personal from the political in Morgan’s spats
Would he be so tolerant of a president who pandered to racists if they were not friends? “Probably not,” he admits. “When I came back here from CNN, I could count on one hand the number of people who contacted me – and he did, repeatedly. For all his faults, Trump can be very loyal.”
I have always wondered what Trump smells like. Another snort of laughter. “Quite expensive aftershave and not overly done, just a light, gentle aroma. You imagine he’d smell like some flamboyant nightclub owner in the 70s, but he doesn’t.” And the hair product? “You get a whiff of hairspray, ’cause it is permanently coiffured. He’s actually a germaphobe. If you coughed, it was like you’d got the plague and out would come the Purell [hand sanitiser] and he wouldn’t shake hands with people. He was obsessive about it. Then, when he gets hit by a real killer virus, he treats it like a bloody casual load of nonsense. I don’t get that.”
Often it is hard to separate the personal from the political in Morgan’s spats. Take Prince Harry and Meghan, whom he has attacked relentlessly as hypocrites. Is it not also partly because Meghan, who had been a friend, ghosted him after she hooked up with Harry? “If Meghan Markle had done to you what she did to me, you would have been p*ssed off,” he says. “I literally put her in a cab from my pub after a two-hour chat. The moment she got in that cab, she went to a dinner party where Harry was; the next night they had a one-on-one at Soho House or wherever it was and I never hear from her again. Gone.” He sounds like a man spurned. “I just found her incredibly shallow and the social-climbing element quite appalling.”
But yes, he accepts – maybe he has been too hard on them at times. “My son Stanley said: ‘Dad, why do you care so much about Harry and Meghan?’ and I said: ‘I don’t really.’ And he said: ‘Well, it looks as if you do.’”
I wonder much the same thing as Stanley. How serious is Morgan about his woke hatred? Two years ago, he posted a screenshot of Daniel Craig carrying his baby in a papoose and tweeted: “Oh 007.. not you as well?!!! #papoose #emasculatedBond”. Papoosegate went global. “It ended up as two minutes on the NBC nightly news based on my tweet. How can that be right? That’s just an illiberal liberal explosion around the world completely out of kilter with the one observation I had, which is I don’t like papooses.” He manages to look outraged. Oh, come off it, I say: you must have been thrilled. He snorts with laughter. “If you’re a contrarian who likes to be at the centre of everyone’s thought processes, it was fantastic!”
And does he really give a flying fungal mycoprotein about vegan sausage rolls? “Do I sit here and genuinely feel a pathological hatred of papooses or vegan sausage rolls? No. Do I find it quite amusing to do a tweet or express an opinion on GMB about how I don’t like them, which is genuinely true? Yes. But I don’t want to stop people eating them or wearing them.”
Wake Up is a strange book. A third of the way through, Morgan seems to have forgotten about woke. The pandemic is raging – and so is he about the government’s handling of it. Whenever he gets the chance on GMB, he pulverises the clueless politicians for their incompetence, laziness and lies. (Soon enough, ministers boycotted the show.) Professionally, he has had a magnificent pandemic. For the first time in ages, he started punching up at worthy targets. “What the pandemic gave me was something to go at really, really hard, like the Iraq war. And I think I’ve been at my best journalistically when I’ve had something to get my teeth stuck into. When there’s nothing really going on and I’m creating a few firestorms because that’s my instinctive nature, that’s me at my worst – just a bit bored, sinking my fangs, which can be ferocious, into fairly inconsequential things, contributing to the general culture wars in a not-particularly-helpful manner.”
Was he in danger of becoming a shock-jock? “Yes. When there isn’t much going on, you can be in danger of just spouting off about stuff and it looks as if you’re just constantly furious.”
In recent months, Morgan has also been fired up by the killing of George Floyd, not least because Stanley is involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. As for his eight-year-old daughter, Elise, she has also helped him put things into perspective. “I said to her: ‘Trump is a completely unique character,’ and she said: ‘You know, Dada, you can be too unique.’”
He says he has also learned from the examples set by 100-year-old Capt Tom Moore, who raised more than €35 million (£32 million) by walking around his garden 100 times, and the footballer Marcus Rashford, who succeeded in getting the government to change its policy on free school meals. “You couldn’t get two more different people from two more different backgrounds and yet they are united by one thing – the ability to effect enormous change through old-fashioned civility.”
I think you were bored when you started writing this book and were playing the pantomime villain, I say. “Well, I’ve never actually been bored,” he protests. Okay, relatively bored? “Yeah,” he concedes. And you realised that what was happening was far more important than your attack on wokery? “Yeah, because I woke up, which is why the book’s called Wake Up.”
Look, he says, he still can’t stand cancel culture, virtue-signalling, hypocrisy, illiberalism, not least because of the consequences. “The silent majority just rise up against it and vote for Brexit and Trump,” he says. But he concedes that some of the rage in the book may have been just a little contrived. “I thought: ‘I have to make myself look a bit of a prick early on,’ because I was being a bit of a prick.” And with that, he heads off to prepare for his next scrap with the government. - Guardian
Wake Up: Why The World Has Gone Nuts by Piers Morgan is published by HarperCollins on October 15th