How Piers Morgan went from bad to dangerous

It can be hard to reconcile this newly high-minded Piers Morgan with the Piers Morgan who built his reputation in the Fleet Street muckraking corps.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Recently on CNN, Piers Morgan sat at a table across from Ricky Gervais and grilled him about gun control. “Iowa has been giving out gun permits to blind people,” he told the comedian. “Not just partially blind people, but completely blind people, who aren’t allowed, legally, to drive cars.” Gervais stifled a smile. “Well, I learned about this through one of your tweets,” he offered. “And I understand you thought this was a bad idea.” The CNN chyron chimed in: “GUNS FOR THE BLIND?!”

Morgan’s gun-control activism has been a constant cable-news hum over the past year, his reformist ardor mounting nightly. There was the now-infamous interview with sad-sack right-wing radio host Alex Jones, who ranted unintelligibly while Morgan asked him to calm down. There was the sit-down with gun-rights activist Larry Pratt during which Morgan exploded: “You’re an unbelievably stupid man, aren’t you?” In recent months, the decibel level has risen—conveniently tied to the release of Morgan’s new book, Shooting Straight: Guns, Gays, God, and George Clooney, which charts Morgan’s metamorphosis from gossipmonger into moral crusader.

Morgan has already published a bushel of memoirs, gabby catalogs of his celebrity run-ins. (“Then Fergie called to offer her sympathy. ‘Believe me, Piers, I’ve been there,’ she said, her voice quivering with emotion.”) These books are lively and crass, the chronicles of a bottom-feeder happily in his element. But Shooting Straight is pure self-righteousness. It features one particularly revealing bit in which Morgan attends the premiere of “The Newsroom”—a show unafraid to inflict its own gut punches of sanctimony—and marvels at anchor Will McAvoy’s perfect integrity. “ ‘The Newsroom’ showed me what’s missing from my own show—a voice,” Morgan writes. And then he set his sights on gun control.

It can be hard to reconcile this newly high-minded Piers Morgan with the Piers Morgan who built his reputation in the Fleet Street muckraking corps. Even in that shamelessly scummy milieu, Morgan was a standout. At 28, he became the youngest-ever editor of News of the World, where his many scoops included a tell-all from Divine Brown, the prostitute who serviced Hugh Grant in his car on Sunset Boulevard. (Front page: “It’s THAT tart in THAT dress.”) He once gleefully ran photos of a TV presenter kissing a woman who was not his wife, then got punched in the head by said presenter. In 2004, he was fired as editor of the Daily Mirror for printing doctored photos of British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. He eventually sought refuge in reality TV. By the time CNN hired him to replace Larry King—billing him as “a little bit dangerous” in its ads—Morgan was familiar in the U.S. primarily for his role on “America’s Got Talent,” as an arbiter of boy bands and piano-playing pigs.

And yet there isn’t much daylight between the two versions of Morgan. In gun control as in celebrity sex busts, he is a mastermind at the game of cheap provocation. This is what made him a star in the tabloid world, where shock value is news value and blatancy is currency. The trouble is that he has channeled the very same sensibility into his anti-gun campaign. You might call it tabloidism as activism, sensationally and recklessly applied.

Gun violence, it turns out, hasn’t always gotten Morgan’s journalistic juices flowing. In his 2005 book, The Insider, he describes his initial reaction to the 1996 Dunblane school massacre: “Just after 10am, the newsdesk told me there were reports of a shooting at a school in Scotland. I was not immediately that interested. Scottish stories rarely get into the English edition unless they are pretty spectacular.” In Shooting Straight, Morgan revisits this episode, but this time he simply declares: “I was determined that something meaningful would be done to try and prevent anything like this from happening again.”

Morgan’s current determination is hard to deny. His effectiveness is less clear. For one thing, there’s the way he handles guests. Morgan tends to let hotheads like Jones rant unchecked (ostensibly to expose their insanity, though after a point, he is just giving them a bigger platform). But then he steamrolls authors and academics whose logic is actually worth debunking. Take economist and gun-rights proponent John Lott, whose head Morgan permitted to occupy one side of a split-screen while he talked over him for ten minutes. Lott, author of the book More Guns, Less Crime, attempted feebly to interject, but Morgan wasn’t having it. “I am going to keep talking, so I suggest you keep quiet,” the host informed the guest. To which Lott replied, shoulders slumping: “I don’t see what the point of having anybody on is if you’re going to talk for ninety percent of the time.” And still Morgan barreled on.

He can be so fixated on rallying his imagined fan base that he barely engages with the people sitting in front of him—whether they’re gun nuts or gun victims. Several weeks ago, he interviewed a teenage girl who had witnessed a Nevada school shooting. “I saw [the shooter] getting bullied a few times,” she mentioned—here was a real news development, and a potentially important one for illuminating the shooter’s motives—but Morgan and his talking points were undeterred. “Another grisly statistic in the long-running saga of shootings at schools in America,” he said.

Even Morgan’s toughness is mostly cosmetic. He makes a show of head-shaking and accusatory pointing, but his questions are often less spiky than they sound. “Do you like being so polarizing?” he asked Ann Coulter, each syllable distinct and freighted, as if there could be no query more controversial. A favored tactic is to demand some highly specific gun-violence statistic from his guests—say, “How many gun murders were there in Britain last year?”—and then blast them when they can’t summon the figure.

Of course, every political movement needs its loudmouths and its show ponies. And clearly cable news is a landscape full of over-emotive anchors. Morgan, however, is in a class of his own. When Anderson Cooper berated Mary Landrieu over the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the moment was certainly theatrical. But it was also a valuable clarification of the government’s negligence. And it felt genuine, proof that emotional combat can be a useful journalistic tactic when deployed sparingly. Morgan’s version is louder and sloppier. Pumped full of a sense of his own mission, he is a caricature of what gun owners imagine their antagonists to be: smug, patronizing urbanites. So he often ends up playing into the anxieties of right-wing extremists rather than puncturing them. He once compared American gun culture to the “racist culture” of previous decades, prompting one liberal guest to reply, “That’s not fair, a Southern gun owner is not like a Klan member—I mean, come on.” Above all, he has reduced one of the most sensitive, knotty issues in U.S. politics into a mere soapbox for the Piers Morgan brand.

Still, even if an assault weapons ban is never passed, even if Alex Jones continues his talk-radio reign of terror forever, at least Morgan can comfort himself with the validation he seems to prize most: benedictions from celebrities. As he notes in Shooting Straight, his newfound purpose has won him a thumbs-up from Kiefer Sutherland (“It’s one of the bravest things I’ve seen anyone do on American television for a very long time”) and a tweet from Rosie O’Donnell (“U are doing a great job”). It’s nice to have endorsements from famous friends, but U can’t really call that progress.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Piers Morgan is a mastermind at the game of cheap provocation. Photo: Getty
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".