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
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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.