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30 November 2022

Piers Morgan: “The TalkTV ratings ate at my soul like a flesh-eating bug”

The combative presenter reflects on Cristiano Ronaldo, cancel culture and the “infinite patience” of Rupert Murdoch.

By William Turvill

Piers Morgan has had to be resilient during his near 40-year career in journalism. In 2004, he was sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror and escorted from the paper’s offices after it had published photographs, later shown to be fakes, showing British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. In 2014 Morgan was sacked again when ratings for his CNN show collapsed. Last year, his six-year reign on ITV’s Good Morning Britain ended when a co-presenter challenged his persistent attacks on Meghan Markle: Morgan walked off the set and later resigned when he was ordered to apologise. 

Nevertheless, this year must have been a challenge, even for him. In April, ahead of the launch of his new show, Piers Morgan Uncensored, the 57-year-old’s image appeared on ad hoardings and buses across the UK – a statement of serious intent from Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV. In the months that followed, Morgan’s many critics have delighted in referring to his show as Piers Morgan Unwatched. Reports of poor viewing figures seemed to signal a decline in fortune for a man reported to make around £15m a year from TalkTV, Fox documentaries, columns for the Sun and New York Post, and a book deal with HarperCollins. 

[See also: Gary Lineker: “The BBC can’t stop me talking about politics”]

When I met him in his London studio, I asked if the low TV ratings had bothered him. Morgan, not usually one for admitting weakness, conceded it had been wounding. “I’m a very competitive, healthy-ego individual who’s never going to be happy seeing crap numbers,” he said. “And some nights, they were crap. For no reason. And it used to eat away at my soul like a flesh-eating bug.” He described the official Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb) figures for his show as “schizophrenic”, ranging from 7,500 to 70,000 viewers a night.

Photo by Jack Orton for the New Statesman

But Morgan has had cause to celebrate of late. We talked on a cold Monday night in the studio News Corp designed for him in Ealing, near his west London home. At first sight it appears an unlikely place for Murdoch’s flagship UK show. Nestled beside a budget hotel, and accessible via a creaking lift, the TalkTV studio occupies a basement warren that feels out of place in its suburban setting. The walls are lined with photographs of Morgan posing with interviewees – among them Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian, Stephen Hawking and, of course, the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.

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When I arrived at 6pm, Morgan – dressed down in chinos and a loose-fitting black V-neck – was finishing a final planning session for that night’s live 8pm-9pm show. “That’s what real courage looks like,” he announced to the meeting room. “Not going up the virtue-signalling hill and then climbing back down at the threat of a yellow card!”

He was going to lead on the news that the Football Association had reversed its decision to allow Harry Kane to wear a OneLove armband in England’s opening World Cup match. Morgan would compare this to the “courage” of the opposing Iranian players, who had remained silent during their national anthem, as part of an anti-government protest. Footballers, virtue-signalling and “woke” values are very much Morgan’s territory, but that night his take was shared by many other pundits – demonstrating the challenge he faces in trying to establish his show as a distinctive force.

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Morgan was in buoyant mood, partly thanks his recent interview with Ronaldo, who had complained on camera about his treatment by Manchester United, and claimed its owners “don’t care about the club”. The interview, which was broadcast in two parts on 16 and 17 November, was a “game-changer”, Morgan said. “It’s been utterly spectacular.” Even Ronaldo, whose contract was promptly terminated by mutual agreement with the club, was happy – as were Manchester United fans: the owners, the Glazer family, have since indicated they would sell the club. Lounging back on a sofa, legs crossed, Morgan revealed that his wife, the Telegraph columnist Celia Walden, is becoming fed up with his “late night texting – me giggling like a schoolgirl when I get the emojis from Ronaldo!”

[See also: Why are Piers Morgan’s TalkTV ratings so low?]

On viewing figures, TalkTV generally trails even GB News. But the channel estimates the 90-minute Ronaldo interview, and clips from it, helped Piers Morgan Uncensored attract 48.3 million views across YouTube and other online platforms in the week in which it aired. Even the Barb figures were reasonable, with an average 334,000 tuning in to watch the interview. Between 8pm and 9pm on 16 November, TalkTV was the UK’s seventh most popular channel.

Morgan’s other recent hits include interviews with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who has been accused of anti-Semitism; Jordan Peterson, the anti-woke provocateur and intellectual; and Andrew Tate, an online influencer known for his misogynistic views. All three were deemed offensive enough to have their Twitter accounts removed – although each has been reinstated.

Should Morgan be giving such figures a platform? “That’s exactly why I give them a platform,” he said. “We are in a very weird sort of McCarthyite era where people’s default position is to suppress everything, cancel everyone they don’t agree with. I don’t want to become a clichéd, woke-bashing thing like a lot of GB News has become – I think it’s boring.” At the same time, he is happy to host and challenge the views of “people who are smart, divisive, whatever – as long as they not actually advocating violence”. 

Morgan excused himself for his pre-show ritual: changing into a suit and tie, having make-up applied and consuming caffeine. He told me he was naturally a morning person – he’d woken at 5am to write two newspaper columns – but gees himself up with Red Bull.

Earlier, he had impressed upon me the importance of finalising plans for his show two hours in advance, to make things easier for his production staff. But at 7.59pm, he was still giving orders via a microphone to a dozen or so colleagues crammed into the TalkTV gallery. “I do not want to have a go at Alex Scott,” he said urgently, seconds before broadcast. (Scott, the England footballer turned BBC sports presenter, had worn a OneLove armband during her World Cup report.)

The show appeared to run smoothly, with a few exceptions. The team was trialling a new feature in which 25 viewers were invited to appear on a virtual panel and share their opinions. Mid-broadcast, it was loudly noted in the gallery that all 25 members of the “Morgan Arena” were men. Later in the show, the producers began laughing when Morgan thanked his friend, the former England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, for watching his interview with Ronaldo, only to be told: “I didn’t watch you, I watched him, Piers.” But the banter was good-natured, and acknowledged with a smile: by most accounts Morgan has a good rapport with his staff.

Some of his team have followed him from Good Morning Britain. Morgan told me his March 2021 exit from the show was not put on for dramatic effect. “I was thinking, ‘I’d better leave before I do something I regret’ – either verbally or physically. Because it annoyed me so much.” Not for the first time, he compared himself to Ronaldo, who had effectively walked out of his own place of work, via the medium of a Piers Morgan interview. “I’m not equating myself to Ronaldo,” he said. “But if you want to make that equation yourself…”

When I spoke to Morgan in April, he had told me his show would be a “marathon, not a sprint”. Still, he must have hoped for better momentum. After a good start built on a tetchy interview with Donald Trump, his old TV sparring partner, the audience fell away. 

Today, Morgan argued, most new television stations experience such lows, and he considered the negative coverage “a bit of jocular joshing at our expense. The media obsession here is all with TalkTV overnight Barb numbers – and to me, they’re just increasingly irrelevant… I’ve got three sons in their twenties – none of them watch television. They all watch my show on YouTube.”

I asked Morgan if he had heard from Rupert Murdoch, and if so what he made of Piers Morgan Uncensored. Murdoch had made him editor of the News of the World in 1994, when Morgan was just 28 – though the magnate is reported to have said of him: “The trouble with Piers is that his balls are bigger than his brains.”

Morgan pointed out that Murdoch had given both Fox News in the US and Sky News in the UK many years to prove they were viable. “He’s just of the view: keep pounding, and keep trying stuff. The question is, where are we going to be in a year’s time? Three years?” I asked him if he thought TalkTV would still be a television station in three years’ time, rather than a digital news outlet. “Yeah, I do. I think the Murdochs have infinite patience with this stuff. They’re not piling pressure on us. They just want us to keep getting it right.” At 91, Rupert is likely to pass his media empire to his son, Lachlan, the chief executive of Fox.

It remains to be seen whether Piers Morgan’s confidence is well placed – if the Murdoch family is as committed as he says, and if the Ronaldo interview proves to be the station’s high-water mark, or one of many viral hits. Given the way most of his previous gigs have ended, I had to ask: isn’t it likely his time at TalkTV will end badly?

“I certainly won’t be leaving after last week,” he fired back with a characteristic cackle. “No, listen: I’ve signed a three-year contract, I’m about a year into it, I’m loving it – good, bad, ugly – I love the challenge. I’ll be there definitely for the duration of my contract – and I would be surprised if I don’t sign another.”

[See also: Can Piers Morgan and Rupert Murdoch’s talkTV succeed where GB News has failed?]

This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince