Those who hate Piers Morgan miss the point. He exists in the media space as a figure to be hated, or, for those who ‘love’ him, to direct their hate against groups who allegedly threaten his disproportionately older, socially conservative audience.
And is it really possible to ‘love’ him, as we’re led to believe from the analogy via Marmite? I would argue that no-one loves him, because he does not seek to be loved. The image which he has constructed is one of a lone-fighter, protecting what he stands for against his ideological opponents.
If the Presidency was Donald Trump’s bully pulpit then Piers’ – using his first name here seems vaguely appropriate (Boris, Nigel, Donald) – used his GMB slot to a similar effect. Piers pierced and provoked and pulverised his liberal opposition, telling hard truths to emotional ‘wokies’.
He carefully reacted to the news cycle with opinions sufficiently controversial to provoke a Twitter storm which he would later condemn as just another example of the ‘oversensitive’ liberal snowflakes.
His cynically outrageous take on Brexit and the ‘culture wars’ were delivered each week to a deadline in the Mail. To those who stood against him, he existed to bulldoze and bully, to label them as ‘pampered’ and as part of a ‘mob’ culture.
It is better to be feared than to be loved, and Murdoch only backs winners. The media landscape demanded that he play the role of the medieval provocateur, stirring up the mob against threatening reformists and radicals.
A 15th century Piers would have played the peasants off against each other to the instruction of his wealthy sponsors. Don’t blame your Lord, but the thieves and criminals. Don’t trust those who say that we are too overzealous in seeking out those guilty of witchcraft – maybe they’re guilty of witchcraft themselves?
And in the Roman times, Piers would have stood as a mouthpiece of the Patricians, provoking the crowd to a frenzy whilst gladiators fought for their freedom. He is a mouthpiece of those who see themselves as the dispossessed, the older, socially conservative voters alienated and confused by accelerating cultural and economic change in this era of precariousness and climate breakdown. Anti-immigration and bemoaning trans activists are surrogates for controlling this change.
Politics is theatre, and theatre is politics. For some, he’s the pantomime villain, but for others, his red-faced belligerence speaks to their fear and isolation. It’s a precarious double act and one which doesn’t always pay off – as recent events illustrate. But his liberal adversaries make this double-act possible: in their outrage at his outrage, he catches the biggest ratings in his trawler net of belligerence, and the ‘wokies’ are complicit.
His calculated controversy makes him the media equivalent of the emerald castle in the Wizard of Oz. The issues which he frequently covers do not objectively exist in the same sense as a landslide or a tsunami. They disappear into nothing unless the media circus can whip up enough of a storm.
The ‘culture war’ does not actually exist unless we say that it does. When the castle falls, the ‘culture war’ is just a medium for generating column inches and TV spectacle.
This isn’t just about sensationalism and spectacle, though. It’s more than that. It’s about narratives carefully constructed to divide generation against generation, class against class, social group against social group, and as such it operates as third-face power; false consciousness, whatever you want to call it. It promotes the age-old trope that national greatness is just around the corner, but we can’t quite reach it because of this or that particular group of people.
This does raise the obvious point that Piers ought to be hated for this very reason – because he cynically plays to our most base instincts out of self-interest.
To this, I would offer some sympathy, but I would challenge you: name one anti-lockdown, culture-wars commentator who did not use the same strategy to play the media circus.
What they are trying to achieve is not objectivity, but the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of controversy. Not too controversial to be absolutely indefensible, but not too meek or reasonable not to cause a reaction, to enrage those who they criticise and lambast.
This does not morally justify their cynicism. But these commentators, as George Carlin once said about politicians, “don’t fall out of the sky, they don’t pass through a membrane from another reality.” They come from British parents, British schools, British churches, British universities and British businesses, and they are watched by British audiences. These are individuals attempting to navigate this system, though we may think them base and contemptible.
The problem isn’t Piers Morgan, but the perverse incentives that money and power create. The media are part of the problem, but why do the media operate like this? The answer, I think, is so simple as to be banal. Capitalism. That’s the problem.
Toxic discourse is market failure. The Storming of the Capitol was market failure. Meghan and Harry’s hounding by the tabloid press was market failure. We should treat the media like we treat coal-sludge or cigarettes: protect the BBC and invest in government-funded local news.