Britain’s breakfast foghorn Piers Morgan is out of a job. It all happened in a matter of hours, as the former CNN presenter bent a global news story about Meghan Markle firmly in his direction with incendiary comments about the Duchess of Sussex’s mental health. We’ve spoken to sources familiar with the breakneck events to see how they unfolded.
As dawn broke on the UK on Monday — just hours after Markle and her husband Prince Harry gave a brutally frank interview to Oprah Winfrey on CBS — Morgan went on a rage-fuelled rampage. Using ITV’s flagship morning show Good Morning Britain as his platform (as well as Twitter, where he has nearly 8 million followers), Morgan lit a fire under a long-standing grudge with Markle. They were once acquaintances who shared drinks in a London pub, but Morgan is bitter after she “ghosted” him when she joined the royal family. On Monday, the GMB anchor said he did not believe the former Suits star when she revealed that she had suicidal thoughts during her residence at Kensington Palace. “I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report,” were his precise words.
The response he stoked was familiarly febrile — British websites fill their pixels every day with Morgan’s off-the-cuff rants, in the knowledge that his words will inspire hate, hope, and traffic. But something about this particular intervention on Markle’s mental health felt different. The Duchess’ vulnerability struck a chord with millions and Morgan’s views were ill at ease with the fact that little more than a year ago, Caroline Flack, the presenter of ITV’s Love Island, took her own life in tragic circumstances.
In this firestorm, mental health charity Mind said it was “disappointed” with Morgan. The intervention was an embarrassing one for ITV because Mind is a major supporter of the broadcaster’s Get Britain Talking initiative. An initiative aimed squarely at encouraging people to express the very kind of dark thoughts that Markle shared with Winfrey. Mind was not alone in, well, speaking its mind. Others echoed its comments on Twitter, not least The TV Mindset, an organization that promotes the mental wellbeing of television freelancers. TV Mindset’s founder Adeel Amini was on the wrong end of a Morgan tongue-lashing just days earlier, prompting 1,200 TV freelancers to write a letter of complaint to ITV.
As Tuesday came, ITV published its full-year 2020 earnings, but Morgan seemed unconcerned about an important day for his employer and the views of those he upset. After he was taken to task by co-host Alex Beresford, Morgan dramatically stormed off set live on television. His antics overshadowed the fact that he actually clarified remarks about Markle’s mental health, telling the nation: “It’s not for me to question if she felt suicidal, I am not in her mind and that is for her to say.”
Meanwhile, as he spoke, ITV CEO Carolyn McCall was addressing the press in an earnings call that was meant to be about ITV’s financial performance. Instead, she was pressed repeatedly about Morgan’s behavior. “They will have hated having to defend him in their post-results interview,” said a source. McCall told the media that Morgan’s ultimate boss, ITV’s content chief Kevin Lygo, would be talking to the presenter. She declined to back Morgan, and went against the presenter in saying that she wholeheartedly believed Markle’s suicidal thoughts. “I completely believe her when she says that and, importantly, everyone should,” McCall said.
Then, hours later, a bombshell. Viewer anger at Morgan’s Markle outburst translated into 41,000 complaints to UK media regulator Ofcom, making it the most complained about British television show in nearly 15 years. Ofcom said it would investigate to see if Good Morning Britain had broken broadcasting rules on harm and offense. The Guardian also reported that representatives for Markle herself sent ITV a formal complaint. ITV declined to comment on the latter, but it would be significant, given ITV was the host broadcaster for the CBS special and it proved a ratings smash, with 11.3M viewers. It risks damaging the relationship ITV has built with the Sussexes, who took part in the 2019 documentary, Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, during which the first cracks in Markle’s mental health were on show when she told journalist Tom Bradby that life had been “hard.”
The complaints came amid crunch talks between Morgan and Lygo, which would ultimately shape his future with the broadcaster. The Sun and The Daily Mirror reported that ITV wanted Morgan to apologize for his remarks, but the presenter, who was in the final year of his contract, refused to back down and ultimately decided to walk. People who spoke to Deadline described the discussions slightly differently. “He was definitely pushed. Pushed in that Kevin [Lygo] agreed he should go,” said one ITV Studios insider, who added: “Quite a few people in that studio didn’t like Piers.” Another source familiar with the matter said there had been “collective exhaustion” at ITV over the consistent controversies Morgan created.
ITV put it this way: “Following discussions with ITV, Piers Morgan has decided now is the time to leave Good Morning Britain.” Talking to press outside his home on Wednesday, Morgan said: “I had a good chat with ITV and we agreed to disagree.” And as if to underline his point, he doubled down on his doubts about Markle. “On Monday, I said I didn’t believe Meghan Markle in her Oprah interview. I’ve had time to reflect on this opinion, and I still don’t,” he tweeted. Morgan also claimed a mic-drop moment with the ratings for his final appearance on Good Morning Britain. The show’s 1.3M viewers meant it beat BBC Breakfast for the first time in its seven-year history. “My work here is done,” Morgan pronounced in a gloating tweet.
There is little doubt that during his six years on the show, he has re-energized ITV’s breakfast output. Agree or disagree with Morgan, his anti-woke opinions and confrontational interviewing style generated interest and headlines that put GMB on the map in a way that predecessors, Daybreak and GMTV, were found wanting. He also won plaudits last year for holding the British government to account over its handling of the coronavirus crisis. Ministers were so scared of being torn to shreds by Morgan on-air, they literally boycotted the show for months. In an opening monologue on today’s program, Morgan’s co-host Susanna Reid summed up his legacy like this: “Some of you may cheer and others will boo. He’s been my presenting partner, Monday to Wednesday, for more than five years. And during Brexit and the pandemic, and other issues, he has been a voice for many of you and a voice that many of you have railed against. It is certainly going to be very different, but shows go on and so on we go.”
So what now for Morgan? He said today that he’s going to “take it easy” and “spend more time with my opinions.” Those opinions are valuable to someone, and speculation is rife that the presenter will not be short of offers post-GMB. Discovery-backed news channel GB News is said to be an admirer of Morgan’s and has shown that it is prepared to splash the cash for talent ahead of its launch later this year, hiring names including former BBC presenter Andrew Neil and ex-ITV presenter Dan Wootton. Rupert Murdoch is also planning to launch a UK news channel, named News UK TV, and Morgan would be a statement signing. Led by David Rhodes, a former CBS and Fox News executive, the channel approached Morgan last year, according to the Financial Times.
There has also been talk of a return to the U.S., where he worked for CNN on a show that was ultimately canceled in 2014. Fox News has been floated as a potential suitor, having given a platform to other opinionated Brits, such as Steve Hilton. Morgan is friends with Donald Trump, which could be a valuable asset if he makes another run for the White House. It’s not clear, however, how close their ties remain given Morgan scorched the former president at the height of his lies over the lost election. Indeed, sources over at Murdoch’s Fox are cool on the idea of partnering with Piers, according to my colleague Dominic Patten.
There are other outstanding questions about whether Morgan has fully cut ties with ITV. He hosts in-depth interview format Piers Morgan’s Life Stories for the broadcaster, as well as primetime documentaries, such as Confessions of a Serial Killer. ITV’s statement leaves the door open to these continuing, given it only refers to Good Morning Britain, though a source tells us that Life Stories is hard to book and was largely commissioned “to keep Piers sweet.” Our ITV Studios insider also wouldn’t rule out Morgan returning to GMB in the future. “The clock is running on his return. All ratings gold for a company looking at a massive profit loss,” they said.
One thing’s for sure, this foghorn is not going to be silenced any time soon.
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