Piers Morgan has no interest in being liked. “I couldn’t give a monkeys”, he says of the vicious public confrontations he regularly engages in, “you show me someone everyone likes and I’ll show you a very boring person”.
Thick skin is a necessity in Morgan’s line of work, and this journalist-cum-TV personality has seen his share of vitriol. While campaigning for US gun control on his CNN show in 2013, Morgan famously aggravated over 100,000 Americans into signing a petition to have him deported. The petition even prompted a response from the White House, as Morgan recalled with a chuckle while addressing the Oxford Union on Tuesday evening.
“I like polarising opinions,” he tells me after the talk, as we sit in the Oxford Union’s Gladstone Room surrounded by keen students, all itching to take a selfie with the man who remains Britain’s best-known journalist, “I play up to it, I encourage it, as long as you follow me on Twitter I don’t care.”
A bit like Katie Hopkins, I wonder aloud, thinking of The Apprentice star’s ability to generate online outrage. “No, I’m not as painfully intolerant as she is,” he responds, “I’m actually a very tolerant person, when it comes to gay rights, or anti-racism, or whatever it may be. She is excruciatingly vile in her intolerance.”
Since his high-profile dismissal from the Daily Mirror editorship in 2004, Morgan has appeared as a celebrity judge on America’s Got Talent, Britain’s got Talent, and even hosted his own US news show on CNN. Currently an editor-at-large for the US Mail Online, Morgan is perhaps best known among the student population for his illustrious social media presence. Indeed, as he enters the Union chamber Morgan jokingly informs a lone booing student they will be “dealt with on Twitter later”, a nod to his high-profile online spats with Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson, and Joey Barton.
Inhabiting for years the world of Britain’s Fleet Street elite, Morgan unsurprisingly shows great affection for the nation’s tabloid press. “I think all tabloids should be the pulse of the nation. They should be out there, in your face, screaming about whatever is going on that’s important.” Those who look down on tabloids essentially look down on working-class people, he thinks, and Morgan describes as a “travesty” the growing feminist campaign to remove topless women from Page 3. “When Keira Knightley does it in Vogue it’s art, but when Laura from Birmingham does it it’s seen as disgusting,” he tells the Union audience, condemning what he sees as a middle-class, Guardian-inspired attempt to extinguish a slither of joy from the lives of working-class people.
Speaking only days after David Cameron’s shock outright victory in the General Election, I was keen to hear Morgan’s views on how tabloids may have influenced the result. Indeed, a key talking point during the campaign, particularly for much of Oxford’s left-leaning population, was the seemingly negative coverage given by much of the ‘Tory Press’ to Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party. Could The Sun’s vicious attacks on “Red Ed’s” sandwich-eating abilities really have cost Labour the election, and if so, is it right that Britain’s papers persist in taking such firm partisan stances?
“Yes, I don’t think it matters,” he tells me quickly, “I don’t care, it’s all part of the fun, we all vote, why shouldn’t the papers vote?” The Sun might well attack Miliband on a personal level, but the Daily Mirror (Morgan’s old paper) attacks Cameron, he tells me. They all do it. The conversation moves quickly on to an increasingly controversial topic: Rupert Murdoch, and his ownership over large sections of the British press. Appointed editor of News of the World aged only 28, Morgan has worked closely with the Australian media mogul, telling the Union audience that he spoke to Murdoch at least every weekend during the mid-1990s. The two publically fell out in 1995, following the News of the World’s use of a front-page photo of Victoria Spencer inside a detox clinic, a story criticised by the Press Complaints Commission. Murdoch was said to have accused Morgan of going “over the top”.
The high-profile spat has clearly not dented Morgan’s affection for his former boss, however. He describes Murdoch as a “genius”, noting that Sky News, Murdoch’s British TV news channel, has “no partisan side to it”. He also thinks that The Guardian probably wields more influence within its own high-end readership than do any of Murdoch’s papers. Rupert Murdoch, Morgan insists, simply “inspires more envy” because he is considerably more successful. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with being rich, or seeking to make money, he explains. Further attempting to undermine the “demonization” of Rupert Murdoch, Morgan insists that never as editor of News of the World was he told what to write by his mogul boss. If recent reports in The Guardian are anything to go by, however, Murdoch’s leadership style seems to have changed in recent years, with the 84 year-old Australian reportedly phoning editors at The Sun on numerous occasions during this year’s election campaign, encouraging them to take a more vociferously anti-Miliband stance.
Morgan is sceptical as to whether the press can really decide an election. “Facebook is far more powerful than The Sun now,” he explains, attributing Labour’s failure at last week’s General Election to the voters of Middle England rejecting the politics of Miliband, as well as the potential influence of Nicola Sturgeon, whom he describes as “Braveheart” in his typical outspoken manner. I leave my interview with Morgan somewhat surprised. Having usually only heard his name uttered in the same sentence as some form of expletive (indeed, a quick look at his Twitter account shows the vitriol he evokes on a daily basis), this beast-of-British-journalism seemed to me a pleasantly friendly and warm man, whose divisive and confrontational persona seems more strongly driven by a sense of journalistic fun than by any inner malice.
What is next for Morgan, I ask as our interview draws to our close? He mentions a host of TV offers, though he cannot be specific. Maybe a role on Top Gear, I suggest? Sadly not, he tells me, though he encourages me to repeat the rumour, “just because it annoys Clarkson”, a nod to his infamous tussle with the Top Gear presenter at the British Press Awards in 2004. Following a General Election campaign dominated by months of hostility and macabre seriousness, Morgan’s playground-like perception of British public life proves strangely refreshing.