Piers Morgan on Trump, feminism, quitting morning TV – and his bid to become an “international treasure”
ITV's Good Morning Britain presenter speaks candidly ahead of his new series of Life Stories
Piers Morgan helps himself to a cup of tea, sits down at the kitchen table, and asks me how I am. For the next five minutes, I tell him. My week, my month, my anxieties. Then I suddenly realise what’s happened. I’m doing all the talking. And that’s wrong – because I’m meant to be asking the questions. And that is also very Piers Morgan. There’s a reason he called his interview series Life Stories – because people talk to him.
“On the way here,” he says, “just a 20-minute walk, I had three taxi-drivers calling to me out of their windows. At the café, six or seven people came over to talk about Trump.”
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Even with more than six million followers on Twitter, he’d prefer to be thought of as the bloke you strike up a conversation with over a fry-up. They’re talking to him about Trump because of January’s Davos interview – the first, lest any of us forget, “international television interview with the US president”.
It took a year to secure. He had a phone call with Donald Trump – whom he’s known for a decade – in the month after he won the 2016 election and was promised, whenever an interview finally happened, he’d be the first.
The reaction to it, Morgan is quick to point out, has been confusing.
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“It may not have been a traditional, conventional hard news interview, but that wasn’t my intention. My intention was 45 minutes of prime-time. They’re different animals. And I’ve been really struck by the public reaction, universally saying, ‘I saw a different side to him.’ Not that they thought better of him, but different.”
Journalistic reaction wasn’t so generous. I’m wondering what Morgan made of veteran BBC world affairs editor John Simpson weighing in on Twitter to tell him, “The art of the political interview, Piers, is to push your interviewee hard – not let them spout self-evident tosh.”
“I can’t remember a momentous interview that John Simpson has ever done with anyone,” he fires back. “A perfectly good correspondent – but he was, of course, most well known for ‘liberating Kabul’, as he put it. Which was a bit of a surprise to the British armed forces who had actually liberated Kabul at the time.” Was he hurt? “It doesn’t hurt, it annoys. The dismissive pomposity of what he said, and the way he called it showbiz, when it had actually led the BBC News… It p***** me off.”
To observe that Morgan relishes a fight is to say WWE wrestler The Undertaker is fond of a tussle. It’s what he does. Who he is. A fantastical, larger-than-life character who hones his verbal pugilism to land it where it hurts. Possibly because, as he would readily admit, he knows how it feels.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit here that the man I am interrogating for the purposes of this piece is actually Piers, my friend. The kitchen table we are sitting at is mine and he’s eaten at it before, between explosive rows with my head-shaking guests.
I went to his wedding; I adore his wife, Celia [journalist Celia Walden]. So right now I’m trying to remember what is public and what is private knowledge.
I recall how shattered he looked when we last met, admitting Good Morning Britain, the ITV breakfast show he co-hosts, was “killing” him.
So, I ask, why are you still there? I’ve heard talk of a lucrative renewed contract, but he insists it came down to a renegotiation that allows him to start work at 5.30am, rather than the 4am he’d previously been required to report.
“I actually quit in the summer. I said, ‘I’m out,’ because I couldn’t do it any more. Then we came to a new arrangement, which is great. I feel completely different.”
The new studio start time allows him just 25 minutes to prepare for a three-hour show: “The only reason, really, I had to go in so early was because the female stars all have to. It takes them longer [to get ready] because they get more attention and pressure on how they look, how their hair is and everything else. I’m lucky – five minutes of slap and on I go… I said, ‘Does anyone really care if I come in at 5.30 and we just have a catch-up on the phone?’ Which is what we now do.”
I’m struck by how carefully he’s tiptoed round the subject of women’s appearance. Where once he would have joked about “looking fit” or not scaring the horses, now, post-Weinstein – or maybe post-sofa-instruction by his clear-headed and unafraid co-presenter, Susanna Reid – he nods to the kind of external pressure women face. He is a self-declared feminist and will talk a lot about feminism over the course of the next hour. Is that, I wonder, because he found himself so publicly on the wrong side of many women with his remarks about the Women’s March a year ago?
“No,” he corrects. “The Women’s March, particularly last year, was not about feminism or women’s rights. It was about screaming abuse at Donald Trump. It was Madonna saying, ‘I’ve been dreaming of blowing up the White House’.”
She was only one person of the millions who marched, I remind him. But he’s unrepentant.
“I will march for gender equality if I’m asked to. I’ll do that and I’ll march for women’s rights. But I’m not going to join a march with a load of abusive girls banging on about Trump. To me that’s a self-defeating waste of time. It didn’t achieve anything – what did it achieve?”
His ire in the week we meet is directed at Formula One for its decision to ban the Grid Girls, whom it suddenly declared “at odds with modern-day societal norms”.
“I don’t see them [the F1 bosses] leading the charge to help suppressed women in Saudi Arabia, for example. Even though they have a race in Abu Dhabi. They bowed to PC public pressure, which is happening everywhere.” Feminism, he says, has been hijacked by radicals and become “toxic”.
“The same feminists that would cry for Page Three to be banned are more than happy to defend Kim Kardashian for constantly posting lewd topless pictures to tens of millions of people and pretending it’s feminist empowerment. Their ideal is that every woman should be free to do with their body what they like – right to the point when a woman does something with her body they don’t like. Then they have to be vilified and stopped. That, to me, is hypocrisy.”
Does he think the same of the Presidents Club?
“Look, some people behaved very badly. But I’ve seen hen nights. Is it going to be the same when the Chippendales tour Britain? I think women who go to Chippendales events and grope the men are no better and no worse than the men at that event, but I don’t see anyone calling for the Chippendales to be banned.”
As I try to get a word in edgeways between Morgan and his frothing next column, organically forming as he speaks, he turns on me.
“Have you ever been to a Chippendales event?”
“I have,” I say. The trouble with being from Sheffield is that I occasionally confuse whole chapters of my life with The Full Monty. I can’t swear they were vintage Chippendales. But I’ve definitely been at something paid where the men danced and took off their clothes. (And, if you watched Newsnight recently, you’ll have seen I took the opportunity of visiting the Chippendales while I was in Las Vegas!)
“Right,” he nods. “So you know what goes on at them. I mean, women paw these guys all night. I can see a big issue down the line with men just getting very resentful and feeling, ‘Why is it only about male behaviour?’”
How will that resentment manifest itself? “I don’t know, but I think men feel slightly uneasy, tense and intimidated by what’s going on.”
His view, I point out, compelling as it sounds, ignores the politics of power: in the Presidents Club, the men had the money and the clout. At Chippendales events, the men probably earn more than the women in the audience. “Yeah I completely get that.” He pauses. “But I would also say to people that the five or six most powerful people in the country right now are women. The PM, Home Secretary, head of the Met Police. It’s not bad. I think that we’ve moved very fast in a short period of time.”
Does he have moments – opinions – he regrets? He cites singer Ariana Grande, whom he criticised for returning to the US after the bombing of her Manchester concert last May. “I felt that she should have stayed and gone to visit the victims. Then I gave it some thought and I realised she’s very young, early 20s, probably completely freaked out by what happened. And I’d been a little harsh and hasty actually.”
Sure enough, even a change of heart can generate a new column and more press. So now I’m wondering if the worst thing in the world for Piers Morgan is not to be talked about at all. Is that death by silence?
“I don’t see how you can be a columnist and not want people to talk about you. Every columnist wants to be read as widely as possible, otherwise why would you do it?”
There wouldn’t, I later muse, be many people prepared to share a cartoon picture of themselves licking the presidential posterior. He posted the caricature online to condemn BBC comedy show The Mash Report for featuring it at all. And, by doing so, ensured global pick-up.
When I ask him about the insults, the endless ribbing, the criticism, he talks about it being “annoying”, “frustrating”. Nothing more. For all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never understood if it goes much deeper and he actually finds it really hurtful, as it would be to, say, me, or any normal human being.
“Celia [his wife since 2010] will tell you, I just laugh at most of it. I do. Although some days you wake up and they say [on Twitter], ‘I hope you and your family all get beheaded by Isis, have a good morning’ and you’re like... what???!!”
It isn’t just the daily trolls, of course. In his life he has been accused of publishing fake photos, when he edited the Daily Mirror, and crimes: insider trading, phone hacking. Lord Leveson described his testimony on that at the public inquiry as “utterly unpersuasive”.
“He was talking about a very specific part of it, and I would dispute it,” Morgan corrects me. “Yeah, look, I’ve been accused of lots of things. But I’ve not been found guilty of any of them, much as people would like me to be. I actually prefer to stick to the facts. I was not found guilty of insider dealing. I’ve never hacked a phone or told anyone to hack a phone and yet, on Twitter, every single day I get 20 or 30 people saying, ‘You hacked a dead girl’s [Milly Dowler] phone.’ Everyone in the media knows that was done by another newspaper. It’s probably one of the most awful things you’d be accused of doing and every day I have to bite my lip.”
What is the legacy of that, I wonder, on his soul? Is it corrosive?
“It’s fine, because I wasn’t found guilty. It’s just annoying. I have a very thick skin.”
I ask him how Celia would describe what she both loves and loathes about him and he quickly says: “My self-confidence. My ability to ride the storm and survive the jungle.” I genuinely don’t know for a second if that’s in the loves or loathes column. It transpires he’s talking about what she most admires. And, tellingly perhaps, he completely forgets to tell me what she doesn’t like. I text him later when I find it missing from my answers. And he tells me she hates him “licking his fingers when he reads the paper”.
Morgan’s answers come – for the most part – fluently. Except when I ask which politician he admires the most. There’s a pause. Then a longer pause. Then we laugh. “It’s not easy. Leave that as a pause, yeah.”
Two days later he’s back in touch to say that he’s picking Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. “I don’t agree with him on many things, but he stays true to his beliefs and articulates his opinions with a clarity missing from most of his colleagues.” It’s curious that the question has been bugging him enough to get back to me.
Does he hanker, I ask, to be taken more seriously by his newspaper peers? Would he relish the opportunity to edit, say, the FT or The Times? “No, with TV, Twitter and my columns, I have a far, far more fulfilling journalistic career. It’s almost like I’m running my own newspaper and I’m the only member of staff. I love that.”
He has rewritten the rules of journalism in the same way Trump has rewritten politics. You can love it or loathe it, but most people would have to admit it’s audacious.
He will never, I suggest gently, be called a national treasure.
He bursts out laughing. “I think you’re being a little hasty there. You’d be surprised. People would be very surprised if they walked around the streets with me. I think more people see me as a panto villain. But with that comes the possibility of morphing into an international treasure, which I’m not giving up on yet.”
He’s joking. At least I think he is, and it seems the right place to wrap it up. It will take me another 24 hours to realise that he might not have been joking. And it will be another 48 hours before I reflect that maybe, just maybe, he’s right.
Piers Morgan's Life Stories with Pamela Anderson is on Saturday at 9.50pm on ITV and Good Morning Britain airs Monday to Wednesday at 6am on ITV