On Wednesday morning, the British media watchdog Ofcom handed down a verdict upholding Piers Morgan’s right to say on TV that he didn’t believe “a word” Meghan Markle said in her interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The ruling was greeted with delight by the British press, both on their front pages and behind the scenes.
One British newspaper editor, for example, told the Daily Beast: “I think for many commentators/opinion writers they’ll use the ruling to take the gloves off. It’ll be open season.”
The editor added that that the ruling was particularly likely to embolden opinion writers who are “not bound as much by restrictive laws that news editors face and that Harry and Meghan exploit to the full.”
In fact, the full text of the judgement was carefully phrased; the accompanying text notably emphasized that the decision was “finely balanced.” It also admonished former Good Morning Britain anchor Morgan for treating the subject of suicide flippantly.
Ofcom said it was adjudicating complaints of causing “harm and offense” on the GMB edition broadcast on March 8, after the Oprah interview had aired in the U.S. but before it had aired in the U.K. This show featured Morgan, co-host Susanna Reid, and guests including ITV’s royal editor, Chris Ship, who was in the studio.
The regulator said it had also considered parts of the show broadcast the following day, which featured Morgan, Reid and GMB weatherman Alex Beresford. By the time of the March 9 show, the interview had screened in the U.K.
It was during this second show that Morgan stormed off the set, after Beresford said it seemed Morgan’s tirades against Meghan and Harry appeared to be based in bitterness over Meghan cutting him off.
Beresford said to Morgan: “I understand you’ve got a personal relationship with Meghan Markle—or you had one, and she cut you off. She’s entitled to cut you off if she wants to. Has she said anything about you since she cut you off? I don’t think she has, and yet you continue to trash her.” (Later, Beresford said “relentless racism” had forced him off social media.)
The nuances of Ofcom’s ruling were apparently lost on Morgan. Within minutes of Ofcom publishing its findings, the Daily Mail, where Morgan is a columnist, published a gloating first person piece by him, in which his obsession with trashing the the Sussexes bloomed into life again; he wondered how the news of his victory would go down with the “the self-satisfied Sussexes as they slurp kale smoothies in their California mansion.”
This aggressive and vindictive kind of attack is exactly what Morgan specializes in, and his piece was the distilled essence of Morganism. He went on to call Meghan “Princess Pinnochio” and his piece culminated in perhaps one of the viler slurs to be thrown at Meghan in a reputable national media outlet over the past few years: He described her as a “whiny fork-tongued actress.”
Part of Morgan’s beef was that Meghan got involved personally; Ofcom, received a record 57,793 complaints against Morgan, and one of those was filed by the duchess herself. Morgan also accused Meghan of writing “directly to my ITV boss Dame Carolyn McCall the night before I was forced out, demanding my head on a plate... Apparently, she stressed that she was writing to Dame Carolyn personally because they were both women and mothers—a nauseating playing of the gender and maternity card if ever there was one.”
It may, in retrospect, have been unwise of Meghan herself to intervene—although her personal complaint would have had no bearing on the Ofcom ruling, her direct involvement allowed the conflict to be portrayed as Morgan vs. Meghan grist to the mill, given the personalized nature of Morgan’s attacks.
By a bizarre quirk of fate, the personal angel was emphasized a few hours later when Prince Harry was the virtual guest of honor at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards, which a triumphant Morgan was attending. He tweeted “awks” as Harry was beamed in live to make his speech.
If Morgan had hoped that Harry had been perturbed by the events of the day, he didn’t show it on Wednesday night. Harry looked smart and relaxed in a black tie outfit and made a thoughtful speech which stressed, uncontroversially and correctly, the scientifically obvious need to vaccinate the entire planet, not just the West, if coronavirus is ever truly to be defeated. He also raised the important issue of misinformation feeding anti-vax conspiracy theories, saying: “Mass-scale misinformation across ‘news’ media and social media, where those who peddle in lies and fear are creating vaccine hesitancy.”
The misrepresentation of this speech in Thursday’s British newspapers might, were they still living in the U.K. to be confronted by the morning headlines, have stirred familiar feelings of outrage in the breasts of Meghan and Harry.
The Mail, for example, reported that Harry had “used a live video message from his LA mansion to launch a new assault on the media and lecture on inequality.” This is a typically ridiculous and deliberate misreading of Harry’s words by the British press.
The Express dug up a language expert who concluded that Harry’s speech was intended to position him as “a global leader,” mischievously implying his speech was about self-promotion rather than altruistic motivation.
The bad news for Harry and Meghan is that they can likely expect many more of these personal and damaging attacks in the wake of the Ofcom judgement, which has significantly reversed the momentum of Harry and Meghan’s recent efforts to shut down and silence their critics.
The most notable of these victories was Meghan’s stunning victory over Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Mail and the Mail on Sunday, over their publication of handwritten excerpts of a letter she sent to her father. Associated Newspapers are seeking leave to appeal the judgment.
One person who will certainly exploit what effectively amounts to permission granted by the ruling to personally criticize Meghan is Piers Morgan, but he is unlikely to do it from behind the Good Morning Britain desk. Although he is lobbying hard to be given his job back, GMB has made clear it has no plans to re-hire the presenter. His divisive style may have driven the show to the top spot in the U.K. ratings war, but having got rid of Morgan, they clearly don’t want the risk (or embarrassment) of taking him back.
The Ofcom report has provided plenty of reasons for them to not touch Morgan with a bargepole.
For example, the regulator said it was “particularly concerned” about Morgan’s approach to suicide and “his apparent disregard for the seriousness of anyone expressing suicidal thoughts,” and also gave as a mitigating factor contributions opposing Morgan by Morgan’s co-hosts.
These caveats have allowed network ITV to make the case that it was the production values of the show which allowed it to avoid censure. In a statement, the broadcaster said: “The ruling sets out clearly that it was the balance and context the program makers provided which was key in mitigating against the potential for harm and offense which could have been caused by Piers Morgan’s comments… It is because of the program’s editorial decisions and the opposing views which were forcefully expressed by other presenters and guests, that the program did not breach Ofcom’s rules.”
ITV were, some would argue, lucky to be given such credit for providing balance; clips of the shows in question, and the transcripts published by Ofcom in their report, demonstrate Morgan verbally bulldozing the other voices out of the way. As he walked off set he rubbished the contribution of Beresford, who is Black, and described GMB as “my own show.”
There is no doubt, however, that Morgan is the big winner out of all this. Picking another fight with him wouldn’t be smart on Meghan’s part, especially if she lost again.
Galling as it may be to the Sussexes to contemplate, it’s probably time to give up complaining and explaining when it comes to the rantings of Piers Morgan.