MURDOCH AND MORGANThe Reunion from Hell
Mic Wright unpicks the announcement of a new right-wing, Rupert Murdoch television station in the UK – and how it may have spotted a gap in the market following events at a certain beleaguered anti-woke news channel
We should have known that Rupert Murdoch was about to pounce on the wounded carcass of GB News. Today, he announced a new television channel – TalkTV – to be broadcast in the UK and Australia, with Piers Morgan as its star. Morgan’s show will also be shown in the US via the Fox Nation streaming service.
I was certain I heard the strains of The Imperial March in the distance this morning and that unmistakable Atlantic-mangled Antipodean accent growling: “Now witness the firepower of this fully-armed and operational Piers Morgan.”
The moment that Andrew Neil – a former sinister apprentice to the dark lord of News Corp during his time at The Sunday Times and Sky – announced his departure from GB News on Monday, Murdoch’s plan for a new right-wing news channel, which had been ‘scaled back’ in April, twitched to life.
Murdoch has seen an opportunity to take the anti-woke, far-right slot that GB News has failed to dominate through lack of investment, paucity of talent, and technical ineptitude.
All the chatter suggesting that Morgan might head for GB News was never anything more than a negotiation tactic. Why would he opt to become a big fish in a cheaply-furnished pond when he could swim in a pool built specifically for him by Murdoch’s UK chief, News UK CEO Rebekah Brookes; and Scott Taunton, another Aussie bruiser who is now boss of News UK Broadcasting, having previously overseen its radio stations (talkRadio, Times Radio, Virgin Radio and TalkSport)?
Morgan has also ditched the MailOnline for columns in Murdoch’s tabloids on either side of the Atlantic – the Sun and The New York Post. One clue that Morgan was set to make a move back to News Corp was the many prominent pictures of him flashing his expensively-purchased grin in the Sun’s coverage of its own enormously-cynical ‘Who Cares Wins’ Awards over the past two days.
Beginning his media career at the Sun as a freelancer in 1988 – having done his journalism training at Harlow College of which his first Sun editor Kevlin Mackenzie is also an alumnus – Morgan was made editor of the paper’s ‘Bizarre’ showbiz column within a year.
Speaking to Hunter Davies in 1994, he claimed that Mackenzie had personally recruited him. Then, in December 1993, having established himself as a relentless, sharp-elbowed self-promoter (or “friend to the stars” as his column had it), he attended a dinner with Rupert Murdoch and was made editor of The News of the World.
When he was confirmed in the job in the summer of 1994, the then 29-year-old Morgan was the youngest Fleet Street editor in half a century (Hugh Cudlipp became editor of the then Sunday Pictorial in 1937 at the even more precocious age of 24). He lasted a year, getting a run of scoops – in large part thanks to the assistance of the late disgraced publicist Max Clifford – before jumping ship to the Daily Mirror.
Morgan’s departure from the warm embrace of News UK came shortly after he published photographs of Catherine Lockwood, the then wife of Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, leaving a rehab clinic in Surrey. It was a breach of the Editor’s Code of Conduct – a flimsy piece of paper – with the usually toothless Press Complaints Commission (since superseded by the equally toothless Independent Press Standards Organisation) upholding a complaint against Morgan.
Murdoch was reported – by his own newspaper, The Times, no less – to have said that “the boy went too far”. News UK issued a statement, which was made beyond laughable by the revelations of subsequent phone-hacking cases, in which Murdoch said: “This company will not tolerate its papers bringing into disrepute the best practices of popular journalism.” It was like Don Corleone assuring horse lovers that his organisation would never leave bloody equine bedtime calling cards.
Now, 26 years later, Morgan is back with Murdoch.
A GB News Competitor
Returning to Murdoch’s inner circle, he is no longer simply one of many editors but a ‘star’. Alongside his new TV show and column commitments, punchy Piers will also put out the sequel to his last book Wake Up, another tome about ‘free speech’ – meaning here the right for provocative and well-paid right-wingers to say whatever they like without pushback – via News Corp subsidiary Harper Collins.
A juicy book contract is one of the things that Murdoch likes to give his made men. Times Radio’s Stig Abell – who leapt from the Press Complaints Commission to give the Sun some credibility and protection, before being given the Times Literary Supplement and then a cushy Times Radio job – was also recently announced as one of Harper Collins’ hot new crime novelists.
Announcing Morgan’s multi-platform deal (as the execrable jargon has it), Murdoch said: “Piers is the broadcaster every channel wants but is too afraid to hire. Piers is a brilliant presenter, a talented journalist and says what people are thinking and feeling. He has many passionate fans around the world and we look forward to expanding his audience.”
And that’s where GB News could never compete. Murdoch has the money to make his new channel work. News Corp can pour cash into advertising, push it via its print and radio properties, and engineer news ‘stories’ with Morgan at their centre. Murdoch also knows that Morgan is no longer a journalist – if he ever was – but a machine for creating controversy who will make stories for his newspapers, radio stations, and the new television channel to discuss.
While GB News launched with sets that looked like an S&M dungeon decorated by a dominatrix on a B&Q budget and its ‘star’ Nigel Farage’s initially respectable ratings have cratered as viewers rapidly tire of watching the televisual equivalent of being hectored by a bloke at the end of the bar in a flat-roof pub, News Corp can afford production values.
News UK has already been putting out well-produced but morally bankrupt ‘TV’ shows under the talkRadio brand – Plank of the Week presented by Mike Graham is one example – and has set up brand new studios at its London Bridge HQ. Morgan’s programme will be filmed there and Winnie Dunbar Nelson, who worked on his CNN show and Good Morning Britain, will be his executive producer.
Morgan isn’t going to have to deal with sound issues or avoiding reading out emails from ‘Mike Hunt’, ‘Mike Oxlong’ or ‘Hugh Janus’ as GB News presenters have. I suspect that some of that channel’s more bankable troll stars – such as former talkRadio hosts Dan Wootton and Patrick Christys – will soon be angling to join TalkTV as Muttleys to Morgan’s Dick Dastardly. The content is likely to be just as toxic but more competently delivered, which will gobble up what viewers GB News has retained until now.
And with TalkTV set to draw on existing presenters from across the Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, Times Radio, Virgin Radio, talkRadio and talkSport, it immediately has a deeper bench than GB News could ever afford. I suspect that newly-elevated GB News hosts like former Gudio Fawkes sidekick Tom Harwood are hard at work retooling their CVs this afternoon.
Rupert Murdoch also knows that anti-fans (‘haters’) are as useful to him as Piers Morgan’s fans. With a willingness to say whatever he needs to get attention, Morgan draws responses, both positive and negative. Look up in the sky – that’s no moon, that’s Morgan’s ego. And it’s just been supercharged by the world’s most reliably malevolent media mogul.