There was a clip posted last July in which a man confronted Fox News host Tucker Carlson as he walked around a sporting goods store in Montana. Carlson, if you’re not immediately familiar, is the man you’re mostly likely to see if your exposure to Fox News is limited to just the very worst bits that get shared on Twitter.
The man told Carlson simply: “You are the worst human being known to mankind.”
I mean, there are probably stronger contenders, granted. But it’s a comment that’s easy to understand: Carlson’s show is a regularly hateful display, riling his viewers into misinformed furies on vaccinations, immigration, race and gender, delivered in sneering tones. Lately, Carlson’s been talking about tanning testicles with Kid Rock, in a series addressing an apparent crisis of falling levels of testosterone in the modern American man. (I’d focus on brain cells, personally.)
The path that led Carlson there—talking literal bollocks with Kid Rock—has been a long, controversial, but very deliberate journey, during which he has learned how to cultivate the grievances of (largely) white Americans, turning discussion around their anger and fears into a highly-profitable art form.
Most Americans will be very familiar with his schtick. British people perhaps less so. They should pay attention. The Carlson formula is ripe for imitation, and there’s one man who I am certain knows that very well.
Or to put it another way: Piers Morgan has a new TV show.
Now, contrary to (what I think is) popular opinion, I’d argue that Morgan is one of the most talented people in British broadcasting. He has a track record of knowing when the wind is about to turn, especially when it’s against him, and he makes decisive and bold moves. You don’t get to the level of power and influence Morgan has amassed without skill and judgement.
Some would argue he is just a loudmouth. I think it’s more accurate to say he’s very good at playing one when it’s convenient and lucrative. The opposite is true too — Morgan’s more personable side can be seen in his interview series Life Stories, which lasted 12 years, and was a consistent example of high-quality TV interviewing, lowering the guard of celebrities and making even Cliff Richard seem interesting.
But, like so many in this modern media landscape, Morgan has found that the shortcut to global attention in the last decade or more has been by provoking outrage. Sometimes it comes online in the form of mean tweets about young tennis stars. Other times from “quitting” a morning TV show live on air, or for getting punched by former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who reportedly referred to Morgan as a “ghastly little weasel”.
These controversies would typically show themselves every few months. With his new show, Piers Morgan Uncensored, that outrage machine will need to be in full swing every single day.
“Its mission statement is to cancel ‘cancel culture’,” Morgan told Ros Atkins on the BBC’s Media Show this week, warning about the “woke brigade” apparently stifling British life. It’s a good interview, not least because Atkins has become a leading figure in British media on account of being something of an anti-Morgan in style.
When asked who might make the ideal guest on his show — someone who has been cancelled — Morgan mustered JK Rowling, due to her highly-criticised perspective on transgender rights. Multi-millionaire author Rowling, Atkins duly pointed out, could of course ring up any show in the world and likely be invited on to talk. Cancelled? Hardly.
That, of course, doesn’t generally matter. Just as Fox News, comfortably the most watched news channel in the US, rails against what “the media” won’t tell you, the definition of what constitutes being “cancelled” is highly fluid.
But it does always rely on one thing: a villain. On his show, Carlson has learned these villains can come from a variety of sources. The playbook is effective, but it’s a beast that needs constant feeding for a daily show.
Politicians are the easiest and arguably most deserving (or least undeserving, maybe) low-hanging fruit. Sometimes it’s journalists — like Taylor Lorenz — using arguments that often constitute both bad faith attacks on the reporter or columnist but also against the act of journalism itself.
Sometimes it will go after revered cultural bodies classified as “liberal” or “elite”, such as universities or schools, or long-established scientific or health institutions. Each segment serves to undermine, or weave paranoia about who is “really” in control. When a single person can be identified and blamed, a political motive will be placed front and center as the irrefutable reason for his or her actions.
Least deserving of all will be the regular members of the public, perhaps in minor positions of authority, whose worst, most ill-judged moments — or often just out of context ones — get filmed, uploaded to social media, and then dissected as being one example of the bigger, sinister picture. Viewers are told: this is what the “woke brigade” wants for you, so watch out. Many seem to believe it.
It’s no coincidence that the architect of both Carlson’s and now Morgan’s show is Rupert Murdoch. Morgan and Murdoch apparently long ago buried the hatchet after their falling out over Morgan’s departure from the News of the World in 1995. This, I believe, is their first project together since. Morgan calls him “swashbuckling”.
Where all three men are smart is in finding ways to touch on legitimately held frustrations felt by many reasonable people. Right now, that’s a feeling that we’re living in an era of over-zealous shutting down of views, a limiting of free debate, or comedy, and, to use Morgan’s words, an absence of “common sense”. Whether or not you agree with people who feel that way, it is undeniably there, and Morgan will be better than anyone at tapping into it.
But I’d like to think, on an optimistic note, that Piers Morgan is not Tucker Carlson. Indeed, Morgan said it himself. “I like his show, I like him,” he told Atkins. “I agree with about 75% of the stuff he says. Last time I checked, that’s fine.”
There are things I think are clearly in that 25%. I can’t see Morgan sharing words of support for Vladimir Putin, say, or trying to undermine an election. On that at least, he seems to have refused to play ball with Trump. (In the first interview of Morgan’s new series, Trump “stormed out“, a perfect result. Or was it?)
Trump is day one. To make this show a success, Morgan will need to push new buttons with weaker material, and emulate Carlson in boundary-pushing ways we’ve not yet seen delivered on British television, at least not by someone of Morgan’s calibre.
Where that takes us is worth following closely. I hope, and believe, the British people are on the whole not like the Americans who rate Carlson’s show, and will reject any effort to descend headfirst into the dreck of political discourse that’s so prevalent here. The lasting legacy of Carlson’s show, and the reason he was confronted that day in Montana, is that he pitched citizen against citizen and called it informative. I’d hate to see that happen in the UK.