Not the end of the Piers show: Rupert Murdoch abides and his new TV channel's insidiousness will draw on The Times as much as The Sun...
Having seen GB News crashing and burning on an inglorious loop, Murdoch sees his chance to swoop.
Elsewhere: I wrote about Piers Morgan returning to Murdoch’s desiccated embrace for Byline Times: MURDOCH AND MORGAN — The Reunion from Hell
When my piece for Byline Times — linked above — was published yesterday, someone wrote in the Twitter comments: “Surely Murdoch must be retiring soon?” Oh, you sweet summer child. Rupert Murdoch has had more false endings than Lost and more disturbing resurrections than Emperor Palpatine (with whom he shares both an aesthetic and an attitude to planet destruction).
After the Leveson enquiry and Murdoch’s appearance before a parliamentary committee that began with his unbelievable “most humble day of my life” act and ended with Johnny Marbles’ delivery of custard pie justice1, there was a lot of commentary that said News Corp’s dark lord was done. And it was wrong.
Murdoch regrouped, reorganised, and retrenched his power. His son James, who had seemed likely to be his successor, has left the family business, turning increasingly critical of its attitude to climate change, while Lachlan, the most Rupert-like of the offspring is now the heir apparent. But Murdoch abides. He remains the boss; he was the one who announced the acquisition of Piers Morgan as a weapon of mass disruption, sitting beside him like an animated testicle in an ill-considered Scandinavian children’s cartoon.
And while there was much hooting and hilarity when it emerged that The Sun’s value had been written down to zero in News UK’s accounts, the notion that Murdoch’s power has evaporated like the red top’s profits is farcical. The Sun and its transatlantic cousin The New York Post are means of exerting political pressure — their front pages are still watched and dissected by broadcast news — and Murdoch will absorb millions in losses to maintain that.
Media critics, columnists, and others who would never be caught dead listening to talkRadio, talkSport or the pseudo-intellectual burblings of Times Radio, have missed Murdoch’s growing strength in radio. Along with Virgin — which News UK acquired to have a foot in commercial music radio and a stable of celebrity DJs including Chris Evans and Graham Norton — the talk stations are the foundation of the new Murdoch powerbase.
It’s from the nascent talkRadio TV effort that TalkTV, Morgan’s new home, will spring. And unlike GB News — which still has production values somewhere south of Wayne’s World’s basement broadcasts — it will have the scale, budget and resources to be efficient and polished, even if the content is just as toxic.
News UK has a brand new studio at its London Bridge HQ and TalkTV will grab ‘talent’ from across the existing stations as well as its newspapers. It’ll start on day one at a scale that GB News, barely held together by gaffer tape, nicotine patches and xenophobia, doesn’t have the budget or imagination to match. Morgan’s programme, in particular, will be in the capable (and comforting to him) hands of Winnie Dunbar Nelson who worked with him on his CNN show and at Good Morning Britain.
The breath of Morgan’s deal shows reveals how extensive Murdoch’s power remains. As well as the reported seven-figure salary, the new show will be broadcast in the UK, Australia and the US (via the Fox Nation streaming service) and Morgan will have columns in The Sun and New York Post to cross-promote it and continue his strategy of ‘creating’ news by starting social media ‘spats’ (usually one-sided attacks on and ‘advice’ for young women and more particularly young women of colour).
As well as the TV show and newspaper columns, HarperCollins — another News Corp subsidiary — will publish Morgan’s next book (inevitably a screed about 'free speech’ from a man who was just given a huge gold-plated megaphone by one of the world’s few remaining ‘moguls’). Murdoch’s made-men are often given a book contract as a cherry-on-top.
Stig Abell — who jumped from the UK’s press regulator to bring some gamekeeper respectability to The Sun’s nest of poachers as its Managing Editor before being gifted the editorship of The Times Literary Supplement for his service (which included publishing Katie Hopkins’ notorious ‘cockroach’ column) before becoming Launch Director of Times Radio and appointing the best man for breakfast show job (Stig Abell) — was recently signed up as HarperCollins’ hot new crime novelist.
When Murdoch unloaded News Corp’s stake in Sky to Comcast in 2018, ahead of the sale of 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) to Disney in 2019, much hyperactive coverage was dedicated to him “deserting” UK TV news. The commentators were speaking prematurely and with hilarious naivety.
With Sky News and its troublesome regulator-required ‘need for due fairness and balance’ out of the way, Murdoch, his UK eminence ginger, the not-at-all unpleasant Rebekah Brooks, and Scott Taunton, another antipodean bruiser who is now boss of News UK Broadcasting, can focus of making the ‘dream’ of a UK Fox News real.
Murdoch, who dines often with Boris Johson and other ‘friends’ like Michael Gove (a former Times hack) and Priti Patel (who was a guest at his wedding to Jerry Hall), knows that Ofcom is up for grabs and if the government succeeds in getting Paul Dacre in the hot seat — which it likely will — ripping up the requirements for “balance” which currently get in the way of a full-throated Fox-style news channel will be next.
Murdoch’s quote in the press release announcing Morgan’s return to News Corp after 26 years (he began as a freelancer at The Sun before swiftly becoming the phone-obsessed occupant of the Bizarre showbiz column and ultimately editor The News of the World) is instructive:
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.”
It’s not simply that Morgan is well-known on both sides of the Atlantic but that he can be branded as ‘dangerous’ (“…the broadcaster every channel wants but is too afraid to hire.”) The truth is many other channels were ‘brave’ enough to bring in Morgan, they simply didn’t have the cash or clout that Murdoch could offer or the breadth of opportunities for Piers to run his mouth.
As I wrote for Byline yesterday, while Murdoch talks up Morgan as “a talented journalist”, he knows that he no longer is — if he ever was — but is, in fact, a machine for creating controversy, an ever-expanding ego that could provoke a row in an empty room, who will make stories on Twitter that then feed into his newspaper columns and can be discussed on his show and others.
And while the concept of ‘hate clicks’ is a deeply flawed one, the fact is that it is not just Morgan’s “fans” that Murdoch is interested in. Morgan has not acquired 8 million Twitter followers because they all love him. Attention is attention and whether it’s love or hate doesn’t matter to Murdoch or Morgan, it all contributes to the metrics. Similarly, it doesn’t actually matter whether Morgan “says what people are thinking and feeling” so long as he says things that Murdoch agrees with and which bring in an audience, whether it’s delighted or aggrieved.
Back in April, News UK’s plan to launch another TV channel were “scaled back”, leaving the field open for GB News to be the UK’s explicitly right-wing ‘news’ channel — as if other news coverage doesn’t come from a clearly right-wing perspective — but with Andrew Neil out and Farage cratering2, it dropped the ball. Clearly Murdoch has seen the opportunity, delighting in his ability to acquired Piers Morgan like the most cursed Pokémon imaginable.
I suspect the next move will be to hire a series of Muttleys to Morgan’s Dick Dastardly. Dan Wootton, formely of talkRadio and now mouldering in GB News’ conspiracy cave, was quick to pop up in Morgan’s mentions offering an unsolicited anus polish…
Congratulations Piers. You deserve it. ITV committed one of the biggest acts of corporate self harm earlier this year - and went against the principles of free speech all journalists should hold dear. They will rue the day.
… and no doubt spent yesterday afternoon poring over his GB News contract — presumably scrawled on a napkin if their backroom services mimic the professionalism of their onscreen output — and redoing his CV.
I’d also be unsurprised to see Farage make the leap from GB News to TalkTV given his private dinners with Murdoch, cosy appearances beside him at parties, and recent appearance in the BBC’s The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, during which he was at pains to note he was only doing it as Rupes said he should.
The continuing failure of GB News — like watching a clown car circle the ring, shedding parts as it goes and beginning to catch fire, while the clowns remain seated with serious faces assuring the audience that “this is fine” — is unlikely to be the only reason Murdoch has hit the GO button on TalkTV.
In the post-Roger Ailes3 era of Fox News, Lachlan Murdoch has nominally been the network’s ultimate boss but its clear that Rupert still calls the shots. And in Australia, where Murdoch still controls Sky News, that channel is Fox with an antipodean accent (“Call that a knife? That’s not a knife… that’s a globalist conspiracy.”) That the UK had no equivalent was a gap that Murdoch could not allow to continue, particularly with the rise of channels like the Fox News-mimicking CNews in France, which hit number one in less than four years by pumping out a diet of climate change denial and covid misinformation.
It’s easy to look to The Sun — which has published no less than 6 pieces on the far-right adjacent “trad wife” movement in the past few months — and the open sewer of talkRadio, where ‘Iron’ Mike Graham — Jabba the Hutt without the social skills — and Julia Heartless-Brewer are the big ‘stars’, for a guide to what TalkTV will be like.
While it’s likely that the channel will pull from the latter’s live feed frequently, The Times and its audio companion Times Radio are equally as insidious; they simply coat themselves in a veneer of “intelligent debate” as the incessant trails put it. It’s a bold claim from a radio station that includes Matt ‘Chuckles’ Chorley and the grotesque Giles Coren on its roster.
First, it is a warning against sloganising about woke ideas and cancel culture without thinking seriously about them… There is undoubtedly both a duty and a political opportunity for the right to defend diversity of thought and freedom of speech. But this needs to be done thoughtfully. You can’t “cancel” someone for saying Churchill is a racist and reasonably be furious if they try to “cancel” you back for saying he isn’t. Nor can you be an effective champion of free speech without considering where you might yourself wish to place its limits.
The second warning is of the danger to the right of speaking only to ourselves. Most of the time the channel features one right-wing person discussing right-wing opinions with another right-wing person for an audience consisting only of right-wing people.
The channel promised it would “not be another echo chamber for the metropolitan mindset”. It may have avoided being watched by anyone living in a city but it has not avoided becoming an echo chamber. The criticism of liberals with higher degrees is that they talk only to each other, becoming cut off from mainstream public opinion. It would be a disaster for the right to follow suit. Listening to other people and having your ideas challenged is essential to the health of any political movement.
He’s not wrong but arguing this from the pages of The Times, a paper which does not go a day without a clutch of culture war stories in it pages and whose opinion section, where Finkelstein makes his home, also hosts such reasonable individuals as Melanie Phillips and the aforementioned Mr Coren.
The day after Finkelstein’s column warning about “sloganising about woke ideas and cancel culture”, David Aaronovitch — the Stadler to Finkelstein’s Waldorf in one of Times Radio’s paper review slots — delivered a complaint-by-number column with the headline Institutional cowardice is killing free speech.
The heavy presence of what Slavoj Žižek would call “ideology” (imagine the disquietingly loud slurp here) is not confined to The Times’ opinion pages either; it seeps throughout the news pages where stories lean so far right it’s like they’re all ghostwritten by Mr Spiggot, Cook and Moore’s one-legged man auditioning for Tarzan (“I’ve got nothing against your right leg — the trouble is neither have you.”). Take this example from today’s paper:
Written by The Times’ Policy Editor, Oliver Wright — from one Wright to another, Oliver: Are you not embarrassed? — and reporting an annoucnement by Brexit booster Lord Frost, the piece opens by saying…
In 2001 a greengrocer from Sunderland arguably did more than any politician to set Britain on the path towards Brexit when he was convicted for breaching EU rules banning the sale of fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces.
Now, 20 years on, Boris Johnson is to make good on a pledge to vindicate the cause of the “metric martyr” by announcing the return of imperial weights and measures.
… before quoting liberally from a Spectator piece written by Johnson during his time as editor of that pretentious fanzine for skull measurers:
Why are we coercing Britons to use the measurements of Napoleon, when the imperial system survives and flourishes in America, the most successful economy on earth. It is monstrous that little tinpot ‘metrologists’ on local authorities should be fanning out across the country, threatening shopkeepers with fines and imprisonment if they fail to comply.
It was ludicrous little Englander rhetoric then and it’s ludicrous ‘Global Britain’ bullshit now. The “Metric Martyrs” were not forbidden from using Imperial weights and measures. As Wright’s story at least mentions…
…it was still legal to price goods in pounds and ounces, these had to be displayed alongside the price in grams and kilograms.
… and the ‘martyrs’ didn’t want to do that.
It’s the fact that The Times has reported the story that’s the problem but that it frames this ‘change’ as a victory for Johnson and Brexiteers. At a time when shelves are increasingly empty, it’s a deeply ideological choice to present a government decision as "a victory” when it fundamentally means the promotion of a ststem that no one who left school after 1973 has used with any regularity outside of interactions with bar staff, market traders and weed dealers.
TalkTV will simply be the latest outlet for the reactionary views that News Corp’s big boss most values. And it’ll be as easy for the voices of The Times and Times Radio to fit in there as it will be for the clapping and snarling seals who produce The Sun and talkRadio, however much they pretend to be above such things.
Oh, there’s one part of Morgan’s deal I forgot to mention: He’s going to be making true crime documentaries for the company too. He should find plenty of inspiration in the News Corp offices. Perhaps he could start by looking into the murder of a Morgan, whose association with the Murdoch press didn’t turn out so well — Daniel Morgan.
It was deflected by the cat-like reflexes of Murdoch’s now ex-wife Wendy Deng, you probably regrets bothering.
It turns out the immersive experience of having a flat-roof pub bore hectoring you every weekday evening doesn’t have wide appeal.
May in he rest in flames.