Off with this Head! How Piers Morgan turned a good headmaster into a culture war cartoon

Every day, the British press turns ordinary people into characters in their forever war soap opera. Piers Morgan bullied Lee Hill to make himself feel big.

Maple Cocaine’s Law says that every day there is a main character on Twitter and your goal is not to become that character, but in the British media every day there are supporting characters in the culture war who had no choice in their elevation to the cast. It’s especially difficult if the scriptwriter happens to be Piers Morgan, the deranged god-king of breakfast television, who loops you into one of his ‘war on woke’ monologues.

Yesterday’s accidentally culture war side-character was a headteacher whose school changed the names of its Houses from Nelson, Raleigh and Drake to names in honour of Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, Marcus Rashford and the poet Amanda Gorman.

The head, Lee Hill, tweeted a thread about the decision, which was sparked by a letter from a former pupil at the school:

“During the Black Lives Matter protests, I received a passionate and brave email from a former pupil. This pupil not only educated me about the history of the three house names but also explained the impact of seeing these figures — who have links to slavery, oppression, and racism — had on her during her time at the school… [It was] not only a brave email to send to a white male in a position of power but also an email that set off a chain of events. To Francesca, I want to say thank you for your courage — for making a stand, for being a role model to our school community and beyond.”

But The Sun and The Daily Mail picked up on the thread and saw an opportunity to use the story, not as an example of democracy, flexibility, and open-mindedness from a school leader, but as more fodder for the culture war. The Sun branded Hill “the wokest headmaster in Britain” and obsessed over his tattoos while The Daily Mail accused him of “axing historical icons”.

As is so often the case with tabloid stories vital context was left until near the end of both stories, assuming rightly that many readers won’t get that far into the article. The Sun placed a quote from a spokesperson for the school (“These individuals represent our four values of Community, Courage, Curiosity and Care.”) at the end of its story but failed to include part of the headteacher’s thread which was shoved in near the end of The Daily Mail report:

“'I'm really excited and proud to share this. Not just because of the individuals our School Council chose as representing our school community values or the incredible art from local artist Amy Smith but because of the courage of one child who made a stand.”

The new House names were chosen by pupils and selected because they represent values that matter to them. This is a good news story about children thinking about the world around them and what matters to them. But in the fairground mirror world of the tabloids, it has to be framed as sinister silencing.

The newspapers know, just as Piers Morgan does, what fixating on Lee Hill’s tattoos conveys to their audience: It says, “This man isn’t a good teacher or school leader.” They needed a new character for the culture war cast and they could set Lee Hill up as a woke strawman.

Here’s what Piers Morgan said on yesterday’s Good Morning Britain, regurgitating what he’d picked up from The Daily Mail and The Sun:

“‘Despicable’ is how this headteacher describes Raleigh, Drake, and Nelson. Now, none of them was perfect like all people from that part of history they have, indeed, some problematic parts to their work by today’s standards. But the idea that a headteacher in this country would cancel Nelson, Drake and Raleigh because they are ‘despicable’, that’s a shocker, isn’t it?

…Why don’t you sit them down and explain — warts and all, good, bad and ugly — the stories of Nelson, Raleigh and Drake, that helped make this country a great country, rather than brand them all ‘despicable’ and cancel them.

This is the problem with the ‘woke’ culture, isn’t it? It’s just immediately they get cancelled. Next, it’ll be Winston Churchill, this guy — old tattoo boy, he’ll be cancelling Churchill, he’ll be cancelling everybody for being ‘despicable’ rather than teaching children, educating them about our history. We are called Great Britain for a reason, you know we have had some great moments. These people were in many ways great people. Why don’t you tell your pupils the truth? Unvarnished but the truth…”

Only that’s a gross distortion of the truth, as Lee Slater, whose daughter attends the school, wrote on Twitter:

His comments reflect those of other parents and current/former pupils at the school quoted in a response to Piers Morgan published by Hull Live:

But current parents at the school, as well as many other members of the Howden community, have stood up for Mr Hill in the face of such criticism. They want Piers Morgan to know the truth about the man, they call a "super head".

One mum at the school commented on Facebook: "He’s a fantastic teacher and has done nothing but great things for my kids' school.

"All he did was change the names to more current times - not rewrite history."

Another person said: "I look back at when I was at school and teachers were so old, I'm glad to see new fresh young teachers coming through.

"I don't think people realise how much patience you actually need to be a teacher. I couldn't do it. This lockdown has taught me that and probably 80 per cent of parents who have had to teach at home…

Another parent at the school said: "I can only go on my own personal experience of my son in his school and quite honestly I can stand for the vast majority of parents and the community that, as a headteacher, he is outstanding.”

One woman, who said her sister went to the school, said: "I don't think it is as dramatic as everyone is making out - so what if they are different?

"I think the headteacher at Howden Junior School is doing a brilliant job, my sister loves going to school and learns all about British history - and history from other cultures - as well as current events."

Referencing Piers labelling Mr Hill "old tattoo boy", she added: "It's bang out of order to judge someone on their tattoos, does that affect his teaching ability? I don't think it does."

What Morgan and the tabloids have done is nothing less than bullying. They’ve lifted a headteacher who was simply sharing his pride in his school and its pupils into the midst of an unwarranted storm. Inevitably, bile-filled pub bores across social media, who have no personal knowledge of the head, are sneering, “Would you let this man teach your children?” and Hill has deleted his Twitter account.

This is the same Piers Morgan who delivered a passionate speech on Monday’s Good Morning Britain condemning trolls “spewing vicious abuse”…

What’s the difference between Morgan and the ‘trolls’ he decries? Audience. Profile. Platform. Piers Morgan used Good Morning Britain to attack Lee Hill and, along with the tabloids who made this a story, he shares responsibility for bringing a hail of abuse down on a good headmaster just doing his job.

Morgan’s attack is even more galling given his moralising over the ‘Four Lads In Jeans’ meme. The men in that picture were mocked on social media for the way they looked, including their tattoos, and Piers understandably sympathised with them. Perhaps he wouldn’t have if one of them had suggested taking Admiral Nelson’s name off something.

Day after day during this pandemic, teachers and their unions have been subject to attacks from the newspapers and TV commentators, despite the fact that schools have remained open throughout to teach at-risk children and keyworkers’ kids, and that teachers have been working harder than ever to deliver lessons in-person and remotely. The monstering of Lee Hill is just the latest (and most egregious) example.

For Piers Morgan, hating on Hill is just a passing story, a moment in a monologue, a chance for him to moralise and whine about ‘the woke’. For Lee Hill, it’s an attack on his professionalism and on his life. He didn’t ask to be a culture war character or reduced to a few tattoos and some assumed views by The Sun.

I stand with Mr Hill and the next time Piers Morgan tweets about the need to #bekind or raves about the trolls, remind him of the bridge he lives under and his spiteful attack on a teacher who’s passionate about doing the best for the children in his care. All Piers Morgan cares about is attention.