The ‘worked shoot’ and the walkout: Piers Morgan is a professional wrestler

... and he’s likely to ring walk right onto GB News or the unnamed News UK nightmare.

I was trying very hard to avoid writing about Piers Morgan. Sadly, CNN anchor and poorly painted off-brand Action Man figure Jake Tapper decided to mediasplain Morgan's ‘conscious uncoupling’ from Good Morning Britain and that’s forced my hand.

Despite seemingly thinking that the UK’s broadcasting regulator (it also handles telecoms and… uh… post) is a Handmaid’s Tale character we’ve yet to meet, Tapper has continued to tweet with iron certainty that Morgan left GMB because the UK “is a country where there is no First Amendment” and that effectively it was a government conspiracy to silence the news.

While the British government is no fan of journalists that don’t have shrines to Boris Johnson in their downstairs bathrooms, it had nothing to do with Morgan’s move. And while the 41,000 complaints to Ofcom from viewers angered by the presenter’s crass dismissal of Meghan Markle’s mental health issues can hardly have been welcome news for ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall, they were not the only factor or even the most decisive one in this story.

Ofcom usually takes weeks or months to rule on complaints. There have been many examples of huge numbers of complaints not leading to any censure and even if Morgan and ITV had been ruled against by Ofcom its highly unlikely that any decision would have led to him being removed from the air. Ofcom is so toothless that its favourite dinner is creamed corn.

Tapper also made a category error in his turnip-headed dissection of the Morgan story: Piers Morgan was not presenting a news bulletin. Good Morning Britain isn’t news, it’s news-flavoured entertainment. Yes, ministers have recently begun to slink onto the show again, offering themselves up for a ritual pummelling by Piers, and the programme is crammed with topical discussions, but the aim is always to produce heat not light.

In professional wrestling, there are two main kinds of character — heels (villains) and faces (goodies). For a very long time, Morgan has made his bones in the British and international media by being a heel. He takes aggressively polarised positions — be that his stalkerish obsession with Meghan Markle after she stopped taking his calls or more trivial issues like vegan sausage rolls or whether men should carry babies in slings — and monologues about them.

Morgan’s purpose on GMB was not to get answers or reveal hidden truths but to provide a series of entertaining matchups and increase engagement both on social media and through the ratings. He believes some things he says and adopts others merely as a means of causing more controversy.

During the pandemic, people warmed to Morgan a little as he appeared to be one of the few voices within the British media willing to attack the government’s incompetence and malfeasance directly. But that ‘change’ was as opportunistic as any other decision in Morgan’s career, which has taken him from the tabloids to TV talent shows to American cable news and finally to GMB.

There’s another wrestling concept that applies here: The face turn. Just as good guys can suddenly turn bad for the sake of a storyline (a heel turn), bad guys can switch to the ‘heroic’ role. That’s what Morgan did during the pandemic, but as is often the case when a heel character is successful, the turn could never last. The temptation to commit fully again to his role as a leering, sneering, controversialist was too strong.

So we come to the specific question of what made Morgan leave GMB yesterday. I think there are three things at play: 1) convenient controversy 2) money and 3) opportunism. What I don’t believe is that the Ofcom complaints were a significant trigger. Instead, I think they’ll be a useful narrative point for Morgan in his next storyline: “I was ‘cancelled’ by woke whiners, but I’m back, baby!”

Morgan signed a new two-year deal in December 2019 — meaning he only had 9 months to run before he was out of contract — and when he did he assured his co-host Susanna Reid and the viewers: “That’s it, two more years, then I’ll sail off into the sunset.”

Of course, the “two more then toodeloo” statement was probably a negotiation tactic at the time, but since the ink dried on that deal, two new ‘opinionated’ news channels are set to launch — the Andrew Neil backed GB News and an as-yet-unnamed News UK project with which Morgan has been linked.

That’s why I believe Morgan has made use of the convenient controversy around his Meghan Markle comments to leave. I think he was looking for an out in order to snag a more lucrative package with one of the new controversy purveyors. Though the Ofcom complaints were triggered by his dismissal of Meghan Markle saying she felt suicidal, which is a standards issue, Morgan will be able to frame his decision to quit as an example of “cancel culture”. Storming off set yesterday was just part of that performance; it was literally performative outrage:

On another day, Morgan would have shouted the odds with colleague Alex Beresford but he walked off this time because it served his plan. Our final wrestling term of the day is “worked shoot”. A worked shoot is where a scripted event in a wrestling show is designed to seem unscripted and ‘real’ even as it’s part of the storyline. Morgan’s ‘walk out’ was a worked shoot, whether or not his co-presenters or the show’s producers realised it.

As I was writing this edition of the newsletter, Morgan tweeted…

… further adding weight to the idea that he’s opportunistically using this row to position himself once again as a ‘free speech martyr’.

Once the news broke that Morgan had quit, the usual media wagon circling began with lots of messages about how ‘vital’ his voice is. This one from Krishnan Guru-Murthy…

… was particularly depressing. Praising Morgan because he made ministers uncomfortable is like saying, “We’ve got this dog who keeps the foxes away from the henhouse occasionally. However, he does bark at everyone else for no reason and sometimes even bites them.” Just last month, 1,200 TV industry workers signed an open letter on bullying after Morgan used Twitter to attack a former researcher on his show Life Stories.

Emily Maitlis’ contribution is a classic of a particular genre, the “he’s always been nice to me” statement, while Gary Lineker ‘sadness’ is empty when you remember that Piers Morgan is enormously wealthy on the back of being an arsehole for a living and that those he has used for onscreen target practice have often been women and ethnic minorities. Just as the media circled the wagons after Meghan and Harry spoke plainly about the tabloid protection racket, it’s circling them again for Piers Morgan.

A shockingly short period of time with elapse and Morgan will rush onto Twitter again to announce a massive new deal with a new broadcaster. The ‘controversy’ this time will only help him to get a bigger pay packet and, no doubt, the opportunity to write a follow-up to his book ‘Wake Up’, in which he will be both the hero and the victim of a social media cancelling.

I’ve written previously about how the British media works on the same kayfabe principle as professional wrestling — with ‘opponents’ on screen and in print actually getting on famously at private dinner tables and in green rooms.

The support for Morgan is just another example of the media class breaking kayfabe to stand with someone with whom they share the same fame and access. The one kind of class solidarity that still thrives in Britain is the one that exists among the establishment, regardless of whether they in politics, the media or simply just rich.

Piers Morgan wasn’t pinned yesterday. He went down to the matt to fake a limp for a little while but he’ll be back with another franchise imminently, unchastened, unbothered and far from silenced, whatever American media muppets might say.

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