In the darkest days of the coronavirus crisis Piers Morgan became an unlikely national hero.
Earlier than any other high-profile journalist he realised how serious the pandemic was and, using his Twitter platform (7.8m followers at last count), was a Cassandra-like figure urging the government and the general public to take Covid-19 more seriously.
For 200 days government ministers were so scared of Morgan’s robust questioning that they boycotted his ITV breakfast news show Good Morning Britain.
Early on in the crisis he made a bet that this was going to be far more serious than anyone realised and it was a gamble that paid off.
This week he gambled again, that the British public would share his scepticism about Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. It was an all or nothing call that failed in spectacular style as he resigned yesterday following a near-record 41,000 complaints to broadcast regulator Ofcom.
ITV’s statement was brief to the point of terseness and suggest an acrimonious split: “Following discussions with ITV, Piers Morgan has decided now is the time to leave Good Morning Britain. ITV has accepted this decision and has nothing further to add.”
However, Morgan himself has said it was amicable and they “agreed to disagree”.
In the blink of an eye one of the channel’s biggest assets had become potentially toxic. But such is the way of modern media in the fevered atmosphere of the culture wars, which appear to have become more intense in a nation frustrated by lockdown.
His crime, which now looks like a major misjudgment, was to dismiss a young woman’s testimony about having suicidal thoughts after being subject to a barrage of negative press coverage which she thought was fuelled by racism.
He said on Monday: “I’m sorry, I don’t believe a word she says. I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report.”
ITV is the channel which many believe failed in its duty of care in 2019 after a 63-year-old guest on Jeremy Kyle killed himself after failing a lie detector test live on air. So it knows how important it is to take into account the impact the mental health of individuals who feature on programmes.
Morgan was today unrepentant saying that he still does not believe Markle’s testimony and that “freedom of speech is a hill I’m happy to die on”.
It is a pattern which will be familiar to long-term Piers watchers.
As editor of the Daily Mirror he led a campaign against the war in Iraq which few would argue now was on the wrong side of history.
But in 2004 he went too far when he published pictures on the front page depicting UK troops torturing an Iraqi. He was sacked by publisher Trinity Mirror after it found the images were “a malicious hoax”. Piers himself has never admitted the pictures were faked.
His sacking was an easy decision for Trinity to make because the Mirror’s anti-war stance led to a dip in sales after it continued the policy after the war had begun.
Similarly, Morgan’s forthright anti-guns stance did little for the ratings on his CNN chatshow in the US and may have hastened his departure from that job in 2014.
Morgan was briefly my boss as joint owner of Press Gazette. His mantra then was (and is) that of Chicago Times editor Wilbur F Storey: “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.”
He even said to the assembled staff at an early meeting: “Let’s see some writs coming in.”
Morgan’s success in the media has been in the rambunctious tradition of tabloid journalism which has seen him constantly take risks.
This morning he quoted Winston Churchill on Twitter: “Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back that is an outrage.”
Another Churchill quote could be applied equally well to Morgan’s media career. Likening life to a cavalry charge, Churchill said: “In one respect a cavalry charge is very like ordinary life.
“So long as you are all right, firmly in your saddle, your horse in hand, and well-armed, lots of enemies will give you a wide berth. But as soon as you have lost a stirrup, have a rein cut, have dropped your weapon, are wounded, or your horse is wounded, then is the moment when from all quarters enemies rush upon you.”
So don’t expect Morgan to slow down or loosen his grip on the saddle any time soon.
Morgan is not the only journalist to find himself in hot water over his response to the Markle interview.
The Society of Editors has provoked outrage among many after issuing a statement on Monday in response to reports Prince Harry had said the UK tabloid press was “bigoted”.
Executive director Ian Murray said: “The UK media is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account following the attack on the press by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.”
Four leading UK editors have issued statements disagreeing with the Society: Roula Khalaf of the FT, The Guardian’s Katharine Viner, Rachel Oldroyd of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Jess Brammar of HuffPost UK.
The Independent has also today published an editorial saying: “Things do need to change. The worst thing the British media can do now is to go into denial and to gaslight its critics.”
Perhaps we in the journalism industry could learn a lesson from Buckingham Palace, which took time to consider its response to the Meghan interview and said it will act on her concerns.
“The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan,” it said. “The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.
“Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.”
The allegations made by Meghan, particularly around racism in the media, are too serious to be dismissed out of hand, especially given the impact she says coverage has had on her mental health.
For our part at Press Gazette, we will take a cue from The Queen and address the issues raised by Meghan. We are going to launch a survey of our 10,000 email subscribers to better understand the concerns many have around race and the media. We will report back on our findings.
I think it is wrong to condemn all tabloid journalists as “bigoted” and such blanket criticism fuels an atmosphere where journalists are increasingly subject to abuse and intimidation for doing their jobs.
But such a serious allegation warrants investigation and should prompt a period of self-reflection.