Piers Morgan has declared a “victory for free speech” after broadcast regulator Ofcom backed him in the row that led to him leaving ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Ofcom received more than 50,000 complaints claiming Morgan had made harmful and highly offensive comments about Meghan Markle’s claims of mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, and that discussions on issues relating to race and racism were also highly offensive.
Morgan made his comments on 8 March, the morning after Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah first aired in the US. The programme became the most complained about in Ofcom history.
Morgan stormed off GMB the following morning after being challenged on his comments by weather presenter Alex Beresford.
Ofcom said it had carefully considered Morgan’s right to freedom of expression and the need to adequately protect audiences from harm and offence, and made a “finely balanced” decision.
It said there was a “high public interest in having an open and frank debate” on both mental health and suicide, and race.
On both issues, it found that despite the potential for offence Morgan’s comments had been sufficiently contextualised by challenges from other presenters and guests and by hosting several contributors who could speak
decisively and with authority on racial issues.
It also said it was legitimate for GMB to scrutinise serious claims made in the Oprah interview such as the allegation that a member of the royal family expressed concern about the likely skin colour of her unborn baby.
“We also considered that the programme allowed for an important discussion to be had on the nature and impact of racism,” Ofcom said.
ITV had told Ofcom GMB was “well known for its lively and robust discussion” and that viewers were “familiar with the combative dynamic” between lead presenters Morgan and Susanna Reid (both pictured). It noted that Morgan’s comments were “clearly and robustly” challenged.
In its conclusion, the regulator said: “Ofcom is clear that, consistent with freedom of expression, Mr Morgan was entitled to say he disbelieved the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s allegations and to hold and express strong views that rigorously challenged their account.
“The [Broadcasting] Code allows for individuals to express strongly held and robustly argued views, including those that are potentially harmful or highly offensive, and for broadcasters to include these in their programming.
“The restriction of such views would, in our view, be an unwarranted and chilling restriction on freedom of expression both of the broadcaster and the audience.”
Morgan, who left GMB after being told by ITV bosses his only other option was to apologise for his comments, tweeted in response to the decision: “I’m delighted Ofcom has endorsed my right to disbelieve the Duke & Duchess of Sussex’s incendiary claims to Oprah Winfrey, many of which have proven to be untrue.
“This is a resounding victory for free speech and a resounding defeat for Princess Pinocchios. Do I get my job back?”
In his Mail Online column, Morgan added that it was a “watershed moment in the battle for free speech” and that it was “preposterous” he had to leave a job he had loved because of the row.
“If Ofcom had found against me, that would have signalled the end of every UK TV journalist’s right to express any honestly held opinion on air lest it upset the likes of Meghan Markle,” he wrote.
“The whole point of journalism is surely to question and challenge statements from public figures, particularly when no actual evidence is produced to support them?”
When talking about Markle’s revelation that she had had suicidal thoughts, Morgan said: “I’m sorry, I don’t believe a word she says, Meghan Markle. I wouldn’t believe it if she read me a weather report.” His comments were later criticised by mental health charity Mind.
Reid responded: “Well that’s a pretty unsympathetic reaction to someone who has expressed those thoughts.” She later said they should “take all of these claims and accusations seriously” as she discussed Markle’s claims with ITV News royal editor Chris Ship.
Ofcom did say it was “particularly concerned” about Morgan’s “apparent disregard” for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts: “Had it not been for
the extensive challenge offered throughout the programme by Reid and Ship, we would have been seriously concerned.”
It reminded ITV of the need to take care on sensitive issues such as suicide and mental health and pointed to its guidance about how to approach them, which can include providing audiences with relevant information, signposting to services, and including warnings.
Morgan had also claimed it was not “racist or derogatory” for a family member to ask what the skin colour of a baby from one white and one black parent might be.
Asked by guest Trisha Goddard why it matters as long as the child is healthy, he added: “I’m not saying it matters. It’s just curiosity, it might just be curiosity, Trisha. In other words, it may not have been a malevolent thing to say.”
ITV, which has no current plans to invite Morgan back onto GMB, said in a statement: “We welcome the Ofcom ruling that Good Morning Britain did not breach the broadcast standards relating to harm and offence. The ruling sets out clearly that it was the balance and context the programme makers provided which was key in mitigating against the potential for harm and offence which could have been caused by Piers Morgan’s comments.
“It is because of the programme’s editorial decisions and the opposing views which were forcefully expressed by other presenters and guests, that the programme did not breach Ofcom’s rules.”
‘Victory for free speech’
Morgan’s victory was celebrated by the likes of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage and fellow Mail Online columnist Dan Wootton, both now presenters on GB News.
Farage said: “Well done Ofcom for not bending to the mob. A victory for free speech.” While Wootton said: “Piers Morgan rightly cleared by Ofcom. Freedom of speech wins the day! And woke ITV ruined their own hit breakfast show in the process.”
Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire, a regular panellist on GMB who was one of those who challenged Morgan’s comments on air, said: “The ‘strong challenge’ on air to Piers Morgan from other contributors is crucial in this well-judged ruling on freedom of expression. People are entitled to disagree with him. He’s entitled to voice an opinion.”
Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie called for ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall, who Morgan has claimed ordered him to apologise or leave after Markle got in touch with her personally, to be fired and for Morgan to be rehired.