Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Piers Morgan, brave defender of free speech?
That’s how he’s spinning his recent exit from “Good Morning, Britain,” following his attacks on Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, earlier this week, and the outrage that followed. On Wednesday he tweeted out a photo of Winston Churchill next to the words, “Some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.” The quote was part preening, part trolling: the day before, Morgan had stormed off set when a colleague criticized him for his comments.
It’s a fitting end, in a way, for the latest controversy, which has very little to do with free speech and a whole lot to do with hypocrisy. For all his talk of Meghan and her husband, Harry, Duke of Sussex, manipulating people emotionally, that’s precisely what Morgan is trying to do.
Morgan’s latest implosion began with The Interview: the two-hour chat between Meghan, Harry and Oprah Winfrey that aired last Sunday. Nearly everything Winfrey touches turns to gold, so it is no surprise that Winfrey + Royal Family was a ratings bonanza. In the interview, the couple opened up about the challenges that led them to resign from the royal family and move first to Canada, then the US.
It was a quintessential Oprah interview. The country’s confessor-in-chief for a quarter-century, Winfrey’s chief gift is her ability to draw out people’s emotions and vulnerability, which she presents as the core of their authentic selves. Those words – vulnerability, authenticity, emotion – are the core of the Winfrey brand.
Meghan and Harry were particularly well-suited to an Oprah interview, precisely because they had recently rejected the our-stiff-upper-lips-are-sealed culture of the monarchy. Even setting aside the content of the secrets they revealed about their experiences of racism, neglect, and control, the very act of sitting down for one of Winfrey’s emotional, revelatory interviews underscored how thoroughly they had discarded their former lives.
Morgan’s dismissive comments, especially about Meghan’s openness about her mental health struggles, show him to be suspicious of this kind of emotion, in a way that feels familiar. So much criticism of contemporary culture, particularly conversations about racism, sexism and fairness, is rooted in the notion that it’s too affective, too thin-skinned and subjective. The politics of empathy and fairness are rejected as a politics of fragility, a sign of either weakness or manipulation.
This has been Morgan’s line of attack against Meghan for years. Dismissing her as a grasping social-climber, he called her “a shameless piece of work” and, after the couple announced they were stepping down from the royal family, labeled them “grasping, selfish, scheming Kardashian-wannabes.” After the Winfrey interview, he criticized Meghan not merely for showing emotion but for manipulating it.
Refusing to believe any of her emotions were genuine, he argued they were all part of a grander manipulation: that she was playing the mental-health card, the race card, and even the pregnancy card, all to shield herself from criticism. On “Good Morning, Britain” the day after the interview, he went further, dismissing her claims that she was suicidal and was denied help during her first pregnancy. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe a word she said, Meghan Markle,” he said. “I wouldn’t believe it if she read me a weather report.” (He later backpedaled, then doubled down on Twitter.)
None of this should come as a surprise from Morgan, who mistakes cruelty for honesty – like most bloviating bullies would and do. But it is ironic, given that his whole schtick is rooted in emotion. Not the kind you find on Oprah – empathy and vulnerability are not his strong points – but rather a deep well of grievance and anger. His attacks on Meghan, rooted at least in part in his belief that she snubbed him after she started to date Harry, come not from a careful investigation of her claims but from his prickly anger over a long-ago slight.
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Because Morgan’s attacks are built on this rickety emotional scaffolding, he was quick to scout out firmer ground. He found it in his free speech claims, which were bolstered by CNN’s Jake Tapper. But Morgan is no free speech warrior. Back in 2011, he banned the actor Hugh Grant from his programs because Grant criticized the tabloid press. Nor is he interested in doing the work to cultivate an environment that welcomes an open exchange of ideas. As he showed when he marched off the set in response to a colleague’s measured criticism, Morgan doesn’t want a debate. He wants a safe space for his explosive anger and bullying.
He also wants the moral high ground, so he’s eager to posture as a defender of a more abstract, more noble right. “Freedom of speech is a hill I’m happy to die on,” he tweeted after his departure from “Good Morning, Britain” was announced. “Thanks for all the love, and hate. I’m off to spend more time with my opinions.” But really it’s his feelings that he’s off to coddle.