Piers Morgan Ofcom outcome after Meghan Markle comments a victory for free speech - Bill Carmichael
I don’t own a television set and frankly I would rather have my teeth drilled without anaesthetic than watch a daytime TV show such as Good Morning Britain.
And I have no interest in celebrity gossip and the unimportant squabbles between the rich, famous and fatuous.
As far as the very public spat between the Duchess of Sussex and TV presenter Piers Morgan goes, I sympathise with Henry Kissinger’s comment on the Iran-Iraq war: “It is a pity both sides can’t lose.”
But today we make a diversion into celebrity culture because the television regulator Ofcom this week issued what is widely seen as a landmark ruling which could have profound implications for freedom of speech in the UK.
To recap: in March of this year the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gave an exclusive interview in the US to Oprah Winfrey which was broadcast to an audience of millions. During the interview the not so publicity-shy couple made a number of incendiary allegations against the Royal Family, including that one unnamed royal made a racist comment about how dark skinned the couple’s first child was likely to be.
Meghan also said she had suffered suicidal thoughts, but Buckingham Palace denied her help with her mental health because it would damage the royal brand.
The following morning Morgan, then the presenter on ITV’s Good Morning Britain (GMB), let rip in characteristic fashion, questioning the truth of the couple’s claims and concluding: “I don’t believe a word she says, Meghan Markle. I wouldn’t believe it if she read me a weather report.”
To be fair to Morgan, some of the more lurid allegations from the couple may turn out to be false.
“Recollections may vary,” as the Queen famously put it.
Either way Morgan’s performance sparked a record 58,000 complaints to Ofcom, and he quit the show rather than obey orders from ITV bosses that he publicly apologise on air.
This week Ofcom issued its report in response to those complaints and it clears GMB and Piers Morgan on all charges, saying that no rules have been breached.
The report makes for interesting reading, particularly the passage on mental health where it raises concerns that Morgan’s scepticism over Meghan’s claims to suicidal thoughts may deter sufferers from similar mental health problems from seeking professional help.
Ofcom said this had the potential to cause harm to viewers, but that the harm was mitigated because of the robust challenge to Morgan’s comments from other presenters and guests, including Susanna Reid, who were more sympathetic to the Duchess’s plight. But the report’s conclusion is an unequivocal defence of free speech. It says Morgan was entitled to say he disbelieved the couple’s claims, and that individuals have the right to express strongly held views “including those that are potentially harmful or highly offensive”.
It states: “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’s reaction to this victory is predictably gloating, and he is certainly not toning down his verbal attacks on the Duchess, calling her a “whiny, fork-tongued actress”, the “Queen of Woke” and “Princess Pinocchio”.
Are such comments rude? Most certainly. Are they grossly offensive? Many people will find them so. Should Morgan be censored, sacked or “cancelled” for making them? Absolutely not!
A depressing trend in modern society, particularly amongst the young, is the belief that if you speak the magic words “I am offended” it gives you the right to shut down debate and silence all views that you disagree with.
This is dangerous nonsense. Freedom of speech is the most fundamental of our liberties, the foundation on which all our other freedoms depend.
We should cherish and protect it.
Being offended every now and again is the small price we pay to live in a free society.
I am no fan of Piers Morgan and would not support many things he says. But crucially we need to defend the freedom of expression of those we disagree with, as well as those on our side. If we only allow free speech when we agree with it, it ceases to be free speech at all.
As the famous quote goes: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”