A few weeks ago I was having an argument with Piers Morgan on Twitter. Oh God, is that really how I’m going to start this column? What have I become? I was, though, and it started because he was brown-nosing Donald Trump. We’re talking a real nasal frottage here. I expressed derision, and he expressed fury at my derision, and on it went. At one point he called me ‘tough guy’. It was all very manly. Although it wasn’t a one-off, because he’s been at it — I mean the brown-nosing — ever since, including in this very magazine. A column here, a TV appearance there. Last weekend, he was bickering about Trump with Alastair Campbell on Peston. And I’ve been wondering what’s going on.
Morgan is not Farage. He has his flaws as a journalist and, I suspect, as a human, but I’ve always held him in relatively high esteem. He’s smart and brave when he wants to be, and unconcerned about public approbation. I suppose you have to be when literally everybody thinks you’re a terrible wanker. More to the point, he’s also liberal-leftish, at least when he bothers to be anything, which made his Trump adulation a little confusing. Obviously he couldn’t mean it. So was it just the basic desire to be close to power? One reality TV star bonding with another? In nakedly careerist terms, it just didn’t seem to make sense. Why not call out this horrible, obvious bullshit for what it is? Sure, maybe he’ll give you three minutes’ chat on Good Morning Britain once in a while, but would you really sell your soul, assuming Morgan still has one, just for that?
My theory, for what it’s worth, is that he’s playing a longer game. Perhaps he sees the oncoming disaster, like we all do. Yet instead of thinking: ‘Dear God, why would I want to be tied to that?’ he thinks. ‘One day, this will give me a hell of an interview.’ He’s not un-aware that Trump could be headed for a meltdown to rival Richard Nixon’s. What he sees is an opportunity to be David Frost.
Is this contemptible? Or is it journalism? The same question was asked of Frost in 1977, I know, and never really satisfactorily answered. Although the parameters have changed. Today, in similar circumstances, nobody would bother saying: ‘Nixon, why are you speaking to that lightweight Frost?’ or ‘Trump, couldn’t you do better than Morgan?’ Instead, people would turn to the hack and ask: ‘Why are you normalising that monster?’ Look only to the broad criticism levelled at Michael Gove just the other day for his interview with the president-elect in the Times. Jonathan Freedland, whose judgment I normally regard as close to flawless, despite him writing for the Guardian, described Gove as Trump’s ‘cheerleader’. Yet this was an interview which made headlines around the globe and invited comment from the governments of Germany and Russia, which rather suggests it might have been worth doing, all the same.
I can think of only a small handful of journalists, at least in Britain, who have greeted the rise of Trump not with partisan horror or delight, but with the good, honest, old-fashioned joy of one hell of a story being about to happen. Not all of them seem as compromised as Morgan, but they still make me edgy. This, though, is my problem. There is a fine, long-standing tradition of journalistic amorality, and it is my own failing that I’ve lost the knack of it. Perhaps, through the polarised world of social media, where all hacks now live unless they really make an effort not to, I find that I have surrendered to the now near-universal expectation that one must always either condemn or support. If you aren’t fighting the monsters, you’re normalising them. Amorality has become immorality. If you aren’t picking a side, then you are.
This can’t be right, though, can it? We’ve got here, I think, through a steady drift into ‘no-platforming’, via a thousand debates about whether people like Nick Griffin or even Nigel Farage ought to be on Question Time or not. Where we’ve ended up is in a world where a fairly large constituency of people will be shocked and disgusted every time a newspaper or TV show gives a hearing to Donald Trump, even though he’s now in the White House. Which is obviously absurd.
No hack climbs willingly into a pigeonhole. We tumble into them, overbalanced, when our opinions can no longer be worn lightly. A year and a half ago, right here, I wrote of not really caring at all about whether or not we left the European Union, while simultaneously knowing that I soon would, and enormously. ‘Consider this column my marker,’ I wrote, ‘that once, perspective was mine.’ I should like to get that perspective back, but it is hard. I miss the days when I was comfortable enough with every outcome not to take a side. I’d like to get back there. I think I’d see more.
Perhaps I am wrong about Morgan. And either way, certainly, I reserve my right to laugh at him when his big red face clamps once more to the presidential behind. A small part of me, though, looks at the political journey so many of us have taken these past few years, from lofty observers of politics, forever wry, to mud-slinging, hellfire-preaching participants who wake in the night and shout at our smartphones. And I wonder if what people like him might actually be doing — quite unlike the rest of us — is standing tall and keeping the faith.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.