Comment Writer Alex Garrido reviews Piers Morgan’s recent ITV interview with Donald Trump, deciding that it is a failure in political journalism
Piers Morgan’s interview with Donald Trump on Sunday was a masterclass in how not to interview a politician. Billed as an attempt by an upstanding journalist to restore objectivity to the discussion about Trump, what actually occurred was an unhappily predictable conversation where Morgan sat nauseatingly starry-eyed whilst the President of the United States lied to, dodged, and belittled him for half an hour – Frost/Nixon this was not. The ability to get President Trump in the room for an interview is not in itself commendable; if we want to know what Trump thinks from a personal perspective, we need only browse his Twitter feed. The Trump/Morgan interview could only have had value in being able to either challenge Trump on his views in a setting in which he’d be comfortable fielding uncomfortable questions, or to gain a deeper insight into his motivations or the way that he thinks. It achieved neither.
The consequence of Morgan’s fawning over the President (including giving him presents and trying, painfully unsuccessfully, to engage in friendly small talk with him) was that it allowed Trump to get away with a number of troubling responses which either were obvious lies, worrying misunderstandings, or, most often, entry-level attempts to ignore the question entirely. It is understandable that Morgan likely had very little time with Trump to cover a lot of ground, but I would argue that there is more value in examining one area where Trump could be exposed on his ignorance, or at very least clarifying an issue rather than simply allowing Trump to give his position on it (which, despite Morgan’s insistence, are not the same thing) instead of skipping from topic to topic, allowing only time for Trump to give a scripted response or slogan and allowing that to be the end of it. This didn’t have to be an interrogation, it just had to be an interview.
At no point did Morgan shoot for any of the many, many open goals Trump provided him with (a personal highlight being the oft-repeated “I am the least racist person anybody is ever going to meet”), preferring instead to either move on to another topic entirely or provide him with an opportunity to restate the same view in different words. Morgan will claim that this was scrutiny (for example, when he replies to Trump’s insistence regarding gun control that dangerous people will always find ways to murder people by asking him why Trump doesn’t even try to make it difficult to acquire military-level weaponry, as in the Las Vegas shooting last year), but Trump paraphrasing the remarks he’d just given (“I think you need it for security”, before moving right back to terrorism, which Trump is more comfortable repeating his talking points on) should have been an indication for Morgan to push further on an issue Trump demonstrably does not understand. Instead, the conversation turned swiftly to a “quick-fire” segment on climate change, which Trump cheerfully (and, of course, completely unchallenged) asserts the jury is somehow still out on. Morgan is unable to even finish his question about foreign affairs before Trump retakes control of the interview to wax lyrical about how awful the Democrats are – Trump interrupting an unrelated question to talk about the American stock market, the economy, or Hilary Clinton is an excruciating running theme here, and every single time Morgan lets him get away with it.
The tenuous ways in which Morgan takes credit for groundbreaking journalistic revelations is pitifully transparent. He claims that getting Trump to admit that he isn’t a “feminist” is somehow news to anyone that’s able to even spell the word, and this ‘admission’ comes at the cost of Trump rambling on about how much he won the 2016 Presidential election by (having earlier mentioned in passing the largely unimportant fact that he got significantly fewer votes than his opponent). He claims to have got an apology out of Trump for retweeting Britain First, an organisation that four-and-a-half seconds of research could have told him is a racist ultranationalist group, when in fact what Trump says is that he doesn’t understand why everyone in Britain was offended when it should be obvious to anyone that he had no idea what he was retweeting. Saying ‘I will say sorry if it’ll make you feel better’ is not an apology, it’s an admission that he doesn’t have the slightest understanding of the problem, and Morgan is in far more of a hurry to praise himself and thank Trump for his magnanimity than to point this out to him.
In fact, the interview was worse than pointless – it was damaging. Allowing Trump to say things that are patently untrue, and giving them only the pretence of scrutiny, just allows his message to be reinforced through repetition and legitimised through the false impression of rigour. He was allowed to push his message on climate change being scientifically uncertain or fluctuating, which is an incredibly dangerous myth which poisons our political discussions on it. Pointing out to Trump that the ice caps are not in fact recovering but continuing to melt, and that the world is getting hotter rather than cooler, are basic facts on the issue which a Year 9 student could have corrected the President on – Morgan sits mute.
He was allowed to dodge questions about his views on women (claiming that rather than being a ‘feminist,’ he’s “for everybody”, which Morgan unhelpfully declines to point out are synonymous) by talking about unemployment figures. Morgan asks, in as roundabout a way as is humanly possible, about Trump’s past remarks about women, and Trump brashly declines to apologise for them or even express regret for making them, instead talking about how many women (happily neglecting to point out the staggering racial divide in the female vote) voted for him anyway – the interview quickly skips on to the far more pressing topic of Trump’s fan mail, rather than pulling the President up on his glaringly obvious non-answers.
Allowing Trump to merely repeat his talking points reinforces them, and Morgan permitting Trump to redirect his questions entirely and, rather than answering them, talk about all the things he dubiously takes credit for, allows Trump to control what message viewers will take away. The amount of times, for example, Trump talks about border control is staggering, particularly when one considers that he is never asked about it. Any educational value the programme could have had for those unfamiliar with US politics (Morgan at least briefly introduces each issue for viewers before continuing the discussion) is not only negated but reversed by Trump being allowed to give his answers unchallenged. This isn’t scrutiny – it’s a half-hour advert for Donald Trump.
Even if you don’t agree that the interview was harmful, rather than merely pointless, and you don’t ascribe the power to the media that I do, we should still make sure to highlight that this episode was a saddening journalistic failure. Let’s not be taken in by anyone claiming that getting Trump to talk at all is somehow a success or that Morgan’s refusal to seriously question the President’s answers provided objectivity rather than tacit endorsement – this was not really an interview, it was only a platform, and Donald Trump doesn’t need any more uncritical platforms to spout his dangerously untruthful nonsense from. We didn’t need to find out what the President thinks about certain issues, we needed to understand his unresponsiveness to the almost uncountable well-founded objections to his behaviour in office. Morgan’s sycophantic, uncritical stance may well have allowed him to get in the room with Trump, but this appeasement is not what journalism is supposed to be about. We’re no closer to understanding the truth about President Trump, and arguably some people will be taken further from it – this failure of political journalism reflects shamefully on both Morgan and ITV.