It’s no secret that morning television – particularly that pedalled by ITV – tries to “reflect the mood of the nation.” Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield, both hosts of This Morning, have said this on air before and the general format of the programme lends itself to it.
There are segments for news, culture, topical chats and interesting headlines; in this respect, it has everything that a magazine show should have. Perhaps this ‘reflective’ spirit is merely an effort to attract larger audiences – a necessary goal of any TV show – but the problem is, in bending over backwards so forcefully for viewers, This Morning loses any sense of backbone in the process. In doing so, it retreats to conservative values, toeing the lines of tradition and stifling a progressive Britain and is instead content to stare back to a hazy nostalgic fog that never really existed.
The first example of this would be the personas of the presenters themselves. Messages of family are reiterated throughout the programme and Phillip and Holly embody the aspirational friend. The cosy neighbour type. The issue is, no-one in their position can be truly natural; studios, cameras, scheduling, and the various issues the hosts are expected to contend with lends itself to caricature and both must, to a certain degree, inhabit roles.
This leads us to question the roles chosen and for this, Holly Willoughby is an interesting case study. As a reflection of the public mood, Holly Willoughby would be hard pushed not to champion the female cause but she does so through the safest possible approach. In several respects, she is the archetypal 60s feminist; she may be part of a nuclear family but she is also career-minded and ambitious. This is not to slam her for her decisions but it is notable that matters of more contemporary feminism would never be raised. Where feminism errs into the more progressive, and thus controversial, the safe personas of This Morning veer away.
It is also noteworthy that Willoughby, Schofield, (Piers) Morgan, and (Suzanna) Reid are all white. With the exception of Naga Munchetty, of BBC’s Breakfast (which is not under examination here), morning television is a largely white affair and where there are non-white people, they are usually sidelined to secondary roles – Andi Peters (a black man) as the host of the giveaway and Alex Beresford (a bi-racial man) as the weather presenter (both on Good Morning Britain). Perhaps not malicious but still woefully homogenous.
Treatment of racial politics is also worth an examination; where the shows cover issues of explicitly anti-black racism, for example, they will be critical but in situations of ambiguity, such as the recent news regarding Meghan Markle, the presenters will default to familiar options. Either opting for centrism and not giving defined opinions or, in Piers Morgan’s case, actively condemning those making allegations of racism. Compounding this problem is the platforming of BAME individuals only when it is topical; guests are on balance white and where they are not, it is usually pertaining to a news story related to race. Consider again Meghan Markle; Afua Hirsch, a black woman, was brought onto Good Morning Britain in light of Meghan’s departure from the Royal Family, and immediately put on the back foot, expected to respond to an attack-dog line made by Morgan.
Rather than bringing people of colour onto the show to discuss racism at large in the UK, a persistent issue in our society, these matters are addressed only when it is deemed relevant. Of course, the reality of racism is that it is always relevant but this only becomes visible within the scope of the show on these occasions. In short, morning television should not fool itself into believing it is championing the lives of minorities only when they drop into the national conversation. For as long as it does this, it continues to play to the expectations of a regressive, conservative Britain unable to look beyond itself.
The final nail in the morning-TV-industrial complex is its pervasive nature in our lives. Returning to This Morning we can see an attempt to look beyond its traditional audiences through the distribution streams of YouTube and social media. Just as its attempts to”reflect the mood of the nation” has steered it down conservative avenues, the compressed attention of the more modern outlets has rewarded controversy. Outrage attracts clicks and this is particularly problematic for a show with already conservative leanings.
Controversial values held by both the left and the right are different in an important way. Those usually associated with the right i.e. racism, classism etc., are widely acknowledged as wrong and so tend not to be platformed by the shows in the same way – they do not spark debate and hosts cannot be seen to sympathise. Those associated with the left however, the typically ‘progressive’ ideologies such as veganism, trans-rights etc., are, in general society, much more quickly criticised and the usual template for this criticism is from a conservative angle. Thus, as a means of perpetuating their following, these shows intentionally set up convenient controversies i.e. those values held by traditionally left-wing ideologies, and respond to them in the easy and simplistic format of conservative values. This, in turn, is disseminated online and the ‘traditional’, regressive politics of these shows bleeds out into wider society.
Morning television, specifically ITV’s offerings, is designed to resonate with the conservative wing of British society. This is reflected in the presenters, the topics covered and the opinions reached; social media as a force caters to controversy and both of these magazine shows relish this opportunity to attract larger and broader audiences. As Holly Willoughby said, the show aims to reflect the mood of the nation but distressingly, hers, and the offerings like it, seem stuck in a feedback loop staring itself in the eye in a self-perpetuating mirror of a backwards-looking ‘traditional Britain.’