Why has the British press been so hung up on Harry and Meghan?

Why We Wrote This

Harry and Meghan have challenged entrenched assumptions about the royals and the press. That’s been disruptive, but it’s also changed the conversation around a “Faustian pact.”

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, hold their son, Archie, in Cape Town, South Africa, on Sept. 25, 2019.

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Across the United Kingdom, opinion is divided over the dramatic decision of Harry, Duke of Sussex, to relinquish his royal titles in order to strike out on his own with his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. Many are wary of the couple’s ambition to be financially independent by cashing in on their trademarked “Sussex Royal” brand.

But few doubt that intrusive British media coverage of their relationship, and particularly of Meghan, a biracial U.S. actress, played a role in the breakup. For Britain’s newspapers, royal news and gossip have long driven sales and spurred editors to push the limits of privacy and libel law.

Defenders of the press, and of the public’s right to know what their taxpayer-funded royalty is up to, say this scrutiny is justified. “The British media’s attitude to royals is that we [taxpayers] pay and you play,” says Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors.

To read the tabloids is to plunge into a daily froth of speculation about internal royal affairs and the real reason why Harry and Meghan wanted out. But the couple’s own statements tell a less flattering story, says Brian Cathcart, a professor at Kingston University. “From their perspective this is entirely about dishonest journalism and unfair journalism.”

As a grandfather, Robin Burton’s sympathies lie with Queen Elizabeth, the British monarch whose royal castle’s gray crenelated walls loom over this tidy town.

Now that Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have decamped to Canada, the queen won’t be seeing much of her grandson or Archie, her great-grandson, says Mr. Burton, a self-described royalist who is in town to visit his daughter and her baby.

Such a shame that the former Meghan Markle, who married Harry in 2018, couldn’t adapt to life as a British royal, he muses.

But Mr. Burton sees another catalyst in the abrupt parting that has roiled the House of Windsor, as the British monarchy is known. “I blame the papers for all the bad publicity,” the retired airline engineer says. “They destroy people. They build them up and they destroy them.”

Across this country, opinion is divided over Harry’s dramatic decision to relinquish his royal titles in order to strike out on his own with his wife. Many are wary of the couple’s ambition to be financially independent by cashing in on their trademarked “Sussex Royal” brand.

But few doubt that intrusive U.K. media coverage of their relationship, and particularly of Meghan, a biracial U.S. actress, played a role in the breakup. “The media is never kind,” says Sally Pierce, a retiree doing her shopping in Windsor last week.

“You play the game”

For Britain’s newspapers, royal news and gossip have long driven sales and spurred editors to push the limits of privacy and libel law. While newspaper sales are in decline here, as in many countries, a clutch of tabloids retain a bite and bark that blends the flag-waving of Fox News with the celebrity-chasing frenzy of TMZ and the rule-bending zeal of the National Enquirer.

Defenders of the press, and of the public’s right to know what their taxpayer-funded royalty is up to, say this scrutiny is justified. “You can’t simply be a reigning family that we nod and bow to,” says Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, a professional association. “The British media’s attitude to royals is that we [taxpayers] pay and you play. You play the game.”

To read the tabloids is to plunge into a daily froth of speculation about internal royal affairs and the real reason why Harry and Meghan wanted out. But the couple’s own statements tell a less flattering story, says Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University. “They’re saying this is about being harassed and lied about. From their perspective this is entirely about dishonest journalism and unfair journalism,” he says.

Some press-watchers say the coverage of Harry and Meghan had been relatively restrained, a legacy of the death of his mother, Princess Diana, in 1997 while being chased through Paris by paparazzi. Newspaper editors subsequently swore off paparazzi photos and refrained from photographing without permission her sons, Harry and William.

The global celebrity of Diana and her love-hate relationship with the cameras epitomized the implicit Faustian pact between the crown and the popular press, which keeps them in the public eye and shores up their legitimacy in a modern democracy.

John Stillwell/Reuters/File
Queen Elizabeth (right), Prince Harry, and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, pose for a picture at a Buckingham Palace reception in London on June 26, 2018.

“The dignity of the monarchy was to be touched by the glamour of youth, with weddings of dazzling splendour, photo-opportunities galore, state occasions and relentless pomp globally promoted,” former newspaper editor Simon Jenkins wrote in the New Statesman.

In return, members of the royal family often had to grin and bear it when the coverage was unfavorable. Some also used media interviews to advance their own agendas, most famously during the marital breakdown of Diana and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

Still, for royalty and celebrities as well as ordinary people, there should be no excuse for the falsehoods peddled by tabloids, insists Mr. Cathcart, who has campaigned to reform press regulation after a 2011 scandal over phone hacking. “There’s no license for the U.K. press to print lies, just because everyone says they’ve always done it.”

Diana’s legacy

Scarred by his mother’s death, Harry never accepted this pact. He called out the media for intrusive coverage of Meghan, including racist slurs by right-wing commentators. The couple later barred reporters from their son’s christening and refused to identify the godparents.

Their demand for privacy grew excessive, even as they lined up publicity for their charitable appearances, says Mr. Murray. When they got a new puppy, Harry bristled when asked about its name. “This is an instance of a person who is rather thin-skinned,” says Mr. Murray.

Penny Junor, a journalist and author of several royal biographies, including one of Harry, says the U.K. media initially hailed Meghan as a breath of fresh air. “Everybody loved her. The press thought she was wonderful,” she says.

Some of the subsequent criticism of the couple’s highhandedness has been justified, she says, though not all of it. Still, she says the newspapers aren’t the real villains. “I’m not defending the press. But I don’t believe it’s been a campaign against Meghan,” she says.

Last October, the acrimony between the couple and the press hit a new low when Meghan sued the Mail on Sunday newspaper over the publication of a letter she had written to her estranged father. The case has yet to come to trial. In a statement defending the lawsuit, a rarity by a royal, Harry drew an explicit parallel between “bullying” behavior by tabloids toward Meghan and the tragedy of Diana’s death, warning that history could repeat itself.

“I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces,” he said.

Ms. Pierce, a former school administrator, says many Britons remember the sad sight of Harry, then 12, at his mother’s funeral, and sympathize with his hostility toward reporters.

“I’m desperately sorry that this [separation] happened because we all want Harry to be happy,” she says.

“We’re not racist”

But she doesn’t extend any sympathy to his wife, who she calls a “dreadful woman” for taking Harry away from his family. “She knew what she was doing. She’s a little schemer. It’s very sad.”

In this lens, Meghan is cast in the role of Wallis Simpson, the U.S. divorcée whom Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward VIII, married in 1937 and then gave up his title. Commentators claim that Harry’s infatuation has blinded him to his royal heritage and that it will end in tears.

Added to this sexist stereotype – Lady Macbeth meets Yoko Ono – is a racially charged debate over Meghan’s role that has become a cultural touchstone here. Black Britons have accused white male pundits of failing to recognize their own prejudices when they criticize her.

Unprompted, Ms. Pierce says, “We’re not racist,” referring to the U.K. Similarly, Mr. Burton insists that race has nothing to do with how tabloids treated Meghan. A princess was simply a bad fit for a career woman. “It’s a job. I don’t think she realized what she was getting into.”

Views on the breakup cleave along generational lines. A survey carried out last week for the Daily Express found that while more than half of adults age 55 and older said that Harry had made a mistake by giving up his royal titles, less than a quarter of those age 18-34 agreed.

Among British millennials, support for the royals is weakening. Slightly less than half agreed that the monarchy is good for the U.K., according to the same survey. In this and other surveys, the majority of all Brits say the monarchy is a net positive.

At a bus stop in the shadow of Windsor Castle, Qasim Rehman checks his phone. He’s a bus driver waiting to catch a ride to the depot and he has little time for royal drama. “We know it’s all just a show. What do they actually do?” he asks.

He points to the castle, one of several palaces owned by the crown. “They’re racists,” he says, referring to Meghan’s experience. No wonder Harry wants out. “He wants to be free. You can’t hold him captive.”

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