Who or what drove Harry and Meghan to leave the royal bosom for the land of slebs on the other side of the Atlantic? That’s one of the central questions of a new two-part documentary, The Princes and the Press, that aired on the BBC last night.
The obvious suspect is the dreaded British media — barging, intrusive, xenophobic — riddled with prejudice, we’re told, against a mixed-race American in the monarchy. But the jostling between royal households seems equally responsible. After the early days of Hazza and Megz, a clear jealousy from some of William and Kate’s people began to seep into the media. The younger brother and his American wife were suddenly the darlings of the British press. ‘Work-shy William’ and ‘waity Katie’ were left looking like yesterday’s royals.
Today, Kate and Wills are the PR golden couple while it’s all gone wrong for Harry and Meghan. What happened? Like all media darlings, eventually less favourable coverage began to surface (not least from Meghan’s father). There were allegations that she was difficult to deal with, that courtiers were unhappy and leaving in droves — something that her lawyer, given specific permission to speak to the BBC, expressly denied. Then there was so-called tiara-gate, where Meghan was supposedly refused royal jewellery, an incident that resulted in either her or her royal fiance being marched in before the Queen. It is worth noting too, that much of this gossip initially went unreported. Dan Wootton, then of the Sun, explained that it took a good six months before these whispers appeared in the press. A lifetime in news cycles. There was clearly a reticence to go after the new royal pair. But eventually a narrative began to take hold of a demanding couple, insisting on American-style service from a British institution.
Frustrating, no doubt, but these kinds of stories happen in royal land. William certainly knew how to deal with negative press, calling in newspaper editors for one-on-one meetings and hiring shrewd press officers from the world of politics. But Harry went further, putting out public statements decrying perceived media wrongdoing and taking multiple newspapers to court. William played the game — his brother refused. This, more than anything, explains the Sussexes’s departure from Britain.
It’s clear that Harry is the one who disrupted that seemingly ancient dance between journalists and family. To those on the outside, that dance may at times seem unedifying. One BBC interviewee, Gavin Burrows, a private investigator who reportedly worked for the News of the World, described the abhorrent targeting of one of Harry’s former girlfriends. Chelsy Davy’s personal history was viciously sought out: ‘Medical records… had she had an abortion, sexual diseases, ex-boyfriends? Vet ’em, check them’. It is difficult to feel anything but abject sympathy for Harry, not to mention poor Ms Davy. No doubt the older brother also felt for Harry and Chelsy. After all, Kate’s phone had been hacked over a hundred times in the early days of their relationship.
But for all the grubbiness, the truth is that the media and the royal family feed off one another. It is a kind of symbiosis: the royals are able to build a story around their lives; the media, by contrast, are able to serve and thrill their audience.
Harry must know this. He knows what’s expected of a royal and he knows how to punish those journalists who overstep the mark. Yet, as the documentary makes clear, he chose to ignore those unspoken rules of engagement. Meghan, the outsider, couldn’t have understood the full depths of what royal scrutiny entailed. But her husband did. To be born into the firm means a different level of understanding.
It is Harry who failed. At one point, the BBC’s royal editor Jonny Dymond, not unsympathetic to the couple’s cause, described a frosty interaction Harry had with journalists on a press trip in 2018. ‘He can’t bear the press, he can’t bear the media. He has a visceral reaction to cameras and notebooks — to journalists,’ explained Dymond, before show-acting a vomiting prince. You might think, who can blame Harry? The press is rapacious. In his eyes, they bear responsibility for his mother’s death.
But that’s the life of a royal. A life of cameras and notebooks, of polite hellos and forced smiles. It’s the deal they make: they get to live in opulence and in return we, the people who pay for it, who give them that grandeur, receive fragments of their lives. There is cruelty in that gilded cage.
Perhaps one of the most revealing moments came from Omid Scobie — the co-author of Finding Freedom, whom Meghan admitted to the courts of having briefed after initially denying it. Scobie explained that it was Harry, not Meghan, who drove the initial anti-press strategy. Meghan felt that she was media savvy enough to engage with the British press pack. Harry objected. Instead, he declared a form of war. He denied reporters proper coverage of the couple’s engagement, attempting to bar them from the royal wedding itself.
It is something the firm knew couldn’t work: you cannot say what you like and do as you please and continue to be a royal. Refuse to honour your side of the deal and the other half, that opulence and grandeur, collapses. The pact is what makes them. Break it, and you break the monarchy. It’s a hard lesson, one that the royals should have learnt from Harry’s mother. The couple wanted to be their own people — to have ‘a voice’, whatever that means. The lesson that both the Queen and the lesser royals have learnt is that ‘a voice’ is impossible. The House of Windsor should be seen but never really heard.
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