The relationship between Britain’s royals and the media is awkward, mistrustful — and seemingly inescapable. But now, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry want out.
After years of growing tension with the press, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have announced plans to quit their senior royal duties, move part-time to North America, seek financial independence and withdraw from regular media scrutiny.
In a challenge to the press, the couple slammed the country’s long-standing arrangements for royal media coverage, saying they preferred to communicate directly with the public through social media.
The British press was stung by the snub, reacting Thursday with articles, columns and editorials that ranged from disappointment to fury.
The Daily Mirror said in an editorial that the couple’s failure to tell Harry’s grandmother Queen Elizabeth II about their plans “shows shocking disregard for a woman whose entire life has been ruled by a sense of public duty and honour.” The Times of London accused Harry of “petulance and hot-headedness,” while the Daily Mail said the couple wanted “the status of being ‘senior’ royals but the privacy and freedom of being private citizens.”
The Sun and the New York Post described the departure as “Megxit,” a play on Brexit, Britain’s impending departure later this month from the European Union.
Harry and Meghan’s shocking announcement drew comparisons to the abdication of the queen’s uncle King Edward VIII, who gave up the throne in 1936 so he could marry divorced American Wallis Simpson. Once again, waspish commentators noted, an American woman has caused a ruction in the Royal Family.
But the relationship between royals and the media has changed dramatically in the intervening decades. Before the abdication, the romance between Edward and Simpson was headline news in the United States but went largely unreported by a deferential British press.
The trauma of the Second World War and the social revolution of the 1960s demolished that tradition of deference to royalty and the establishment. For decades, the U.K. media has proclaimed its reverence for the Queen while treating the travails of her family as fair game, from the divorces of three of her four children to second son Prince Andrew’s troubling friendship with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
After Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, the media charted every twist in the marriage: the births of sons William and Harry, Diana’s glamour and charity work and the slow public crumbling of the relationship.
Charles and Diana both used the media as a weapon as their marriage foundered, giving TV interviews to present themselves in a sympathetic light. But Diana — a global megastar, followed by paparazzi wherever she went — was never fully in control of the media attention. She was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 while being pursued by photographers.
In the wake of Diana’s shocking death, the palace and the press reached an uneasy truce. The British media left young William and Harry alone in exchange for carefully staged interviews and photo opportunities as they grew up. That practice has continued with the three young children of William and his wife Kate.
Harry, however, still blames the media for his mother’s death, and since meeting his wife — the former actor Meghan Markle — he has become less willing to play the game.
In 2017, the prince accused the media of directing “a wave of abuse and harassment” at the biracial Markle, including “racial undertones” in articles. Last year the couple launched a lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday newspaper over its publication of a letter written by Markle. Harry said he feared “history repeating itself … I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”
Yet using the media has been a key part of Harry and Meghan’s strategy, just as it was for Diana. When they wanted to make their unhappiness public, the couple gave an interview to a sympathetic journalist from broadcaster ITV.
In that interview, Markle, an American, said that “very naively,” she had been unprepared for the intense media scrutiny she would receive once she married into the British Royal Family.
“I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair,” she said.
Prince Harry and Markle now want to use the media on their own terms, dropping out of the “royal rota” system that organizes media coverage of the royal family’s public events. On a newly launched website, they said the system hampered their ability to “personally share moments in their lives directly with members of the public (via social media).”
They said that in the future, they would “engage with grassroots media organizations and young, up-and-coming journalists.” They also slammed the “misconception” that the British media’s royal correspondents were “credible sources” of information.
Freddy Mayhew, editor of the Press Gazette, a newspaper industry trade publication, said the royal couple was aiming for a “much more controlled, much more private” approach to the media, drawing on Markle’s experience as a U.S. television star.
“I think they are perhaps seizing an opportunity with the decline of print media to break away,” he said. “That’s something they couldn’t have done before, when papers were at their full strength. But now that a lot of it is moving online, there’s the ability for people like Harry and Meghan to take control of what they put out there.
“It’s a brave new world,” he noted.