It had all been going so well. Coverage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s tour to South Africa kicked off with footage of them dancing, before moving on to feature their work promoting the importance of gender equality in education and the horror of violence against women. We’ve been treated to rare pictures of baby Archie being introduced to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And who doesn’t love a cute baby – especially one dressed in £14.99 chain store dungarees? So right on, but so relatable. We know all this because the press have been there, dutifully on message, diligently recording every royal smile.
And the reward for this slick, glossy loyalty? Prince Harry has now made a no-holds barred attack on ‘this specific press pack’. His lengthy statement has been widely described as ‘unprecedented,’ with even royal biographer Penny Junor arguing it is ‘an over-emotional and somewhat ill- advised outburst’. Harry’s fury was timed to coincide with the announcement that Meghan is taking legal action against the Mail on Sunday for publishing extracts from a letter she sent to her father. The Duchess claims the paper breached the law on copyright and data protection.
To those who struggle to keep up, it might appear as if the Mail on Sunday had used underhand tactics to access a private correspondence. Nothing could be further from the truth. The existence of Meghan’s letter was public knowledge. Five of Meghan’s friends had discussed its contents with People magazine. It was Meghan’s father who shared the letter.
Harry’s attack on the press is clearly about far more than the publication of one letter. In his tirade against the tabloids, Harry accuses journalists of waging a ‘ruthless campaign’ against his wife. He says he has been ‘a silent witness to her private suffering’ for too long and accuses newspapers of circulating ‘knowingly false and malicious’ stories that have ‘vilified’ his wife ‘almost daily for the past nine months.’ Most preposterously, Harry claims the tabloids, ‘have been able to create lie after lie at her expense.’ He concludes by saying: ‘I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.’
Some in the press have certainly been critical of Meghan but it is simply not true that ‘lie after lie’ has been written about her. Scrutiny has, rightly, come from all newspapers – not just tabloids. If he read them, Harry would know that tabloids have changed over the past thirty years. Post-Leveson they are far more restrained in their coverage. There have been no paparazzi shots of baby Archie; no revelations about who his Godparents are. Although there was much focus on how the royal couple got to their various holiday destinations this summer, there were no scoops detailing what they got up to while there.
This restraint comes despite the fact that Harry and Meghan are public figures. Not only are they senior members of the royal family but, more significantly, they put themselves on a global stage. We’ve had Harry giving speeches at international conferences and Meghan guest editing Vogue. The couple lead the glamorous lifestyle of fabulously wealthy A-list celebrities – flying to New York to watch a tennis match one minute, being flown out to spend time in Elton John’s villa the next. The platforms and lifestyle come with the royal title.
Harry and Meghan want the public to admire them and to rally behind the woke causes they espouse. But then they are outraged by criticism and their actions being subject to scrutiny. Some of the criticism levelled at the couple is perfectly justified. They lecture us on protecting the environment but travel by private jet and have their own fleet of cars shipped from the UK to South Africa. They tell us how to live but lead a lifestyle that is so fabulously wealthy it is beyond most people’s imagining. The Duke and Duchess want press coverage but on their terms – deferential, discreet and on message. Unfortunately for them this is not journalism – it’s called ‘public relations’.
The press should be free to comment on what is, at best, a privileged lack of self-awareness and at worst barefaced hypocrisy. The audience for these stories, those of us who pay for Harry and Meghan’s upkeep, deserve better than to be taken for fools. Indeed, Harry’s statement provides yet another example of His Royal Highness’s doublethink.
Harry says he believes in ‘media freedom’ as ‘a cornerstone of democracy’. Seriously? Harry’s statement needs to be called out for what it is: a disturbing attack on press freedom. Having wealth, status and privilege should not be sufficient to protect anyone from criticism. Press freedom is far too important to be sacrificed on a royal whim.