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Harry and Meghan criticism won't deter U.K. press' royal fascination, experts say

"The industry operates like a bully, and like any bully when someone stands up to them, it doesn’t know how to cope," one media campaigner said.
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LONDON — Bullying, attacking and inciting, toxic.

This is how Prince Harry has described Britain’s press. His wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, blamed the media for suicidal thoughts, and Harry said it was partly responsible for their departure from the U.K., in their interview with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday.

Despite their pleas and various legal actions, the tabloids are unlikely to change, experts say.

“The business model of all media is finding something that people want to talk about,” said Adrian Bingham, author of “Tabloid Century: The Popular Press in Britain, 1896 to the Present.”

For the past week, coverage of the couple and their interview has dominated the front pages of newspapers and been the subject of radio and TV news broadcasts.

"What is so useful for the press about the royal family is they unite generations," Bingham said. "TV stars or social media stars appeal to a certain demographic, whereas the royal family, because of its prominence in British society, is something everybody can be interested in," he said. "It has been a soap opera at the heart of British life for the last few centuries."

That soap opera is now playing out in real time and impacting the media, too.

Piers Morgan, co-host of the “Good Morning Britain” breakfast news program and an outspoken critic of Meghan, resigned from his post Tuesday. Earlier that morning he stormed off the set when he was challenged by one of his colleagues for saying that he doubted Meghan’s version of events, including her confession of feeling suicidal.

More than 41,000 complaints were sent to the British TV regulator, Ofcom, and many commentators on social media accused him of racism. But he dug in his heels Wednesday.

“On Monday, I said I didn’t believe Meghan Markle in her Oprah interview. I’ve had time to reflect on this opinion, and I still don’t,” Morgan tweeted, alongside a quote about free speech by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Royal interviews are historically rare, and the family is scrupulously guarded in what they reveal to the public. But a royal press pack has access to members of the family at official events, and aides often anonymously brief the media.

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Despite this teamwork, stories about the royals are often distorted,according to Steven Barnett, professor of media and communications at London's University of Westminster.

“They exploit the palace tradition of silence to produce sensationalized stories which have a very tenuous connections to reality,” he said in an email.

Unlike many in his family, Harry has strongly pushed back against some of the coverage of him and his wife.

In 2016, he issued a highly unusual statement asking the media to stop the "wave of abuse and harassment" against his then-girlfriend, calling out “the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls.

Then in 2019, Meghan launched legal action against Associated Newspapers — the publisher of the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline — over five articles that reproduced parts of a handwritten letter she sent to her father, Thomas Markle, after her wedding to Harry, Queen Elizabeth II's grandson, in May 2018.

At the High Court in London, Judge Mark Warby found that the articles had both breached her privacy and infringed her copyright, and last week he ruled that that an apology should be printed on the newspaper's front page and online.

In the interview with Winfrey, Harry once again said the “control and fear of the U.K. tabloids” had led to a “toxic environment.”

The couple’s pushback on the media may indeed be fueling some of the negative coverage, according to Nathan Sparkes, policy director at Hacked Off, a campaign group established after some British newspapers were found to have hacked the phones of both celebrities and members of the public.

“The industry operates like a bully, and like any bully when someone stands up to them, it doesn’t know how to cope with that and it lashes out,” he said.

Harry’s place in the line of succession means the press feels freer to push the boundaries with his family, compared to the queen, and his father and brother who will one day inherit the crown, Bingham said. As sixth in line to the throne, Harry stands behind his father, brother and his brother’s children.

One way a real change to coverage could occur would be by changing the leadership at the top of the industry, according to Jilly Kay, a lecturer in media and communications at the University of Leicester.

“What you start to see is that when you get a critical mass of women and people of color, there is a change in representation,” she said.

When the media industry body the Society of Editors claimed in a statement after the Winfrey interview that racism was never a factor in coverage of Meghan, it was notable that several high-profile female editors as well as journalists of color pushed back, Kay said.

The society later issued a clarification saying the statement “did not reflect what we all know: that there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion.”

It added that the body would “reflect on the reaction our statement prompted and work towards being part of the solution.”

In the meantime, the key to Harry and Meghan's ultimate happiness may be a personal media blackout, according to British historian Andrew Roberts.

"I think, to be a senior member of the royal family, you have to have an absolute rhinoceros hide, you have to have a very thick carapace against criticism, and that is clearly something that that neither of these people really ultimately did have," he said.