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Prince Harry and Meghan's shock announcement caps feud with British media

After months of negative coverage and a lawsuit against a paper, the couple says they will no longer participate in the established system of media access.

LONDON — The announcement by Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, that they would step back from their role as senior royals was light on specifics, with the exception of one area: their so-far fraught relationship with the media.

After months of negative press coverage and a lawsuit against a British tabloid, the couple on Wednesday said they would no longer participate in the established system of media access to the royals, known as the royal rota.

Instead, the couple said they planned to release information via their own social media channels, as well as “engage with grassroots media organizations” and other “credible media outlets.”

“Britain’s Royal Correspondents are regarded internationally as credible sources of both the work of members of The Royal Family as well as of their private lives,” the couple said on their newly website. “This misconception propels coverage that is often carried by other outlets around the world, amplifying frequent misreporting.”

Image: An arrangement of UK daily newspapers photographed as an illustration in London on Jan. 9, 2020, shows front page headlines reporting on the news that Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, plan to step back
Daily newspapers on Thursday show front page headlines reporting on the news that Britain's Prince Harry and his wife Meghan plan to step back as "senior" members of the royal family.Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP - Getty Images

They noted that the current arrangement “makes it challenging” to share “moments in their lives” and said they want to “broaden access to their work.”

That Harry, who is sixth in line to the throne, and Meghan chose to focus on the media’s role in their new lives should not be a surprise. A sign of the media's fascination with the couple came Thursday, when the story dominated the front pages of both broadsheets and tabloids across the United Kingdom.

This interest is not universally positive and commentators were quick to get the knives out.

In The Mail, which devoted 17 pages of coverage to the story, commentator Sarah Vine wrote: "It's almost as if nothing matters to this couple apart from their own immediate happiness and gratification, as though they are incapable of seeing beyond their own little bubble of privilege."

She suggested the "ultimate responsibility" for the decision was with Harry, who she said "at the very least could have warned" his family about their plans.

Meanwhile, in The Sun, Hugo Vickers wrote that it was "impossible not to think" that Harry "has been influenced by his wife with her Californian ideas."

Even the more austere Times of London said that the "announcement carries all the hallmarks of the petulance and hot-headedness for which Prince Harry is sadly becoming well-known."

The National Union of Journalists also criticized the couple’s decision to pull out of the Royal Rota system, which invites representatives from each media sector to cover events on the understanding that they will share all material obtained with other members of their sector.

It said it was another attempt to "prevent the media from functioning and compromising the ability of journalists to do their jobs, which is completely unacceptable".

In October, the couple revealed a lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday, a major U.K. tabloid, for misuse of private information, among other claims. At the time, Harry released a scathing statement accusing the tabloid press of a "ruthless campaign" against his wife.

“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 wrote.

Image: Earl Spencer, Prince William, Prince Harry and Prince Charles attend the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales
Earl Spencer, Prince William, Prince Harry and Prince Charles attend the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales on Sept. 6, 1997.Russell Boyce / Reuters file

Harry's mother, Princess Diana, died in a 1997 car accident while trying to escape paparazzi in Paris. A photograph of a young Harry walking behind his mother's hearse alongside other male royals has become an iconic image in the country. The royal family was heavily criticized for exposing the young prince to this sort of scrutiny during such a difficult time.

Wednesday's announcement followed months of negative news coverage, with newspapers running story after story about Meghan's estrangement from her father and half siblings, as well as articles criticizing the couple's use of private jets while espousing support for environmental causes.

The couple said that the coverage had taken its toll, with Meghan saying in the documentary "Harry and Meghan: An African Journey," that the media attention had been “challenging.”

"I never thought this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair," she said in the documentary.

Not long after, the two decided to take a six-week break from their royal duties, part of which was spent in Canada. On Tuesday, the smiling couple visited Canada House to thank the high commissioner for the hospitality they received during their stay.

It seemed to be a return to business as usual for the couple, and there was little warning ahead of Harry and Meghan’s surprise “step back.”

Practical details are still up in the air with even Buckingham Palace in the dark as to how their new roles will work. How they plan to support Queen Elizabeth II, where they will live, what they will do and importantly, how they plan to be “financially independent” are all questions that remain unanswered.

“Ordinarily, because of the massive changes that will be needed as a result of what has been announced, there would be lots of discussions for weeks, for months,” said Chris Ship, royal correspondent for NBC News’ British partner ITV News.

“The statement has been made and no one in the royal family, no courtier really knows quite how to proceed,” he added.

In addition to their new role in the royal family, the couple said they would split their time between the U.K. and North America and that they would launch a new charitable entity.

Image: Britain's Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle pose for a photograph in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in west London, following the announcement of their engagement
Prince Harry and his then-fiancee Meghan Markle pose for a photograph in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London after the announcement of their engagement on Nov. 27, 2017.Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP - Getty Images file

Discussions were at an “early stage” and “will take time to work through,” the palace said in a tersely worded, two-sentence statement.

What came after the official statements was just as dramatic. Royal correspondents reported that the royal family, including the queen, weren’t told about the statement ahead of time, quoting anonymous palace sources. Senior members of the royal family felt “hurt” and “disappointed,” the BBC reported.

NBC News was not able to confirm these reports.