LONDON — Buckingham Palace may have finally responded to the explosive allegations made by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in Oprah Winfrey’s interview Sunday by saying that they will “be addressed by the family privately” — but those issues could not possibly have been raised in a more public manner than in the much-anticipated and heavily promoted interview with one of America’s biggest stars. Confining them now to the privacy of a family discussion seems frankly impossible.
The Victorian journalist and economist Walter Bagehot famously said of the monarchy, “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.” The reality is that the monarchy might still believe it’s best to try to keep its air of mystery, but, as this whole drama has shown, that doesn’t always work now.
You could hardly find a better way of doing the exact opposite of Bagehot’s instructions than by talking to one of the world’s most famous interviewers. The daylight is in. It has illuminated a monarchy finding the modern world a difficult place, and a Britain divided in its views of who’s right.
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Given the changing times and media landscape, the whole affair has shined a spotlight on the palace’s difficulties in handling its image in the social media age (launching a Trump-style Twitter storm in response to the interview not being an option). That has raised uncomfortable questions about the nature of the modern monarchy at a crucial time.
Queen Elizabeth II is 94. Generational change must come soon. Making Harry and Meghan an important part of “The Firm” would have helped that. Now, it is very hard to see a way back into the royal family for the couple, and very hard to see that they would want it.
So, the opportunity has been lost to make the monarchy seem more modern, and more in tune with a multiracial Britain — although the allegations in Sunday’s interview that royal insiders had expressed concerns about the skin color of Meghan and Harry’s unborn child makes it seem as if that were never possible anyway.
Yet, however hard it would have been to avoid getting to this situation — and we should remember that we have really only heard one side of the story, and, with the palace’s insistence on responding “privately,” it is likely to stay that way — surely that would have been effort well spent. Harry has frequently made reference to what he sees as his mother’s torment at the hands of the tabloids, and the couple’s contention in the interview that the palace did not “protect” them from the press has uncomfortable echoes.
I was part of the BBC News team that covered Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. There was widespread public disappointment, even anger, at the conduct of the royal family then. Elizabeth was on vacation with her grandsons in Scotland and her refusal to return to London — later explained as motivated by a desire to support Harry and his brother, Prince William, by keeping them out of the fray in the immediate aftermath of their mother’s death — was seen as uncaring.
Although this is a different situation, it is hard to escape the conclusion that lessons on the challenges for a young woman like Diana joining the royal family as an outsider, and already the subject of intense media fascination and scrutiny, should have been learned then and applied in today’s context.
The media also hasn’t seemed to draw the right lessons from the coverage of Diana, after the conduct of the tabloids and paparazzi was widely perceived as a factor in her death in a car crash (the car was being pursued by photographers at the time). In this case, after the Society of Editors issued a statement Monday saying that race had never been a factor in the coverage of Meghan despite her well-documented contention that it has been, 168 journalists of color quickly dismissed it as “laughable.”
That was followed by 41,000 complaints to Britain’s broadcast regulator after high-profile media personality Piers Morgan dismissed Meghan’s disclosure in the interview about the adverse effect her time in the royal family had on her mental health. In this case, Morgan ended up departing as a presenter on the widely watched “Good Morning Britain.”
But there’s a wider question of what will shape public opinion. So far, the main consequence of the interview seems to be that those who sympathize with Harry and Meghan are more likely to do so now — and the same for those who criticize them. In one notable example of the latter, Times columnist Quentin Letts observed, with more than a slight hint of disapproval, that Harry “has started saying ‘like’ and has the beginnings of an American accent.”
This impression of starkly divided and strongly held views seems to be borne out by snap polling conducted after the interview aired in the United Kingdom. A survey for YouGov concluded that the “latest figures show the interview has had little impact on public opinion.”
That stasis means we’re not likely to see mass demands for an end to the monarchy anytime soon. Republicanism is not part of mainstream political debate in the U.K. But look again at the poll on attitudes toward Harry and Meghan, and you will see that “Nearly half of those aged between 18 and 24 (48%) feel more sympathy for Harry and Meghan.”
That means that anonymous comments from “palace sources” and promises of private discussion may not be wholly successful as a royal response. Still — while it is easy to find fault with the palace’s approach, and see it as out-of-touch with the younger generation — something more in keeping with contemporary public relations would hardly work for a queen historian David Starkey once suggested might be remembered as “Elizabeth the Silent.”
It’s a harder stance to maintain in the clamor of a contemporary media battle. Harry and Meghan clearly decided it would not work for them.