The palace and the press: after a month of privacy, a very public birth

Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. (Wenn via AP Images)

The first child of Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and his wife, Meghan, was born this morning. After seven months of anticipation, British tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail posted word that Meghan was in “the early stages of labor,” and later announced: “It’s a boy!”—a message echoed by Harry and Meghan’s new Instagram account @SussexRoyal. Next, palace and press scrambled to accommodate Harry’s request for an audience with the media at Windsor Castle. Abandoning the usual formality of royal birth announcements, he stood outside the castle stables and giggled with joy. “I am so incredibly proud of my wife,” he said. On his way out, he thanked everyone, including the royal horses.

It was an unexpectedly personal moment with the best-loved member of Britain’s royal family. Almost a month ago, on Thursday, April 11, Kensington Palace announced that the press would receive no details of the birth of “Baby Sussex”  until after the Duke and Duchess ”have had an opportunity to celebrate privately as a new family.” Furthermore, the Palace said, the couple would not participate in a photo call, perhaps the British media’s best-loved rite, as they left hospital.

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The British tabloids were furious. “The sudden desire for privacy comes from a Duke and Duchess very happy to enjoy the other trappings of life as full-time royals,” Lauren Clark wrote in The Sun. “Whether that be the taxpayer-funded £30m royal wedding and £3m renovation of their new ten-bedroom home Frogmore Cottage, or the almost two million well-wishes on the social media announcement of the pregnancy, a star-studded £300k baby shower and £30k ‘babymoon.’”

In recent years, the Windsors have grown less dependent on the tabloids for their publicity. Traditionally, the palace has held official press calls, during which correspondents photograph the royal children—a tradition Prince Harry promised to return to in two days’ time with a small group of photographers of his choosing. But Prince Harry’s sister-in-law—Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge—has harnessed the new autonomy social media offers, opting to take and distribute photographs of her children herself. Harry and Meghan have followed suit.

When Harry brought Meghan Markle into the family, the couple demanded a new style of control over press and public access. After they announced their engagement, in December 2017, they modeled themselves more as a Hollywood couple than as senior royals. Duncan Larcombe, a former royal correspondent for The Sun, calls Harry and Meghan a front-page sensation in the United Kingdom, even by historic standards: When Charles and Camilla married, in 2005, there were eight royal correspondents across television and newspaper outlets; now, Larcombe estimates, there are 40.

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Meghan, a former American television celebrity and lifestyle blogger, works the camera and the press behind it with only partial deference to Palace protocol. Her thinly veiled leaks—usually flattering details conveyed through a “close friend” to the press—have the savvy of a celebrity. In February, for instance, five of her “best friends,” including one “longtime friend and former costar,” spoke to People in order to “stand up against the global bullying we are seeing and speak the truth about our friend.” Larcombe says, “I can’t confirm it came from Meghan, but it appears she took matters into her own hands.”

As soon as the Palace announced her pregnancy, on October 14, 2018, the press noticed that she began to hold her abdomen in public whenever photographers were present. Those who watched her public appearances closely also noticed that she flicked her coat open to reveal her bump—often stopping in the course of conversation to do so.

But even as Meghan has courted press and public obsession, the couple has been reticent with access. When she and Prince Harry announced their engagement, they did not host a traditional press reception. The press reacted by criticizing Markle’s gown, worth $75,000. “That’s almost twice the average national wage,” The Mirror reported. “Meghan Markle has polarized the public,” The Independent scolded.

The couple did not invite royal correspondents to their wedding, nor did they hold a reception for royal correspondents on their first royal tour: to Australia, Fiji, Tonga, and New Zealand.

Stories about Meghan’s extravagance have persisted. In 2018, Meghan spent $508,258 on clothing for public appearances, not including her $260,000 Givenchy wedding gown. In February, the tabloids published details of Meghan’s $430,000 baby shower in New York City. “If you visit the families whose loved ones died in a fire and then take a private jet to New York and stay in a $30,000-a-night hotel suite with Serena Williams and Amal Clooney, on a trip that would have cost five years wages for the average person, that doesn’t work,” Larcombe says.

Larcombe believes that Harry’s aversion to tabloids has to do with the role of the press in the death of his mother, Princess Diana, in 1997. Harry “has an enormous chip on his shoulder,” Larcombe says. “It is totally understandable. When he was twelve, his mother died. What we’re seeing now with Meghan and Harry is a policy where, effectively, all his anger and hatred for the press is seeping through everything he’s doing.”

But, Larcombe adds, Harry’s privacy has led to a “festival of speculation” about the birth, and inevitable questions about the difference between royalty and celebrity. Meghan’s expenditure matters because the royal family’s income is bolstered by millions of pounds annually in public tax money (£44.6 million during the 2016 to 2017 fiscal year). That helps explain the obsession with Baby Sussex, too.

Of course, when the tabloids don’t have access, they reach for stories. On the same day as the Palace’s announcement, The Sun ran 10 articles about the baby: The Duchess had planned a water birth or a home birth, or would copy Amal Clooney’s birthing plan. Are these stories fact or fiction? It’s hard to say. “I’m not defending journalists that make stories up,” Larcombe says. “But speculation occurs when there is no announcement of facts. This isn’t a tap they can just turn on and off when it suits. Not in a democracy with a free press.”

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Amanda Darrach is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.