The Media Today

Megxit, pursued by the press

January 10, 2020

What war with Iran? Yesterday, shocking news about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle knocked weightier matters from the front pages of British newspapers: the couple had announced that they intend to step back from royal duties and work toward financial independence from the Crown. Harry and Meghan apparently did not tell the Queen first. The Queen was reportedly upset; Buckingham Palace issued a short, terse statement saying that discussions with Harry and Meghan are ongoing and “will take time to work through.”

In the press, there was no such brevity. The Daily Mail devoted 17 pages to the story. The Sun led its coverage with the front-page headline “MEGXIT,” which has become ubiquitous shorthand for Harry and Meghan’s break. In the royal-obsessed US, which devoured the news with glee, the New York Post led with the same headline, below a bizarre illustration of Harry and Meghan in stained undergarments, smoking and drinking PBR. On Twitter, pundits fumed. Piers Morgan called the couple “spoiled brats” and accused Meghan of cutting Harry’s balls off. In the Mail, Sarah Vine wrote that “the woke, somewhat humourless and very entitled Harry we see before us now is almost unrecognisable as the rumbustious fellow we knew and loved.”

ICYMI: Why the Left Can’t Stand The New York Times

As the coverage explained, Harry and Meghan aren’t divorcing their family as much as they’re divorcing the British press, or trying to. On their website, the couple expounded at length on the changes they’ll be making to their media relations. They will no longer participate in the “royal rota” system, the longstanding arrangement that pools royal coverage between Britain’s top newspapers; instead, they’ll prioritize giving access to “grassroots media organisations,” “young, up-and-coming journalists,” and “specialist media” with “cause-driven activities.” This is not, it’s safe to say, about giving aspiring reporters a leg up. Existing royal correspondents, Harry and Meghan’s website says, “are regarded internationally as credible sources”—a “misconception” that amplifies “frequent misreporting.” Copy that is filed accurately is “often edited or rewritten by media editorial teams to present false impressions.”

The announcement is a tipping point in a long-running war between Harry and Meghan and Britain’s press. They’ve had a tense relationship as long as Harry and Meghan have been together, and last October, things deteriorated further. Harry—whose mother, Princess Diana, was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 as paparazzi chased her—said he sees echoes of the media’s treatment of Diana in its treatment of Meghan. “My deepest fear is history repeating itself,” he said in a statement. “I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person.” Harry spoke out as Meghan launched legal action against the Mail on Sunday, which had published correspondence she’d sent to her estranged father; Meghan accuses the paper of misusing her private information, infringing her copyright, and breaching European data standards. (Europe has much tougher press rules than the US does.) Shortly afterward, Harry sued Rupert Murdoch’s News Group and the left-of-center Daily Mirror. On paper, that suit is unrelated to Meghan: it refers to historic malpractice by Britain’s tabloids, including the hacking of celebrities’ phones, that exploded in a massive scandal in 2011. (Amid public opprobrium, Murdoch shuttered the News of the World, his best-selling British tabloid.) In practice, it was meant to raise the stakes of Meghan-hunting.

And now the rupture. While right-wingers have decried Harry and Meghan’s selfishness—in Britain, you upset the Queen at your peril—some commentators have sympathized with the couple’s predicament. Writing in the New York Times, Afua Hirsch, a British journalist, argued that Meghan was the victim of systematic racist bullying by Britain’s press. “If the media paid more attention to Britain’s communities of color,” it wouldn’t have found Megxit so surprising, Hirsch wrote. “Ironically, by taking matters into their own hands, Harry and Meghan’s act of leaving—two fingers up at the racism of the British establishment—might be the most meaningful act of royal leadership I’m ever likely to see.” Elsewhere, Stig Abell, who led a British media watchdog, said that Harry and Meghan simply reached a logical conclusion: they don’t need a press that pushes them around. “They have their own outlets with vast reach, good-will established with the public, and have no good reason to play the game with the press,” he wrote. The royals-media relationship, he said, is “a hug that was always threatening to become an assault.”

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Journalists should be wary when powerful people try to escape scrutiny. As long as Harry and Meghan remain funded by public money—and it’s not yet clear how and when they’ll wean themselves off of it—coverage of their plans is justified. But as figureheads, their power is limited, and “scrutiny” isn’t the right word to describe most coverage they get. It’s often trivial—who in their right mind cares if Meghan puts her hands in her pockets?—and sometimes offensive; always, it’s absurdly overblown.

The royals—for all their obscene privilege and questionable usefulness—deserve to be treated with as much dignity as anyone else. When coverage falls short of that, it’s understandable that they’d seek an out. Whether Harry and Meghan will successfully evade the media is a different question, however. Judging by this latest bout of press obsession, they shouldn’t bank on it.

Below, more on Harry and Meghan:

  • A very public birth: Last May, following the birth of Archie, Harry and Meghan’s first child, CJR’s Amanda Darrach reported that the couple opened up after keeping much of their marriage off limits to the press. “When Harry brought Meghan Markle into the family, the couple demanded a new style of control over press and public access,” Darrach wrote. But after the birth, Harry called on the waiting media. “Abandoning the usual formality of royal birth announcements, he stood outside the castle stables and giggled with joy.”
  • Sussex Royal: Harry and Meghan made their latest announcement on a new website that builds on the “Sussex Royal” brand they’ve carved out for themselves, with the help of a new communications staff. Last year, the couple launched @SussexRoyal after Instagram took the handle away from its former owner—a Sussex-based fan of Reading soccer club, which is nicknamed the Royals.
  • Megxit v. Brexit: Remember Brexit? Britain’s departure from the European Union is coming up fast, but Boris Johnson’s crushing election win last month has taken the suspense out of the process and media interest has diminished as a result—even though questions remain over the terms of departure. Yesterday, Parliament comfortably approved the legislation needed to make Brexit happen. Today’s front pages are still dominated by Megxit, however. Metro says the couple should “HARRY UP AND GO.”
  • The rising Sun: The Murdoch-owned Sun, a leading exponent of royal obsession, just launched an online-only offshoot in the United States. Press Gazette has more.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Newsweek was first to report the assessment of US and Iraqi officials that the Ukrainian passenger jet downed near Tehran this week was shot down by Iran, probably by mistake. CBS News and other outlets quickly confirmed the reporting; later, the Times shared verified video appearing to show an Iranian missile hitting the plane. (Iran denies that a missile hit the plane.) When the incident happened, Iran was on high alert: it had just retaliated against the US killing of Qassem Suleimani, its top security official, by striking bases housing US troops in Iraq. For CJR, Andrew Lee Butters compiled a guide to navigating the Trump-Iran story as it develops. “It’s important to recognize that tropes demonizing Iran—as irrational, volatile, inherently violent—mask our responsibility for 40 years of conflict,” Butters writes.
  • The Post’s David Weigel spoke with communications staffers for four former Democratic presidential candidates—Jay Inslee, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Julián Castro—about the race, and coverage of it. They complained about the media’s obsessive focus on electability, polling, and ideological “lanes.” The “repetition of the importance of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had corrupted Democratic voters into believing that only a white man could beat Trump,” Sawyer Hackett, who worked for Castro’s campaign, said.
  • Despite mounting public criticism of its political-ad policies, Facebook confirmed yesterday that it won’t be changing much in 2020. Politicians will still be allowed to lie in paid posts and campaigns will still be allowed to target specific groups of voters using controversial “microtargeting” tools. Facebook did pledge more transparency and to give users more control over ads they see, but its critics slammed such steps as inadequate.
  • In a video posted to YouTube, Megyn Kelly discussed her reaction to Bombshell—the new movie about sexual harassment at Fox News—with her husband, Doug Brunt, and her former Fox colleagues Juliet Huddy, Rudi Bakhtiar, and Julie Zann. “It’s very surreal to see a story that involves you be told without you being able to tell it,” Huddy said.
  • Last week, Courtney Friel, formerly of Fox, said that Trump sexually propositioned her in 2010. After she made the allegation, Friel was absent from her weekend anchor duties on KTLA, a station in LA; a source told Molly Jong-Fast, of the Daily Beast, that the network questioned Friel’s “objectivity.” (KTLA did not respond to requests for comment.)
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Jacob Nelson and Patrick Ferrucci recap their research on the influence of foundation funding on nonprofit news. Such funding, Nelson and Ferrucci write, “is often premised on editorial influence, complicating efforts by journalists to maintain the firewall between news revenue and production.”
  • The Daily Tar Heel, the newspaper of the University of North Carolina, is suing the school’s board of governors. The paper says the university breached state transparency laws when it struck a secret deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that aims to propagate Confederate monuments and ideas of the old South. The university had given the group a Confederate statue, no longer on campus, and access to funds to preserve it.
  • And Bloomberg untangles the international PR campaign asserting the innocence of Marsha Lazareva, a Russian businesswoman accused of corruption in Kuwait. The campaign has involved “a fake protest, thousands of dollars in payments to some US opinion writers, misleading news reports, and a correspondent who may not exist.”

ICYMI: “If it were a relationship, we’d call it gaslighting, but it’s a profession, so we call it PR.”

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.