The Media Today

No Megxit

March 4, 2021

Last night, CBS teased a thirty-second clip from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, who dramatically quit—or “Megxited”—Britain’s royal family a year and six pandemic lifetimes ago. “How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” Winfrey asked Meghan, across a table and potted plant on the grounds of a friend’s mansion (not Winfrey’s or Meghan’s mansion, as had been speculated). “I don’t know how they could expect that after all this time, we would still just be silent if there is an active role that The Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us,” Meghan said, referring to the royal family, not the Tom Cruise movie. “If that comes with risk of losing things, I mean, there’s a lot that’s been lost already.” The full interview will air on Sunday, at 8pm Eastern. Already, the teasers have been turned into an avalanche of stories. Familiar battle lines—Meghan v. the palace v. the press—are being drawn again, and everyone, from the philosopher A.C. Grayling to the former tennis star Chris Evert, is suddenly a media critic.

The pre-Oprah waters were roiled spectacularly on Tuesday, when Valentine Low, of The Times of London, dropped a damning exposé/blatant hit piece, depending on your outlook, alleging a senior royal adviser filed a complaint against Meghan, in 2018, after staffers accused her of bullying; royal aides, Low wrote, contacted The Times “because they felt that only a partial version had emerged of Meghan’s two years as a working member of the royal family and they wished to tell their side.” The piece contained various other damaging claims, including that Meghan wore earrings gifted to her by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a formal dinner that took place just three weeks after state assassins killed the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The official response from Harry and Meghan’s camp was, arguably, more newsworthy than the allegations—the couple’s spokesperson called the story “a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful misinformation”; their lawyers said that The Times had been “used by Buckingham Palace to peddle a wholly false narrative” ahead of the Winfrey interview. The palace declined to comment to The Times, but said yesterday, in a statement, that it was “clearly very concerned” by the bullying allegations, and will investigate. (Yesterday, her supporters online contrasted this stance with the palace’s treatment of Prince Andrew, who stands accused of child sex abuse, and Andrew’s name trended on Twitter.)

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The public rowing is both not at all surprising and also highly unusual. The palace does not tend to put out such statements, and it’s been a long time since Harry and Meghan sat down for a joint TV interview. The Mail reported this week that the Oprah interview has been in the works since 2019, when Meghan tried—after the birth of her son and several months prior to Megxit—to organize a sitdown with Winfrey’s close friend Gayle King, of CBS, but was blocked by royal press staffers who feared the interview would “alienate the UK press.” That horse, of course, had long bolted the royal stables. If anything, the UK press—and its right-wing tabloids and TV motormouths, in particular—had already been working for years to alienate Meghan, subjecting her to invasive faux scrutiny and routinely racist coverage (as BuzzFeed’s Ellie Hall brilliantly demonstrated by juxtaposing tabloid headlines that alternately scolded Meghan and praised Kate Middleton, the wife of Prince William, for identical conduct). In 2019, Harry spoke out forcefully against the media, likening its treatment of his wife to its harassment of his mother, Princess Diana, who was killed in a car crash in Paris, in 1997, as paparazzi gave chase. When they Megxited last year, Harry and Meghan were effectively divorcing the press as much as their inlaws; they dropped out of the pool system for royal coverage, slammed royal correspondents and their editors as purveyors of misinformation, and pledged to engage only on their own terms in future. Not that that has stanched negative coverage. Last month, after Meghan announced that she is pregnant, tabloids mostly managed to be nice about it—the Mail called the news “MEGnificent”—but the Daily Star published her pregnancy photo with her eyes blacked out, above the headline, “Publicity-Shy Woman Tells 7.67 Billion People: I’m Pregnant.”

This was a reference to a high-profile lawsuit that was resolved days before the announcement. In 2019, Meghan sued Associated Newspapers, which owns the Mail on Sunday, over its publication of a private letter that she sent to her father. (This was one of a number of suits the couple has filed against news organizations; around the same time, Harry sued Rupert Murdoch’s News Group and the left-wing Daily Mirror in connection with historic allegations of phone hacking.) Last month, a judge ruled that Associated Newspapers had breached Meghan’s privacy and copyright (a third claim, of data-protection violations, was not resolved). Meghan hailed the ruling as a victory over “illegal and dehumanizing” journalism and for privacy, generally; “We have all won,” she said. (Associated Newspapers, naturally, does not feel this way; the judge denied the company permission to appeal, though it can appeal that denial.) This week, the judge granted Meghan an initial payment, totaling more than six-hundred-thousand dollars, on her legal costs. She also wants a front-page apology and the destruction of copies of her letter.

The recent judgment in Markle’s case preempted a full-blown trial, which, needless to say, would have been grounds for an unrestrained media circus. Still, we’ll always have the Oprah interview. The British network ITV is set to air the sitdown in the UK on Monday night, the day after it appears on CBS in the US, though the broadcast could be shelved should the condition of Prince Philip, the Queen’s ninety-nine-year-old husband, who was recently hospitalized, deteriorate—or so tabloid scuttlebutt has it. (“I don’t imagine CBS will care,” one insider told the Express, “but ITV won’t be able to broadcast it.”) Long-standing Meghan critics have already wielded Philip’s health as a cudgel against the interview: “The new clip from Oprah’s whine-athon with the Sussexes shows Meghan Markle directly calling the Queen and Prince Philip liars,” Piers Morgan tweeted, “and she’s done this as Philip lies seriously ill in hospital. It’s an absolute disgrace.” It was Philip, of course, who coined the phrase “The Firm.” This morning, we learned that he has undergone a successful heart operation; whatever happens, British royal obsessives won’t need to wait for the ITV broadcast to find out what Meghan said, since the headlines will be unavoidable. Hell is other people, and also the twenty-four-hour news cycle.

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Below, more on the royals:

  • “Manacles on the media”: While the judge in Meghan’s recent case ruled that Associated Newspapers violated her copyright in the letter, he also expressed doubt as to whether that copyright was hers alone, since a royal communications aide may have helped her write it; the judge called for a mini-trial to resolve the issue. Following the broader ruling, media watchers expressed concern about the precedent it might set. “You are putting manacles on the media,” Mark Stephens, a lawyer who specializes in reputation management, told The Guardian. “What you have is a situation where any letter that is leaked to a journalist cannot be published under the terms of this judgment. And it is unclear when public interest comes in to allow you to publish.”
  • Six of one?: Recently, Marina Hyde, a columnist at The Guardian, made the case that whatever you think of Harry and Meghan, the couple’s critics in the British press are worse. “Naturally you can see why some small-pond UK pundits simply can’t handle the Sussexes’ move to America. It’s a horrendous moment when you realise your competition for royal stories and interviews is no longer some necrotic dipsomaniac on a rival tabloid, but Oprah,” Hyde writes. “Much UK media reaction to Meghan and Harry reeks of this gathering powerlessness.”
  • Uneasy lies: Last week, Harry gave his first TV interview since leaving the UK to James Corden, the British comedian and host of The Late Late Show on CBS. Among other topics, Harry shared his reaction to The Crown, the royal drama that has been criticized by many British conservatives for its supposed inaccuracies. Britain’s culture minister went as far as to suggest that Netflix should explicitly label the show as fiction, for fear that “a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact,” but Harry disagrees. “They don’t pretend to be news,” he told Corden, adding “I am way more comfortable with The Crown than I am seeing the stories written about my family, my wife, or myself.”
  • Breaking this morning: Police in London ruled out opening a criminal investigation of Martin Bashir, a BBC journalist who landed a controversial interview with Princess Diana in 1995. Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, has alleged that Bashir used faked documents to land the interview, and urged an investigation, but officers said they were advised that such a path would not be “appropriate.” (The BBC previously apologized for the faked documents, but insisted that they did not influence Diana’s decision to talk to Bashir.)

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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.