In November 2016 Kensington Palace issued a press release on Prince Harry’s behalf lambasting media outlets and online forums for the “racial undertones” and “outright sexism” of comments regarding his then-rumored relationship with American actress, Meghan Markle. The press release listed out the harassment that Markle and her family had endured, “nightly legal battles” to stop “defamatory” stories, and made a direct ask to the press to “reflect before any more damage is done.”
The statement also confirmed the existence of the relationship itself.
The release reads as indignant and desperate. And I say desperate not to insult it, but as an acknowledgment that to issue a statement like this must have been seen as a last resort – the only (effective) option left.
I have written many press releases in my life, I have never begun one with, “Since he was young…”
It’s an emotional plea, meant to appeal to sympathies and shame those that have partaken in the actions laid out. It is placing trust in the relationship that members of the royal family have with the public by virtue of having been famous since birth. Part of the power and appeal of the royal family is that the public grows with them; at some point, every generation watches the next grow up. To some, Prince Harry is a peer public figure (indeed, he’s older than me), while to other he’s Diana’s son, and a young man they have “known” since birth. That tie is powerful – and it’s one that the Palace used here as leverage.
That’s not a criticism, but a statement of fact. And it’s unprecedented.
Prince William never “confirmed” his relationship with Kate Middleton – though, granted, at some point he didn’t have to. After a nearly decade-long relationship, many people had never heard Kate’s voice until the couple sat down for an engagement interview in November 2010. She and her family have been hounded by the media since she graduated from University in 2005. She has been labelled lazy, a social-climber, boring and too “middle class” to marry William – and through all of it, nary a peep from Kate or William to the public (I am not counting legal complaints because, while reported, they weren’t a direct communication with the public.) And let’s never forget the snobbish reporting from British outlets, citing sources “close” to the Prince, that Kate had been mocked for her family’s social standing or her mother’s former employment as an airline hostess during their breakup in 2007.
Their response was their actions, or lack thereof. And that was the norm.
Compare this to Princess Margaret’s dutiful statement when she gave up Peter Townsend to remain an active member of the royal family in 1955. Or when Edward VIII referenced the woman he “loved” during his abdication speech in 1936. Shocking for their times. Compare this to the Queen, who has never given an interview. The counterpoint is literally anything done by the Wales’s or the York’s in the 1990s. There’s a reason that, hitherto, reticence has won out and been accepted standard procedure. That’s not to say it’s the right call for today’s younger generation, but that context and precedent is important to fully understanding the magnitude of this statement.
KP’s November press release started a firestorm in the media, most of it defensive. Traditional, respected British outlets – they claimed – weren’t responsible for the racist and sexist rhetoric used on online forums, nor were they responsible for comments sections. And to a certain extent, that’s true.
The second news cycle brought the opinion pieces – what was Prince Harry’s goal? What was the Palace’s end game? Because once you’ve gone out on a ledge, you’re on the ledge. That statement turned the full glare (and a glare it has been) on Harry and Markle – since then, Harry was dragged across the coals for flying back from a royal tour abroad to visit his girlfriend in Toronto, while she, once active on Instagram, has been markedly quieter. And in a way, she has to be – can you imagine what would have happened in Kate had been posting cryptic messages to William in their post-University days? I think the Daily Mail would have imploded.
But none of that is really the crux of the issue – that direct appeal to the public was aggressive, but not just on Markle’s behalf. The releasing of that statement was to essentially go over the press’s heads to their readers; it cut out that middle man. That’s why the media is angry, really. That’s why William and Kate have begun garnering more and more criticism in the last 18 months.
They’re engaging the public when they want and how they want, essentially because they think they can. All three are enormously popular. Save the Queen herself, they are the most popular members of the House of Windsor. William and Harry are their beloved mother’s sons; they are reasonably young and handsome; Kate is beautiful and looks great in clothes; there is an adorable new generation to watch.
But it’s begging the question of: Can they do this? Are they allowed to do this?
I don’t think we know the answer yet. Today, the royal family is beholden to traditional media to be effective, and so it’s a balancing act between the modernity and normalcy of social media, while respecting the position of the press corps. Royal reports aren’t going away – they can’t. Their job, like all journalists covering any beat, is to provide a check, put actions in context and ensure that there are “eyes on.”
So you either develop a healthy, working relationship with them, or you can declare war. But that war doesn’t end with snarky headlines about end-of-year engagement numbers, criticism of last-minute trips to Toronto or unflattering photos – that’s the beginning.
The defense of the press’s position here isn’t a defense of racism, sexism or harassment. It’s acknowledging that lumping all of those claims together – online comments, paparazzi and Internet trolls with mainstream media outlets – speaks to a primal fear and basic misunderstanding. You may believe the media is your enemy, but there’s a reason Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy.”
And if you ask for respect, you had better be prepared to give it.
The full text of the Kensington Palace press release:
Since he was young, Prince Harry has been very aware of the warmth that has been extended to him by members of the public. He feels lucky to have so many people supporting him and knows what a fortunate and privileged life he leads.
He is also aware that there is significant curiosity about his private life. He has never been comfortable with this, but he has tried to develop a thick skin about the level of media interest that comes with it. He has rarely taken formal action on the very regular publication of fictional stories that are written about him and he has worked hard to develop a professional relationship with the media, focused on his work and the issues he cares about.
But the past week has seen a line crossed. His girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public – the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments. Some of it has been hidden from the public – the nightly legal battles to keep defamatory stories out of papers; her mother having to struggle past photographers in order to get to her front door; the attempts of reporters and photographers to gain illegal entry to her home and the calls to police that followed; the substantial bribes offered by papers to her ex-boyfriend; the bombardment of nearly every friend, co-worker, and loved one in her life.
Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her. It is not right that a few months into a relationship with him that Ms. Markle should be subjected to such a storm. He knows commentators will say this is ‘the price she has to pay’ and that ‘this is all part of the game’. He strongly disagrees. This is not a game – it is her life and his.
He has asked for this statement to be issued in the hopes that those in the press who have been driving this story can pause and reflect before any further damage is done. He knows that it is unusual to issue a statement like this, but hopes that fair-minded people will understand why he has felt it necessary to speak publicly.