Royal Households “Briefing Against” One Another

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I’ve danced around writing this post for ages now because it always feels like a massive undertaking and frankly it’s a narrative that we’re still seeing play out with the recent Netflix documentary and Sussex memoir. But now feels like a good a time as any to at least try and get this ball rolling, so here we go.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to unravel the various threads of what comprises the Sussexes’ grievances. In my mind, there are three:

  • The British tabloids are unregulated, dishonest, and perpetuate sexism and racism.
  • Palace staff, at the direction of members of the Royal Family, not only failed to protect The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their respective tenures as working royals from negative press, but actively worked against them.
  • Harry feels betrayed by King Charles III and The Prince of Wales after a lifetime of feeling let down or held back by them.

As you can see, the issues become increasing personal. And as we’ve seen for the last few years, they are deeply interrelated for Harry. Had Harry approached his departure focused solely on the first – that the nature of the media coverage of him and his wife was intolerable, pursued whatever litigation he so chose, and quietly established their charitable foundation – it wouldn’t have dismantled criticism, but it would have kept them in roughly the same place they were when they left the UK, with the possibility of earning back some credibility.

This, of course, was never the goal – the Sussexes want to be royal, but only according to their version of what is fair. Which, now that we’ve seen some of Spare (I have started, but by no means finished), would be impossible because one foundational issue – if not the crux of the matter – is that Harry resents William’s primacy in the hierarchy.

This dynamic was actually becoming more visible back in 2018 and 2019 and it was one I disregarded because I found it implausible. If you and I can understand the basic function of the Royal Family – to support the sovereign, who is de facto, the eldest son (now child) of the eldest son, and so on – then how it is possible that Harry, born into the institution, hasn’t grasped not only that basic fact, but also its implications? Of course it’s not “fair” by any other family’s definition, but that’s where the public service and publicly funded lifestyle come in.

So, back to our bullets. Let’s start with the first. I have said this before and I will say it again – yes, I do believe that racism played a role in some of the commentary leveled at Meghan. I also don’t believe that racism was the primary driver behind the majority of the criticism leveled against her. That element of racism is also hard to separate out from the “outsider marries into royalty” narrative and run-of-the-mill sexism that is leveled against all women who marry into the Royal Family, hence the fraught comparisons to how Meghan was treated as compared to The Princess of Wales and Queen Camilla, to name but two.

Multiple things can be true at once: The Palace should have intervened more, and the Palace was probably correct in their assessment that the news cycle on Meghan would have evolved with time and space. What all royal women put up with from the press is unfair and the press absolutely have the right to question, criticize, and follow public interest when it comes to the Royal Family. Each individual royal has the right to maintain a private life and each individual royal also has a responsibility to accept that public interest goes hand in hand with the financial and social perks of the life they are living.

In a nutshell, you have the divide between how Harry looks at what’s happened and how many inside and outside of the “institution” view it. The only difference is that I think many within the family and on staff are willing to acknowledge how difficult the reality of living within those confines are. Harry, as far as I can tell, remains insistent that something uniquely terrible happened to him and his wife. That is, of course, subjective, but we’ll get there.

What’s fascinating about the initial leaks from Spare is that Harry has confirmed what the primary criticisms of and rumors about Meghan were:

  • That Meghan was known for being rude and abrasive to staff is confirmed by the “physical altercation” anecdote between William and Harry at Nottingham Cottage. The part glossed over is that William’s visit stemmed from his fury at reports Meghan was bullying Palace staff, particularly women and junior staffers. In the book, Harry reportedly chalks this up to William believing the press narrative, but we know that’s not true from what was disclosed during the Mail on Sunday lawsuit. A paper trail of HR complaints against Meghan very much existed. That was reaching the press, yes, but it was the actual content of those complaints which angered William.
  • The falling out between Meghan and Catherine didn’t come down only to the latter’s unfriendliness. Instead, there were moments in their relationship in which Catherine felt offended by Meghan, whatever Meghan’s intentions were. So, at best, there were grievances on both sides. Even more, the tensions that the press were reporting by the end of 2018 on the divide in the “fab four” wasn’t made up – it was happening.
  • There were culture clashes between Meghan and members of the family and staff. Separate and apart from “incidents,” there was a very real fish out of the water narrative playing out in real life.  

Other major negative stories about Meghan that I’ve not yet seen the Spare version of include the couple’s holidays via private jet in Europe while espousing strict environmentalism, the tone of British Vogue, Meghan’s reported behavior at Wimbledon in the summer of 2019, and how the couple handled Archie’s birth and christening. To be fair, the last issue has been touched on by Oprah and Netflix at this point, but the narratives – once again – were conflicting.

My point being, literally any royal couple would have been criticized for these things. The issue was neither Meghan’s race nor her nationality nor her gender. The issue was the behavior the couple was engaging in, all at once, in a very concentrated period of time while not undertaking very many public duties. However you may feel about each isolated event, thematically related charges have been leveled at most Windsors at some point – privacy, hypocrisy, laziness, tone deafness, etc.

According to Harry, the x-factor here is racism. That the sheer volume of negative press and the abuse on social media came down to, at best, unconscious bias and, at worst, all out racism. Again, I won’t discount that was there. Or that perhaps the vitriol and strong opinions elicited by Meghan and the above incidents/behavior were fortified by some element of prejudice. But I view that then as more of an issue with the public than with the media or the Royal Family itself.

If negative articles on Meghan weren’t driving clicks, comments, and shares, the editors – who I don’t believe are sitting in newsrooms across the UK with a unified racist agenda – wouldn’t be commissioning the stories. Are they, however, guilty of appealing to the lowest common denominator? Maybe. Sometimes. And other times were they reporting very real stories from very real sources willing to say negative things? Yes. On this point, unfortunately, we know that to be the case based on the evidence provided even by the Sussexes themselves at this point.

Finally, there is the fact that we are still – at least as far as I’ve gotten – ignoring the role of social media. Take, for example, an article on Meghan closing her own car door that ran in one tabloid years ago. If memory serves, she was compared to other royal women who typically allow it to be closed for them and immediately begin shaking hands. The article itself was, as I recall, fairly innocuous – a dumb article just highlighting the overarching narrative that Meghan was American, independent, and maybe a bit of “fresh air.” Social media, on the other hand, ran with it – some of it positive and a lot of it negative. So, yes, it’s ridiculous that a grown woman is being lambasted for closing her own door as if that’s an example of breaking “protocol” (particularly when other royal women *have* done the same thing), but that hyperbolic vitriol never came from the royal rota. It came from the cesspool that is royal Twitter.

And the Royal Family, who clearly took at least some issue with Meghan’s behavior behind the scenes, whether on behalf of their staff, themselves, or the Queen who they believed Harry and Meghan were disrespecting/undermining as they approached their departure, are reading negative articles that apparently align with what they’ve seen and heard. What are they supposed to do? According to Harry, “tell the truth,” – but what’s the truth? We’ve still only heard one version of it.

According to a few royal reporters who were interacting with Kensington Palace and then Buckingham Palace during the Sussex years, the press staffs *were* doing their job. They were pushing back when needed and offering just as much of a defensive play on Meghan’s behalf as they would have for Catherine. Still other royal reporters have rebutted claims by Harry that when they called up Clarence House (Charles & Camilla) or Kensington Palace (William & Catherine), they were offered a negative story on Harry and Meghan in exchange for ignoring a negative story on other senior royals.

Harry makes two primary arguments on this front: 1) Palace staff was willing to lie for members of his family, but not tell the truth for him and his wife; and 2) William and Camilla, specifically, oversaw the placement of negative stories about Meghan and him.

In the case of the first, let’s use the bridesmaid example where, if we accept the Spare version of events, the initial reporting was wholly false. And then let’s compare that to another article later on in which Catherine was accused of getting Botox and the Palace intervened to say it was false. There’s a key difference there – 1) the issue with the Botox story was that Catherine’s name was being used to promote a specific service, very different from a speculative article on whether she gets “work” done (she almost certainly has and does) and 2) the bridesmaids story spoke to family dynamics that were already under a microscope. A more generous reading of the staffs’ point of view is that they are taking the very same approach they are taking right now – keep your head down and it will blow over. Because the story is rather stupid.

The second is hard to prove or disprove except to take the word of royal reporters, who take offense at that. Thus far, the Palace hasn’t chimed in and it’s unlikely they will. Dickie Arbiter, a former journalist and press spokesman for Queen Elizabeth from 1988-2000, has stated unequivocally he didn’t see or participate in this practice when he worked at Buckingham Palace. A former member of Clarence House staff who worked directly with Camilla says the same. That’s the actual evidence at hand to-date – unless Spare offers more concrete details. Even Omid Scobie, a Sussex defender if ever there was one, says that Harry’s sense of how sources and reporting work is overly simplistic.

As for Camilla, Harry’s argument is that she went on a massive PR campaign to become the King’s second wife and that he and William were used to bolster her public appeal. We actually do know that there was a massive PR campaign on her behalf, but it was orchestrated by King Charles and Mark Bolland, who served as his deputy private secretary from 1997 – 2002. And there’s a very fair argument to be made that those two men saw the boys’ perceived acceptance of Camilla as key to her having any future with Charles and leveraged that without their buy-in.

The idea, however, that Camilla was spearheading this on her own is ludicrous. That Harry puts that responsibility on her sounds to me like “Diana’s son” speaking, a moniker we are well-aware he is trying his best to solidify. In Spare, he accuses Camilla of leaking private details of their first meeting to the media because there were only two of them and he didn’t say anything. Now, even without any additional commentary this would be easy to rubbish because people talk. Which, apparently, is exactly what happened, per Robert Hardman:

“I well remember the chronology of that story because it remains a classic example of cock-up over conspiracy. It also contradicts Harry’s overarching excuse for writing this book, one to which he returned time and again during last night’s ITV interview: that the Palace and the Press were, and are, in each other’s pockets. In this instance, Mrs Parker Bowles was utterly mortified when the story of her encounter appeared in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun. The only person to whom she had spoken about it was her personal assistant. However, the assistant had then subsequently mentioned it to her own husband in confidence. He had then let it slip during a game of tennis with someone who had business dealings with the Murdoch empire. This all came to light when the private secretary did the honourable thing and immediately resigned.”

And what’s interesting about this is that Harry insists he wants his family to treat him like family. But clearly, he’s never raised this with his stepmother himself. Instead, he waited until his 8-figure book deal. So, is it a family or is it a business?

As for the William of it all, I’m going to save a deeper dive into their relationship for another time as I keep working my way through the memoir.

6 thoughts on “Royal Households “Briefing Against” One Another

    1. Having lunch with journalists doesn’t equal briefing against your stepson. Much in the same way directing your comms staff to participate with a positive book on you doesn’t make you a monster. It works both ways. But nice try.

    2. MSW

      Thank you for the sane evaluation of a very sad situation. I know I can always count on you for a fair, balanced, and mature response.

  1. one thought about something – the bullying. Jason seems to always refer to one girl. I’m really thinking this was cultural. American versus English. And I also think Meghan wasn’t allowed to hire her staff she was given staff and felt they were incompetent or did not trust them. Either one would be hard to a 38 year old woman who was independent, had run her own life, her own business and was treated like a 18 year old Diana. God I feel so sorry for her.

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