Did the media coverage of the Royal Family drama focus on the wrong issues?

It’s nothing new to point out how Meghan Markle has been on the receiving end of a lot of significant negative press attention, even before her and Prince Harry’s infamous interview with Oprah aired, early last month. However, media narratives regarding the interview and ensuing ‘royal drama’ have arguably failed to grasp the real issues at hand. Instead, a lion’s share of the coverage was directed towards largely irrelevant debates such as unsubstantiated bullying complaints against Meghan and Piers Morgan’s behaviour on Good Morning Britain.

This is to ignore the real issues Harry and Meghan brought up in their interview, experiences that are not specific to the aristocracy but are also prevalent in civilian British society. Namely, the couple’s discussion of racism within the Royal Family and the impact of media attention on mental health, both of which are currently hot-button issues considering the enduring significance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent anniversary of Caroline Flack’s suicide. It can therefore be seen that mainstream tabloids have been focusing on the wrong issues in their recent Royal Family coverage.

Members of the Royal Family have long been subject to intense media scrutiny, so the rampant press criticism of Meghan is not without precedent: Princess Diana, mother of William and Harry, is perhaps the most infamous example. The late princess faced near-constant press scrutiny, particularly following her husband Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall) and their subsequent divorce. Diana was also a frequent target of the paparazzi, ultimately dying in a 1997 Parisian car crash after being pursued by photographers on motorbikes.

Whilst it may therefore be concluded that constant media criticism is simply part and parcel of royal life, Meghan arguably had it worse than most. In February, the High Court ruled that the Mail on Sunday had breached Meghan’s privacy and copyright when they published a private letter written by Markle’s father two years earlier – indicative of the extent to which certain outlets have been willing to go in order to dig up dirt on her.

Attention has also been drawn to the difference in tone between coverage of Meghan Markle compared to that of her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton. One example can be found in Daily Mail headlines regarding Kate and Meghan’s respective pregnancies. In March 2018, shortly before the birth of Prince Louis, one headline praised how “tenderly [Kate] cradles her baby bump” in recently published photos, keeping a light tone and praising the princess for this display of intimacy.

However, by January 2019, despite being paired with identical images of Meghan with her hands on her pregnant stomach in the same way as Kate, headlines are far more probing. The Mail asks “why can’t [Meghan] keep her hands off her bump?,” taking it upon themselves to psychoanalyse whether the photos demonstrated Meghan’s “pride, vanity, acting” or whether she was trialling a “new age bonding technique.” These articles are representative of a range of inherently similar stories about Meghan and Kate taking on a different tone depending on who the subject was: others included debates about their clothing, efforts to trademark their names, and even their taste for avocados. This difference in tone proves that the Mail, as well as other tabloids such as Sun and the Express, are far harsher on Meghan than on other members of the Royal Family, such as Kate.

The front page of the Daily Mirror on March 9th of this year, two days after the Oprah interview aired, declared boldly that Harry and Meghan had prompted the “worst royal crisis in 85 years.” Tabloids’ insistence that Markle is the most destabilising force within the Royal Family are plainly ignorant when considering the now largely forgotten controversy regarding Prince Andrew’s brushings with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein – of which tabloid discussion quickly faded away in 2019 following Andrew’s embarrassing performance in a Newsnight interview. Far more headlines and column inches have been designated to Meghan’s supposedly ‘difficult’ behaviour than the alleged impropriety (and ongoing criminal investigation over in the US) of Prince Andrew, laying bare tabloids’ obsession with humbling the former. 

It’s therefore easy to understand why the “difficult environment” created by sections of the British press played a decisive role in the couple’s decision to step back from royal life. Indeed, Harry confessed in the Oprah interview that he couldn’t “imagine what it must have been like” for his mother to endure unrelenting criticism, noting that his “biggest concern was history repeating itself” in the case of Meghan. 

It may also be argued that grievances lodged by Harry and Meghan in their Oprah interview, such as those surrounding the Royal Family’s attitude to race and the impact of the media on their mental health, were unjustly ignored in mainstream tabloid narratives. Instead, press attention was essentially concentrated on ‘drama’ instead of the bigger issues. Shortly before the interview aired, reports originating in the Times that two of Meghan’s personal assistants had quit their roles over alleged bullying received significant tabloid coverage. Although a spokesman for Markle dismissed the claims as just the “latest attack on her character,” the sheer volume of articles discussing these complaints overshadowed the arguably more important content of the interview itself.

Harry and Meghan’s relevant experiences were also overshadowed by the behaviour of Piers Morgan. Morgan spent much of the March 8th and 9th editions of ITV’s Good Morning Britain arguing with guests and colleagues about the aforementioned Oprah special – culminating in a walk-off on the March 9th show after a heated exchange with Alex Beresford. It was confirmed on the same day that Morgan would not return to the programme. His behaviour prompted nearly 60,000 complaints to media regulator Ofcom, including one from the Duchess of Sussex herself, and again attracted a large amount of media coverage. Swathes of news outlets speculated Piers Morgan’s future, many remarked how the tens of thousands of complaints to Ofcom had broken the all-time record, and some took the opportunity to bemoan how Morgan had fallen victim to “cancel culture.” This is yet another example of tabloid papers’ preference for covering what is essentially just drama before the real issues of race and mental health brought up by Harry and Meghan in their interview.

Piers Morgan walks off GMB as Alex Beresford brands his behaviour  'diabolical' in wake of Meghan and Harry interview | ITV News

Pictured: Piers Morgan (left) walks off the set of Good Morning Britain after a heated exchange with co-host Alex Beresford (right) regarding the former’s comments about Meghan Markle on the show. Image credit: ITV

It should be critically considered whether or not aforementioned tabloid coverage of the recent Royal Family ‘crisis’ is actually relevant to the mainstream audience, or even newsworthy at all. In the midst of a global pandemic and growing international economic hardship, is this kind of low-substance drama truly a priority?

What’s most disappointing is that tabloid narratives surrounding Harry and Meghan’s interview represent a wasted opportunity. We could have had a national conversation about whether Harry and Meghan’s experience represents those of mixed-race couples in Britain at large, or we could have discussed the impact of press scrutiny on mental health. Instead, we focused on the many exploits of Piers Morgan – losing sight of what was important.
Finally, is the public, rather than the tabloids, at fault for the unrelenting media criticism of Meghan Markle? Although post-interview surveys have suggested Britons aged 18-24 are more likely to sympathise with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the population as a whole now have an overall negative view of the couple. YouGov data suggests the Duchess of Sussex enjoyed a net positive approval rating until the start of 2020, remaining markedly negative ever since. As such, those who dislike Markle clearly make up an ever-growing share of the news market, meaning that tabloids critical of her may well simply be responding to demand. This suggests that unfair newspaper criticism of Meghan cannot simply be chalked up to press vendettas, and that public sentiment is partly responsible too.

Header image credit: CBS