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Entertainment

Can Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Beat the British Tabloids?

The couple's plan to reject public funds has gotten the most attention, but their desire to separate from a portion of the British press is arguably the driving force of their recent moves.
January 16, 2020, 6:53pm
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Rag Time is a regular investigation into the stories you see in the tabloids, with the context you don’t.

Last fall, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex filmed a documentary for ITV while touring Africa as part of their royal duties. In interviews with journalist (and personal friend) Tom Bradby, the couple detailed the difficulties of royal life, calling out the ruthless (and often racist) coverage by the British tabloids. "When I first met my now-husband, my friends were really happy because I was so happy," Meghan Markle said. "But my British friends said to me: ‘I'm sure he's great. But you shouldn't do it because the British tabloids will destroy your life.'"

On that same trip, just days later, Prince Harry and Meghan announced that they were suing the Mail on Sunday (the print version of The Daily Mail) for, among other things, allegedly publishing a manipulated version of a private letter Meghan sent her father, Thomas Markle, in the lead up to her wedding. In a statement, Harry said the incident was part of a "long and disturbing pattern of behaviour by British tabloid media." He also compared Meghan's struggle with the tabloids to Princess Diana's: "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. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

Since the moment the press learned they were dating in 2016, Harry and Meghan have fought to change the seedy culture of the British tabloids, with little success. Now, with this lawsuit, and their monumental decision to "step back" from royal life, will they finally be able to escape the wrath of the Daily Mail?

Meghan and Harry's tabloid history

It would be an understatement to say the royal family has a complicated history with the British tabloids. But in the last two and a half years, no one in "The Firm" has seen more negative coverage than Meghan. When she was first reported to be dating Harry, the Daily Mail published a slew of racist stories about her mixed-race background, including an "exclusive" with the headline, "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed - so will he be dropping by for tea?"

The tenor of the tabloid coverage has not much improved since then, despite Harry's admonishment. In addition to running several interviews (some of them paid) with Meghan's father, Thomas Markle, and her antagonistic half-sister, Samantha Markle, the British tabloids found ways to criticize Meghan throughout her wedding-planning and pregnancy with baby Archie. This week, BuzzFeed compiled an especially helpful comparison of the tabloids' coverage of Meghan and the Duchess of Cambridge. Looking at headlines from The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Evening Standard, The Telegraph, The Times, and The Sun, a pattern becomes clear: Meghan has been criticized while Kate Middleton has been praised.

The tabloids have created scandals over everything from Meghan's apparent fondness for avocados to her habit of touching her belly while pregnant. (Meanwhile, an actual scandal involving William, Kate, and Kate's ex-friend Rose Hanbury has been brewing for about a year, and the British tabloids have all but abandoned it. Prince Andrew, too, has escaped with little punishment from the tabloids for his role in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.)

According to Harry and Meghan, this relentless negativity is what prompted them to file the Daily Mail lawsuit and contributed to their decision to step back from the royal family.

Cutting off the royal rota

Meghan's lawsuit against the Daily Mail may or may not be successful. This week, the outlet filed documents in London's High Court suggesting that the paper's defense will rely on testimony from Thomas Markle. Whether he will actually come testify remains to be seen—he hasn't made it to the U.K. yet, not even for Meghan and Harry's wedding—but that kind of spectacle is surely something Meghan and Harry would want to avoid. A media law expert told The Washington Post this week that Meghan is likely to win the case, at least on the copyright claim, but she may decide going to trial isn't worth it.

Aside from this legal proceeding, Meghan and Harry's most aggressive strategy to cut off the British tabloids has yet to be implemented. That would be removing themselves from the royal rota system, something they said they plan to do as they negotiate a new position for themselves within the royal family. On their new website, Meghan and Harry spend an entire page outlining their perspective on the rota and explaining why they will no longer participate in it. While their proposal to no longer receive specific palace funds has gotten the most attention by the public, this desire to separate from a specific portion of the British press is, one could argue, the driving force of their recent moves.

For those unfamiliar, the royal rota is a pool of reporters from seven U.K. publications that was set up 40 years ago to grant press access to royal engagements. Since Harry and Meghan plan to reject public funds and become financially independent in their new roles, they do not believe they should be subject to the rota system anymore. (I should note that details of this plan for "financial independence" have not been released, and nobody really knows how it will work in practice.) Harry and Meghan make a point to say that the rota system "predates the dramatic transformation of news reporting in the digital age" and that four of the seven outlets in the rota are tabloids (including The Daily Mail). According to their website, they plan to transition away from it this spring. Instead, they say they will "engage with grassroots media organizations and young, up-and-coming journalists" and "provide access to credible media outlets focused on objective news reporting to cover key moments and events." They will also share more on Instagram.

This may be the most effective way for Meghan and Harry to diminish the influence of tabloids like The Daily Mail and The Sun. But it could also make royal reporters even angrier and more prone to criticize the couple. At least, from Meghan and Harry's perspective, the tabloids won't be able to claim "exclusives" with quite so much frequency. By cutting off access, the public may stop viewing the Daily Mail and others as having some kind of insider's view on Sussex activities.

A new media strategy

Based on Meghan and Harry's stated plans and the personal media strategy that they have already started to employ, it seems to me that their goal is to be treated like regular A-list celebrities, not members of the royal family. By ending their participation in the rota system, they will no longer have to give preferential treatment to the British tabloids that have been unfair to them. Instead, they can pick and choose where to place their exclusives, just like Taylor Swift or the Clooneys. Most A-listers have their favorite tabloids and magazines and work with their publicists to get the best possible coverage in both. (The couple worked with Keleigh Thomas Morgan at the Hollywood PR firm Sunshine Sachs on a charity initiative this past fall.)

History suggests that Meghan and Harry will continue to leak stories to American tabloids like People and set up exclusives with glossies like British Vogue. It's even possible that their participation in the royal rota might end sooner than expected. On Thursday, Harry appeared at Buckingham Palace to host the Rugby 2021 World Cup draw. As Lainey Gossip reports, the only media outlets invited were members of the royal rota, which indicates that the Queen and the rest of the royal family plan to stick with the status quo. But according to Lainey, as soon as the rota reporters started asking Harry about the couple's decision to step back from the royal family, "he turned and left." This could be one of Harry's last official engagements with the rota present. Daily Mail royal reporter Rebecca English tweeted today that William and Kate, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, and Princess Anne will be stepping in to represent the royal family at another official engagement at Buckingham Palace on Monday. This is, apparently, "the new royal order."

Meghan, meanwhile, visited two woman-focused non-profits in Vancouver yesterday. She posed for a couple photos for social media, but she did not invite any members of the media to the engagements. The Daily Mail is not happy about it, but what can they do?