The response to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s unprecedented lawsuit has been mostly positive, with the exception of some disappointing social media backlash. But there’s a dark subtext to some of those Twitter comments…
Imagine an octopus, eight legs and all, trying to play a game of Twister with itself. That’s the best way to comprehend the relationship between the royal family and the press.
Kings and Queens of England have always needed the media to serve as their mouthpiece. Newspapers, radio, television and, now, social media, forms the conduit through which the royal family’s messages about their work are shared to the world. But the fourth estate is its own beast, an industry that prides itself on objectivity and truthfulness. It can’t be controlled – this is where the octopus and all those twisted, tangled eight legs comes into play. The press won’t merely report on what the royal family tells it to. It wants to tell the stories that are in what it believes to be the public’s interest.
Because of these competing objectives, the press and the royal family have often come to blows, most frequently in more recent decades. Usually, the royal family will stay silent on any conjecture and gossip printed in the media. (A notable and necessary exception was the royal family’s commentary on reports about the nature of the friendship between Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein.)
Sometimes, they will hit back – as Prince Harry did when he first began dating Meghan Markle in 2016, asking the media to give the new couple their deserved space. Very occasionally they will recourse to legal action, as the Queen has done when she sued The Sun (for printing the contents of her Christmas speech) and as Kate Middleton did when she sued tabloids for publishing images of her sunbathing topless in France.
Last night, Prince Harry wrote an impassioned, explosive statement on his and wife Meghan’s website detailing the Duchess of Sussex’s intention to file legal proceedings against the Mail on Sunday and its parent company for publishing and, reportedly manipulating, a private letter.
“There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behaviour, because it destroys people and destroys lives,” Harry wrote in his statement. “Put simply, it is bullying, which scares and silences people. We all know this isn’t acceptable, at any level. We won’t and can’t believe in a world where there is no accountability for this.”
On the whole, the response to Harry’s statement has been positive. Celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Jameela Jamil and Matt Haig have shared their support for Harry and Meghan’s move. But there have been some, including notable Meghan Markle troll Piers Morgan who have criticised the lawsuit.
“I’ve never read a more savage attack on the press than this one by Harry/Meghan,” Morgan wrote on Twitter. “Nor a more disingenuous one. They’ve had the praise and criticism their behaviour has warranted. They talk of bullying but this is their attempt to bully the press into fawning sycophancy.”
Morgan’s comments have been echoed by some on social media – the dank and swampy corner of the culture where, outside the tabloids, the majority of Meghan abuse has thrived. (A study released in March noted that some of the 5,600 abusive and racist messages shared about Meghan were posted from just 20 accounts.)
“If the Sussexes can’t stand the heat in the kitchen, they are more than welcome to leave,” one Twitter user wrote in response to Harry’s statement. “Princess Bea gets engaged, the Markles don’t get any attention that day so they sue the media,” another wrote, perhaps forgetting that the couple is in the middle of a highly-publicised royal tour in South Africa. “Harry and Meghan are really negatively affecting the royal family image,” wrote another. “This lawsuit against [the Mail on Sunday] is silly and just about their ego!”
Nobody, not even members of the royal family, is above criticism in the media. But what these responses to Meghan and Harry’s statement prove is that some corners of the public steadfastly refuse to take the couple’s words at face value. Meghan and Harry have repeatedly – breaking with tradition – detailed how spurious tabloid coverage impacts their mental health. They have made their feelings clear about how dangerous they find some strains of tabloid coverage. Anyone who now downplays the impact of that media coverage or continues to say that Harry and Meghan need to ‘toughen up’ is gaslighting them. Plain and simple.
Celebrities or public figures who complain about press intrusion are always, always met with this kind of response. You signed up for it, people say, you wanted to be rich and famous. With this great power comes the great responsibility of exposing the underbelly of your life for all to see.
But just because this is the way it has always been doesn’t mean that this is the way it should be. In recent years we have finally witnessed the dismantling of dangerous tabloid media culture that conceives of the lives of celebrities as their gleeful playground.
You might remember in February 2018 that Hugh Grant settled his lawsuit against the Mirror Group newspapers for a reported six figure sum. The actor was suing for damages after his phone was hacked between the years 1998 and 2009 by newspapers under the editorship of Piers Morgan (remember him?) and Richard Wallace at the Daily Mirror and Tina Weaver at the Sunday Mirror.
It was not Grant’s first suit against a newspaper. In 2011 he took legal action against News of the World for hacking his phone and won. More than 40 celebrities, including Steve Coogan and Sadie Frost have settled claims against media companies for having their phones hacked.
Elsewhere in the world, celebrities including Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and Rebel Wilson have all sued tabloid media for defamation. Cruise settled for an undisclosed sum; Wilson and Jolie and Pitt won their cases.
Yes, in the past those in the public eye have had to grit their teeth and bare the ignomy of press intrusion. But that was then and this is now. As Harry himself noted in this statement, we live in a world of the endless 24/7 news cycle. As private citizens we are mere tourists in this news cycle; public figures live in it.
“Though we have continued to put on a brave face – as so many of you can relate to – I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been,” Harry wrote in his statement. No other occupation in the world requires its employees to withstand lies simply because it is part of the job description. So why do we ask it of celebrities?
There will be some who believe that this lawsuit is an attack on press freedoms and the freedom of speech. This argument doesn’t wash, just as how the argument that celebrities deserve to have their privacy invaded because their lives are ours for the raking doesn’t wash. The kind of press freedoms that Meghan’s lawsuit is attacking is the press freedom to, as Harry put it, “purposely misle[a]d you by strategically omitting select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year.”
If, as Meghan’s lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday claims, this media group has published “false and deliberately derogatory stories” about her and Prince Harry, then why do they deserve their press freedoms protected in the first place? (The Mail on Sunday have denied any wrongdoing in a statement that reads: “The Mail on Sunday stands by the story it published and will be defending this case vigorously. Specifically, we categorically deny that the Duchess’s letter was edited in any way that changed its meaning.”)
No one among us is labouring under the misapprehension that this lawsuit will end the tabloid tirade and the online abuse against Meghan and Prince Harry. A statement from the royal family earlier this year couldn’t end the online abuse against them. Harry begging the press to leave them alone in 2016 couldn’t end the tabloid obsession with them. There’s a very real chance that this lawsuit will, as Harry’s statement predicts, only exacerbate the tabloid media’s fixation with the royal couple.
If that happens, well, that’s on the media and not on Meghan and Harry. The Sussexes have made their position about the tenor of this particular vein of media coverage blisteringly clear. They find it “painful”; it is causing them “private suffering”. Harry even likened the treatment of Meghan to the treatment of his mother Diana. “My deepest fear is history repeating itself,” he wrote. “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.”
Harry and Meghan believe that this kind of “destructive” reportage is abusive. They are willing to put their money where their mouth is and sue any publication that continues to write about them in this manner. Now, anyone who tells them to get over themselves and grin and bear it isn’t just contributing to this cycle of abuse. They’re gaslighting them.