The Character Assassination of Meghan Markle
As the tabloids speculate that a newly-announced autobiography of Prince Harry will really have been written by his wife, Richard Sanders sheds light on a 21st Century tale of racism, class and misogyny
I’ve had the peculiar experience over the past few years of making two films on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – When Harry Met Meghan, for Channel 4 in 2017; and Harry and William: What Went Wrong?, broadcast on ITV this month. Two snapshots, four years apart, of a story that unfolded with a hideous inevitability.
For the first, I took the trouble to get to ‘know’ Meghan. It wasn’t difficult. She’d written various articles – including a particularly interesting piece for Elle in 2016 on her experiences as a mixed-race actress in Hollywood. She’d given a number of interviews and written a blog. It seemed to me basic research. But, to my surprise, a number of the royal correspondents I then interviewed clearly hadn’t done the same.
It wasn’t hard to get a grip on the Duchess of Sussex. She was smart, racially conscious, and a feminist – a not unusual product of the northern suburbs of Los Angeles, where she grew up, and Northwestern University, close to Chicago, where she studied theatre and international relations. She struck me as interesting and likeable.
But my overwhelming feeling was: what on earth is this woman doing marrying into the British royal family?
The answer was that she and Harry appeared to be genuinely, deeply in love. But this was a person who would never accommodate herself to having the Daily Mail appoint itself the arbiter of her every life choice. And so it proved.
I didn’t bother to read the press on her in the years that followed. There were more important things happening in the world. But I was vaguely aware of the story proceeding to script – from the initial attempts to stir up a cat fight with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, through to the sustained and vitriolic character assassination of the past couple of years.
I then returned to it a few months ago. Inevitably, I found myself chatting to friends and acquaintances. The experience was bizarre. Perfectly liberal, enlightened, intelligent people would suddenly pass through a portal to the 1950s. Meghan was “conniving”, “manipulative” and “narcissistic”. No antediluvian misogynist trope was crude enough.
It was pointed out that both Harry and Meghan come from troubled, broken homes – “damaged” people who had gravitated towards each other. In fact, Meghan is remarkably grounded and well-balanced and – while her father has let her down – her mother is clearly an absolute rock. Where was this assumption coming from? None of it bore any relation to the woman I’d put under the microscope four years earlier.
It dawned on me the difference was that, whereas I knew her by listening to and reading her own words, the people I was talking to had experienced her entirely through the prism of the British media. It was a perfect illustration of Harry and Meghan’s core grievance, as articulated to Oprah Winfrey: that they were the victims of a racist, misogynist, xenophobic press, against which Buckingham Palace had failed to push back.
A Bigoted Press
There was one development I had not anticipated – the rift between Harry and his brother. It became clear that a major falling out between Harry, Meghan and a number of the staff at Kensington Palace preceded the worst of the press.
I suspect Meghan has some steel in her core. She was a 36-year-old woman when she married Harry and was not amenable to being shaped by the Palace as it had previous, younger, royal partners. Harry too is probably fairly imperious. Both he and Prince William are renowned for their short tempers – they were brought up as princes after all.
It would be unfair to caricature Palace staff as moustachioed brigadiers living in the 19th Century, but there is certainly a cultural gulf between them and the world Meghan comes from.
But the key, simple fact to remember is that Harry loathes and detests the tabloid media. As Emma Jones, of the campaigning group Hacked Off put it in our film, “Harry believed the press had murdered his mother and they were going to do exactly the same thing to his wife”.
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In his interview with Oprah, Harry recounted a conversation with a well-connected media figure who he said told him: “You need to understand the UK is very bigoted.” Harry stopped him and said: “The UK is not bigoted, the UK press is bigoted, specifically the tabloids… But, unfortunately, if the source of information is inherently corrupt or racist or biased, then that filters out to the rest of society”.
His loathing of the press for intrusions into his own life has broadened, under the influence of his wife, to a wider revulsion at tabloid culture. Yet he knows that what he calls an “invisible contract” exists between the Palace and the press – which both need each other.
It’s very easy to see how vulnerable a lower-ranking couple such as Harry and Meghan might feel in the Royal household in the face of the inevitable horse-trading that goes on over what stories run and which stories don’t – and how tensions might arise if they felt that they were being used to cover-up or distract from other, perhaps juicier, scoops.
Add to that Meghan’s shock – according to her own account – at her first encounter with the genteel, veiled and maybe unconscious racism of the English upper class and it is easy to see how relations could have deteriorated so quickly.
My own ITV film provided a vivid example that Kensington Palace is certainly more than prepared to wade in to influence media coverage when it chooses to. On the day of transmission, the Palace demanded that we remove one particular quote. People more important than myself acquiesced, although it seemed to me perfectly legally defendable. Hardly ‘never complain, never explain’.
The Wrong Simpson
In making the latest film, I came across a news report from 1993 which featured a freckled, 12-year-old Meghan. Outraged by the sexism of a Proctor and Gamble advert for washing up liquid, she’d managed to persuade the firm to change its wording from “women” to “people”.
A painfully earnest Meghan tells the reporter: “If you see something that you don’t like or are offended by on television or any other place, write letters and send them to the right people and you can really make a difference for not just yourself but lots of other people.”
Watching it struck me that the British press had picked the wrong Simpson in their pigeon-holing of Meghan – she’s not Wallis; the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII gave up the throne; she’s Lisa, Homer’s improbably precocious and rebellious daughter in The Simpsons.
There are many reasons one might find a grown-up Lisa Simpson irritating. But conniving, manipulative and narcissistic wouldn’t be the words you’d apply to her.
Ultimately, Harry and Meghan’s departure for California has been a revolt against the toxic culture of the tabloid press in Britain and its unholy alliance with the royal family. Suicidal and depressed, Meghan took a simple view – we don’t need to live like this. To his credit, her husband agreed.