K is for Kate Middleton: how the media fell in love with one duchess, and hounded another

The eleventh letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade.

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Almost nine years ago, on 29 April 2011, the royal family captured the attention of the nation in a way that my generation had never previously witnessed. 

One million people lined the roads between Westminster Abbey, where Prince William married Kate Middleton, and Buckingham Palace, where the couple appeared on the balcony for a very public post-ceremony kiss.

There were more than 5,500 requests for road closures to throw street parties. Tesco sold over 120 miles of bunting. M&S reported that its sales of chicken drumsticks doubled that week, and those of sausage rolls weren’t far behind. If you combine the viewership figures of the ten channels that televised the wedding, 26 million people tuned in – making it easily the UK’s most watched TV event of the decade, and the eighth most watched of all time.

The day was dissected at length by the media and the public alike. Topics ranged from the Alexander McQueen wedding dress to Princess Beatrice and Eugenie’s choice of headwear, to an unprecedented second balcony kiss and, of course, bridesmaid Pippa Middleton’s behind.

But easily the most discussed aspect of the day, and indeed its run-up and aftermath, was the bride herself.

Kate Middleton met Prince William in 2001, when they were students at St Andrews University. The pair began dating in 2003, much to the surprise of the British media, which often disparagingly called Middleton a commoner. This disdain continued throughout the Noughties, with tabloids mockingly referring to Middleton as “Waity Katie” for allegedly waiting more than eight years until the Prince proposed, and for taking him back after a brief split in 2007.

Yet all this changed suddenly in October 2010, when the couple’s engagement was announced. Following their wedding it seemed Middleton had reignited a widespread joy in the royal family that had been lacking in the two decades since 1992, the Queen’s self-proclaimed annus horribilus. (The year that three of her four children separated from their spouses, Princess Diana published a tell-all book on Prince Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, and Windsor Castle caught fire.)

This infatuation with Middleton set the tone for the following year, when the royal family continued to ride the sweet wave of public admiration. First, the nation was given yet another additional bank holiday to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Two months later, she took on her first ever acting role. Starring as herself alongside Daniel Craig as James Bond, the Queen kicked off the opening ceremony for London’s 2012 Olympic Games by “parachuting” from a helicopter into the Stratford stadium. Truly, the crowd went wild – and the six-minute clip has since been viewed 26.9 million times on YouTube.

Having recently reconnected with the public, it seemed the royals could do no wrong. Two months later, the Sun published front-page photos of a then-27-year-old Prince Harry, naked in a Las Vegas hotel room after a presumably poorly played game of strip billiards. Yet the reaction – which would have been outrage in any other era – was amusement, and perhaps relief that this time it wasn’t a Nazi costume.

Another successful year for the royals was rounded off with the announcement that Kate Middleton was pregnant with Prince William’s first child. Between 2013 and 2015, interest in the royal family was piqued by the birth of Prince George, a second pregnancy announcement, and subsequent birth of Princess Charlotte.

This was also the decade that the young royals opened up. In 2016, Princes William and Harry, along with Kate Middleton, founded the Heads Together campaign to fight the stigma around mental health. All three spoke openly about their own struggles – the Princes on coping with the shock death of their mother; Kate Middleton on the challenges of becoming a parent. Such honesty had never previously been witnessed from immediate members of the family (the Queen has long distanced her personal life from the public), and the consensus seemed to be that these young royals were a breath of fresh air to a time-worn institution. 

But Kate Middleton wasn't the only newcomer to royal family this decade. After months of speculation, it was confirmed in late 2016 that Prince Harry was dating the American actress Meghan Markle. This was not the joyous announcement it should have been: the pair’s relationship was confirmed via a statement calling for an end to the media harassment and criticism of Markle – who is mixed race – much of which, it said, had “racial undertones”.

When the couple tied the knot in 2018, it was the most diverse royal wedding in history – hailed by the BBC as “a landmark for African Americans” – and the royal family was praised for moving into the 21st century.  

Yet as memories of the day faded, and the congratulatory comment pieces petered out, tabloid harassment continued. Throughout her pregnancy, and since, Markle has been hounded by the press, with reports alluding to feuds between herself and Kate Middleton – only just stopping short of forcing the public to pick a side – and alleging a growing gulf between the Princes as a result. As the cruel backlash mounted, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took an extraordinary and unprecedented response: they filed lawsuits against British papers.

Prince Harry announced their intention to start legal action – against the publishers of the Sun and the Mirror for historic cases of phone hacking, and against the owner of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday for publishing a letter sent by Markle to her estranged father – in a statement that accused the papers of “bullying” his wife.

“My wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences – a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son,” the Prince wrote. “There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behaviour, because it destroys people and destroys lives.”

The statement was harrowing, and highlights the stark differences between the treatment that Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle have received from the media. One was celebrated and showered with praise, the other forced to launch legal action. Comparing the two, it becomes apparent that even now, as we enter the 2020s, the British media has an ongoing problem with race that will be imperative to confront in the coming decade. 

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.