Harry and Meghan's decision to boycott the tabloids isn't tone deaf – it's long overdue

Why should anyone criticise the couple for cutting off newspaper titles intent on making their lives worse? 

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“Why wasn’t there all this fuss with Kate and Wills?” is the loaded question that dogs the comments section of tabloid articles about Meghan Markle. And what a good question it is – why wasn’t there? We experienced foaming-at-the-mouth glorification of Kate Middleton in the UK tabloids during the early 2010s that, while overly voyeuristic, was almost entirely positive. But just years later, whether it was what she was eating or wearing or doing, the things Kate did in 2015 suddenly became horrifying when Meghan did them in 2019. You have to wonder what it was that caused this shift and what it is that makes the Duchess of Sussex different. 

Those critical comments went into overdrive last night when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle issued a press release stating that they would no longer be engaging with the British tabloid media – specifically the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. “It is gravely concerning that an influential slice of the media, over many years, has sought to insulate themselves from taking accountability for what they say or print – even when they know it to be distorted, false, or invasive beyond reason,” the release stated

It says that the couple will be operating a policy of “zero engagement” with these publications other than, where necessary, through their lawyers. “When power is enjoyed without responsibility, the trust we all place in this much-needed industry is degraded... The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have watched people they know – as well as complete strangers – have their lives completely pulled apart for no good reason, other than the fact that salacious gossip boosts advertising revenue.”

People have been quick to describe the timing of this decision as “tone deaf” and “narcissistic” while the world battles an increasingly serious pandemic. “Their solipsism is amazing. Can’t they just consign themselves to oblivion for a while?” the BBC presenter Andrew Neil tweeted early this morning. But this announcement isn’t surprising or out of touch – in fact, it’s long-overdue. Harry and Meghan’s decision, like many of ours at the moment, is to prioritise their sanity – ceasing engagement with a series of hostile publications.

It’s worth remembering, before delving into anything else, that the couple have been immersed in two legal battles with the British press since October 2019 – Harry has sued the publishers of the Mirror, the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World over alleged phone-hacking, while Meghan has separately sued the Mail on Sunday for alleged breach of copyright, invasion of privacy, and misuse of personal data. This litigation began well before coronavirus and, with the crisis set to continue for months (if not years), the announcement would always have fallen during the pandemic. Their act was far from random attention-seeking, but an expected part of ongoing legal proceedings. 

But our empathy for Harry and Meghan should essentially lie in the way these tabloids conduct themselves. Since the news broke last night, many journalists (including ones from the named publications) have snidely tweeted that those newspapers would be too busy to care about what Harry and Meghan were up to since they were aggressively covering Covid-19. But since Friday, the Mirror has published eight pieces about the couple, the Sun has published six, and the Daily Express has published a remarkable 50 – this without counting the tens of articles where Harry and Meghan were mentioned in the context of other royals, but not in the headline. 

Most of the articles over the past 72 hours were critical, covering subjects including Meghan’s ex-husband, rumours of disagreement between Harry and Meghan, and why Meghan’s “body language” proved she wasn’t suited to royal life. Any basic metric would show not just that the Sussexes are something the tabloids care about, but that, despite this life-changing pandemic, they sit quite high on their priority list.

This style of coverage has infamously been applied to Meghan since day one. She has spent the whole of her relationship with Harry fighting fires lit by British tabloids that she was warned would “destroy her life”. Her fraught relationship with her emotionally abusive father was exacerbated by invasive tabloid coverage, an experience that would have been unimaginably painful without every detail, false rumour, and paid statement from her dad played out for a bloodthirsty audience. When she became pregnant, everything from her diet to her baby shower became the basis of negative coverage, and when she and Harry decided to leave royal life, she, not her husband, was cast as the villainous plotter; a selfish wife tearing Harry from his family. These aggressive tabloid campaigns were combined with daily criticism over such matters as holding her baby bump, being fashionable, and eating an avocado. It seems strange that we feign surprise at a decision which, if anything, is merely humane. 

During this pandemic, many of us have begun to take stock of what we actually care about. We realise which relationships matter, which don’t, and feel an unprecedented sense of how to live a fulfilling life. While the super-rich and celebrities deserve little of our sympathy during this time, our understanding in the case of Harry and Meghan should extend further than many commentators have suggested. We are not witnessing a self-involved couple desperate for headlines, but another family choosing to prioritise their happiness expressly by staying out of them. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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