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9 March 2021updated 04 Aug 2021 9:10am

Why Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview was the most successful in royal history

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are playing a different game now – one of their own choosing.

By Eleanor Peake

In the days after Princess Diana’s death, it was estimated that more than a million people descended upon London. Large screens were set up in Hyde Park for crowds to gather to watch her funeral. There were discussions about the role Prince William and Prince Harry (aged 15 and 12) could play in the ceremony. At the time, it was suggested that the princes should walk behind their mother’s funeral car, exposing their grief to the crowds.

Twenty-three years on from this event, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s CBS interview is a landmark in the history of the royal family. The interview marks the couple actively asserting control over their own narrative, away from the parameters of the UK’s heavily controlled royal media reporting.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

The programme tells of a disturbing side to the monarchy: Meghan reveals how an unnamed member of the royal family expressed concern over “how dark” their son Archie’s skin tone would be. She also discusses how isolated she felt as a working royal, telling Oprah Winfrey that she “didn’t want to live anymore”. Harry appears on this two-hour interview for 40 minutes. In this time, he places the legacy of his mother centre stage. “My family literally cut me off financially in the first quarter of 2020. I have got what my mum left me,” says Harry. “I think my mum saw it coming. And I felt my Mum’s presence through this process.”

[See also: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle show the triumph of bohemian values over bourgeois ones]

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The interview has broken every unspoken rule of royal media engagement, shocking and horrifying audiences in the UK as Winfrey asks: “How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” But therein lies its success. It has achieved its PR goal: namely, the side-lining of British public opinion. 

For UK audiences, everything about this interview is off-putting. The sofas; the soft lighting; the LA-buzzwords, the melodrama of it all. The set-up is miles away from how Britain understands its royal family; brought up on a diet of Christmas speeches and the occasional TV wedding. Most of the UK probably hasn’t listened to a member of the royal family speak for more than a few minutes at a time. At its core, this interview makes a UK audience feel uncomfortable. And that is exactly the point.

From Sunday night, the Sussex’s are looking to the future. By escaping the confines of British public opinion, they are free to ascend the hierarchy of global celebrities and American royalty, next to the Obamas and Winfrey herself, a much more lucrative and liberating franchise. As Harry tells Winfrey in plain terms: “I was trapped but I didn’t know I was trapped… My father and my brother, they are trapped, they don’t get to leave.”

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[See also: Harry and Meghan’s decision to boycott the tabloids isn’t tone deaf – it’s long overdue]

While the glossy dramatisation of the couple may feel silly to a UK audience, there was nothing silly about what the couple said. Steady and intelligent, you did not have to believe every word outright to feel empathy for two people who, at their heart, appear desperately sad.

It is impossible not to recall another big royal interview. In 1995, when Diana sat down with Martin Bashir, it was the most-watched programme of the year. At the time the UK media was unsympathetic. Older generations saw an ungrateful schemer, a woman trying to topple an ancient institution. In the decades that followed Diana’s explosive revelations, younger generations learned how she was goaded and manipulated into giving the BBC exclusive to Bashir. Today, millennials see strength in Diana’s vulnerability, propelling her to icon status.

Against this backdrop, the Sussex’s interview was always going to be a success with their chosen demographic: young and international, thirsty for demonstrations of celebrity “authenticity”. If Diana set the trend, the Sussexes took it up a level, laying their emotions bare for the camera. In turn, Gen Z and millennials have rushed to congratulate their openness and honesty.

While older generations in the UK will certainly find this style of tell-all interview distasteful, it doesn’t really matter. Years in the future, it won’t be the establishment that will be deciding the future of the monarchy. It will be the young.

[See also: How Princess Diana became a millennial obsession]