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10 March 2021

Why the media’s civil war over Meghan and Harry won’t end anytime soon

Faced with a cultural divide over the royal family, publishers are doubling down on their stances.

By Dominic Ponsford

Piers Morgan’s dismissal of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey appears to have been a spectacular misjudgement on an issue that has divided Fleet Street.

His declaration that “I don’t believe a word she says” has prompted a near-record 41,000 complaints to broadcast regulator Ofcom and led to his swift departure from ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Meanwhile, the Society of Editors has prompted a furious response after issuing a statement saying: “The UK media is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account following the attack on the press by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.” (Update 9:30pm: Ian Murray, the chief executive of the Society of Editors, has now resigned.) 

Press Gazette’s tweet sharing the Society’s statement has been viewed more than 17 million times (making it easily the most read thing we have ever published) and prompted nearly 4,000 replies – nearly all of them disagreeing. Not for the first time there is clearly a disconnect between what the public think and the media’s view of itself.

The Society is a kind of trade union for editors and generally gets universal support for its campaigning work on press freedom. But its stance on Meghan has split Fleet Street with four leading editors (so far) issuing statements distancing themselves from its stance.

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They are Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times, the Guardian’s Katharine Viner, Rachel Oldroyd of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Jess Brammar of HuffPost UKThe Independent has also published an editorial countering the Society’s view. “Things do need to change,” it read. “The worst thing the British media can do now is to go into denial and to gaslight its critics.”

HuffPost’s Brammar tweeted: “I don’t disagree w[ith] every bit of that statement – but that top line is not how some people working in our industry feel about the bigotry of some sections of the UK press aimed at *people like them*. We should vocally defend our industry but also be very aware of supporting them.”

[See also: Ailbhe Rea on why the Meghan and Harry saga encapsulates our biggest political divide]

Oldroyd tweeted: “The SoE statement does not represent how I feel as a member of the British press nor as an editor.” Some 170 ethnic-minority journalists, meanwhile, have signed a statement condemning an “industry in denial”.

On the other side of the Meghan debate are newspapers that have been accused of leading the negative coverage about her, including the Mail titles and the Sun.

As with so many culture-war issues in the UK, attitudes towards the couple appear to divide along familiar generational lines (in common with Brexit and election voting intentions).

Press Gazette, as a title covering all of the media, sits in the middle. We’ve said that Meghan and Harry won’t discourage intrusive press coverage by putting private matters in the public domain. And we’ve also expressed concern about a blanket condemnation of the industry as bigoted.

But serious allegations of racism cannot simply be dismissed and should prompt a period of industry self-reflection. Sadly, in the digital age a mob-mentality can prevail on both sides of the culture wars, with articles that unambiguously appeal to certain vocal interest groups attracting the most clicks. Readers often seem to prefer stories that reinforce their prejudices, rather than those that challenge orthodoxies

This leads to publishers doubling down on their views with coverage that, in this instance, is either pro or anti-Meghan, rather than reflective of more nuanced (and less sensational) truths. And it means Fleet Street’s cultural divide over Meghan and Harry, and so many other issues, is unlikely to be bridged anytime soon.

[See also: Paul Mason on the choice now facing the monarchy]