There’s only one story in town this morning, after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey was broadcast in the UK last night.
The royal family is now under pressure to respond to allegations of racism and an alleged failure to support Meghan when she was suicidal, with the Labour leader and frontbenchers describing the allegations as “distressing” and in need of investigation, while Boris Johnson has declined to comment except to emphasise his “highest admiration for the Queen”.
This a huge story, not just about the breakdown of relationships within the royal family, nor about one public figure’s experiences of racism and mental illness, but a far larger one about the monarchy, the conditions that sustain it, and everything in our politics that finds itself reflected in this single story.
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When the dust settles, we will recognise that one of the most truly remarkable aspects of that interview was that Harry drew back the curtain on the royal family’s feelings about its own survival. He went on the record to say that his father and brother, the two next in line to the throne, are “trapped”, that everyone in his family is “scared” of the British tabloid press, that it amounts to “control by fear”, referred to within the family as an “invisible contract” upon which the monarchy depends for its survival. It amounted to an acknowledgement of how fragile the monarchy knows itself to be, and how utterly dependent it is on the British tabloid press’s control of public perceptions of the institution.
The interview included some embarrassing moments for the British press on the international stage, as headlines about Meghan and her sister-in-law Kate Middleton were laid side-by-side for millions of viewers as Oprah and Meghan laughed at the famous discrepancies: when Kate eats avocado it’s a “morning sickness cure”, when Meghan does it’s “linked to human rights abuse and drought, millennial shame”. It is the “symbiotic” relationship between the royal family and the tabloids that meant the monarchy didn’t challenge this coverage at the time, Harry said.
Most papers this morning declare that the Palace is “in crisis” as it decides how to respond. But most of the coverage in the UK is revealing of a fundamental reluctance to have a conversation about the future of the monarchy or to analyse the dynamics discussed by Harry (nor, indeed, to reckon with the place of the British press in this story). That’s the key to the monarchy’s survival: no matter what happens or what revelations are levelled against it as an institution, a discussion about whether it should persist is always viewed as a bit fanatical, a bit weird, a bit gauche. That’s why even serious allegations like these are unlikely to shake the monarchy, and why the royal family is more secure than Harry and his family think.