Omid Scobie has a very well rehearsed answer to the question of whether the Duke and Duchess of Sussex co-operated in his biography of the couple, Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family. “The couple didn’t participate in the book. We didn’t interview them for the book,” he says immediately, over the phone from London, from where he has been doing interviews for TV all day.
This begs the obvious question of how he and co-author, fellow royal-covering journalist Carolyn Durand, managed to get such unfettered access to so many – more than 100, they say – of their friends and close confidantes, not to mention to Meghan’s text messages, and even many of her private thoughts.
With intimate details on everything from their first date to their breakfast habits to Harry’s favourite emoji, this seems very much like a not-totally-unauthorised biography
“A lot of the people in Harry and Meghan’s lives were quite frustrated by some of the narratives they see being formed in sections of the tabloid press and those frustrations, in some ways, benefited us,” Scobie says. His and Durand’s reputation as “glass half full” royal correspondents helped, he thinks.
A spokesperson for the couple, now hunkering down with baby Archie in California, has also denied they were involved in the book, issuing a one-line statement that said “the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were not interviewed and did not contribute to Finding Freedom”.
Still, there are several levels of co-operation between a full on-the-record interview and no involvement at all, as the late Diana and her “unauthorised” biographer Andrew Morton demonstrated back in 1992. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this book falls somewhere on the Diana end of the spectrum.
With intimate details on everything from their first date to Harry’s favourite emoji (he uses a ghost instead of a smiley face) and breakfast habits (she likes fruit and yoghurt; he’s a bacon and eggs man), to how he feels when he’s reading below-the-line comments (“his stomach tied into the same knot every time”), this seems very much like a not-totally-unauthorised biography.
So let’s assume it did benefit from some of what might be called light-touch editorial direction. What do we learn?
Quite a lot – although curiously little about the real Markle, who remains an enigma. Despite the thousands of words in the book dedicated to her, nearly 350 pages later, I still didn’t feel I had a handle on what really makes her tick.
Her flaws, presuming she has some, go wholly unelucidated, in favour of gushing copy that reads as though it was lifted from her erstwhile lifestyle blog, The Tig. “The entire event was classic Meghan: simple yet indulgent, fun in a quiet and intimate way – and all meticulously planned,” the authors write of a hen party she organised for a college friend, in one fairly typical example.
And if the incidents recounted from Harry’s pre-Meghan life portray him as a sometimes hot-headed, occasionally hapless, generally well-meaning person, episodes from her’s are altogether more forgiving. “As a young girl coming face to face with a homeless man on the street, she begged her mother, “Can we help him?” . . . the rest of the day, and long after, she was left with a nagging question: ‘What can I do?’ ”
What we saw behind the scenes was a very vulnerable individual who had been pushed to a point where I think she almost lost her own sense of self
I tell Scobie that I didn’t feel I got a sense of who she really is, and ask him to describe her in his own words. “I think with Meghan she is someone that’s incredibly driven. She knows exactly what it is that she wants to achieve out of life and give back to the world. And whilst I think a lot of people really dismiss or put down her hunger for philanthropy as some sort of freaky, shallow thing that she does for publicity, it does have a lot of depth to it. I think she’s really a cause-driven individual.”
She is also, he adds more revealingly, more vulnerable than she seems. “Despite what I’ve always thought was a very tough exterior . . . ” He pauses to correct himself. “Not tough, a strong exterior – I’ve always thought that she’s someone that could handle the criticism, or at times we would hear from sources or within the palace that Meghan doesn’t read anything about her online.
“But actually, when writing the book, I realised that she was a lot more aware of what was being said, and took a lot of it to heart. What we saw behind the scenes was a very vulnerable individual who had been pushed to a point where I think she almost lost her own sense of self.”
If the book has a recurrent theme, it is the one alluded to in the single on-the-record quote from its chief subject to its authors. “As Meghan gave me a final hug goodbye, she said, ‘It didn’t have to be this way’,” Scobie writes of their meeting at her last public engagement this year.
As someone who covered their wedding from Windsor – and still has the souvenir biscuit tin to prove it – I find it hard to believe now that this is where they have ended up: that the unhappy couple depicted in this book is the beaming, lively, adoring and adored pair I saw whisked through the streets in a royal carriage, past cheering crowds festooned in union jacks and stars and stripes.
Two years on, they’re living in California with one-year-old Archie, removed from royal life, locked in a legal battle with the Mail on Sunday and an American photographer, and on speaking terms with only a handful of family members on either side – her mother, his father, his grandparents. She is estranged from her father and half-siblings. He is in only minimal contact with his only sibling.
“Harry’s relationship with members of the royal family has improved. I think there has been healing that needed to happen,” since the book was finished, Scobie says. “We see Harry continue to have a strong relationship with the Queen. We know that he’s checked in on her repeatedly and Prince Philip throughout this lockdown period. Harry, Meghan and Archie are no strangers to the Prince of Wales on Zoom. As for William and Harry, there doesn’t seem to have been much movement on that front.”
The couple were airing their grievances and hoping to change some aspects of their working model. It just didn’t happen
So what went wrong? Or is the answer that nothing did? The title of the book refers to “freedom”. Is that in fact what they always wanted?
It’s clear that, though Harry was long frustrated by the snobbishness and strictures of royal life – or “dreamed of a life far away from palace walls”, as the book more floridly puts it – and Meghan came to the marriage an independent, financially stable, fully-grown feminist, no one ever expected things to go this far.
Scobie says he and his co-author started out writing a straightforward love story, but around the time of Archie’s birth, they noticed, “the couple were growing increasingly frustrated with the things that were happening within the institution of the monarchy. While they were airing their grievances and hoping to change some aspects of their working model, it just didn’t happen.”
The workings of the monarchy portrayed in the book are fascinating. The picture painted is of a huge, clunky, corporation, riven by internal disagreements over strategy, and headed by a chief executive who is the father of two divisions competing for funds, all presided over by a fond, but remote and very traditional chairwoman.
Scobie and Durand decided to delay publication to see what might happen; that gamble have more than paid off earlier this year when the couple issued a statement announcing their intention of stepping back from royal life and becoming financially independent.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the book reads like a long list of scores to be settled. Chief among these is the deplorable treatment of them by sections of the British media and “the Firm”, which is depicted in the book as an unwieldy, change-resistant corporation still stuffed with what Diana called “grey suits”.
More unexpected, and far less sympathetic, are the gripes about their treatment at the hands of family members – particularly William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Scobie characterises what he calls the “Duelling Duchesses” narrative that obsessed the British tabloids throughout the end of 2017 and into 2018 as “really disappointing. I think [it] just comes from such an old-fashioned sexist place, the two women have to be at each other’s throats and in the centre of a cat fight.”
But strangely, the book seems intent on stoking the cat fight. It makes much of how they are two “very different” people, and how their relationship never really progressed beyond chilly civility, but that Meghan “wasn’t losing sleep over it”.
Harry and Meghan were always at their best when they were working royals, when they were out there meeting people, engaging with the crowd. The Ireland visit was so much fun
There are several references to Meghan’s disappointment that Kate didn’t show much interest in getting to know her, and a snide aside about how Harry, unlike his brother, did not want a house full of staff. (One anecdote reveals that Meghan and Harry fired a nanny in the middle of her second night on the job for a lack of professionalism.)
Now says Scobie, “I think where the disappointment lies, certainly on Meghan’s side, is that during some of those really difficult moments, particularly throughout her pregnancy, when she really faced [a] tough time with the family and also just within the institution itself . . . she hoped a former newcomer like Kate would have been there in a more supportive capacity”.
The fissure that developed between the brothers began when William tried to talk to his brother about Meghan in 2017. William said, “ ‘Don’t feel like you need to rush this . . . Take as much time as you need to get to know this girl.’ In those last two words, ‘this girl’, Harry heard the tone of snobbishness that was anathema to his approach to the world,” the book reveals.
Was he not being a tad oversensitive? “I think we have to look at really the circumstances that led up to that moment. Harry was already very aware of the things being said about his girlfriend within the palace walls and behind his back.”
Some of those insults included a courtier referring to her as “Harry’s showgirl” and other friends making derogatory remarks about her – and yes, in that context, it’s easy to see why, as Scobie says now, “Harry might have taken that to heart . . . [even if it] probably touched a nerve that wasn’t necessarily necessary”.
The book depicts a long list of wrongs and injustices that sometimes sounds a bit entitled – not many hearts will bleed over their unhappiness during the period they were shuttling around on private jets between holidays in Ibiza and Elton’s place in France.
Still, their first two years were not devoid of joyful moments. Scobie says the Ireland trip in July 2018 was among them, though it’s not directly covered in the book. “Harry and Meghan were always at their best when they were working royals, when they were out there meeting people, engaging with the crowd. The Ireland visit was so much fun. They really got a kick out of it.”
Of course, I tell him, we like to claim Meghan became pregnant with Archie in Ireland. “I have heard that a few times. I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that – it’s probably something only they know. Claim him,” he suggests, laughing. “I don’t think anyone else has.”
If he had been advising the couple instead of reporting on them, would he have wanted them to do anything differently? He thinks about this for a moment, and then says that the team around them did “an incredible job of working with the circumstances”.
“Meghan was a woman of colour, an American, marrying into a very traditional institution. That was already going to ruffle feathers. Where it really goes wrong is not the people who were advising them, but some of those higher up within the institution that didn’t support the couple, or hear them when they spoke about certain grievances.”
Harry, the book reveals, had secret Instagram and Facebook accounts, and does read what is written about him – even perusing the below-the-line comments. Meghan, too, is more focused on coverage of her than is frequently reported.
So have they read the book? “I have certainly not sent copies to her. I think it’s very difficult when someone’s written a book about your life. I’m not sure if I would want to look at that.
“But at the same time, I hope that they understand that . . . while there may be uncomfortable moments for everyone throughout the book, the intentions are really to sort of balance things, because I feel there has been a lack of that.”
Finding Freedom is published by Harper Collins