Meghan and Harry’s tabloid ‘divorce’ won’t turn off the tap of public attention

The trouble is, the Markle-Sussexes aren’t actually attempting to retreat from public life

Photo from 2017 of Prince Harry and his then-fiancée Meghan Markle. Photograph:  Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Photo from 2017 of Prince Harry and his then-fiancée Meghan Markle. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

 

“Please note that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will not be engaging with your outlet. There will be no corroboration and zero engagement.”

And with those words, Meghan Markle and the artist formerly known as Prince Harry finalised their divorce from the British tabloid press. In a letter dispatched to four newspapers over the weekend, representatives of the Markle-Sussexes announced that they were, in break-up parlance, “going no contact”.

The duke and duchess told the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Mirror and the Express that they would not “offer themselves up as currency for an economy of clickbait and distortion” or for stories that are “distorted, false, or invasive beyond reason”.

The timing of the break-up letter wasn’t just about kicking the press when it’s down, as news media everywhere is struggling to cope with the sudden contraction in advertising caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Markle’s case against the Mail on Sunday over its publication of a letter she sent to her estranged father, Thomas Markle, is scheduled to begin on Friday, in a virtual hearing.

Already, details of the case have begun leaking into the public domain, including texts that Harry sent to his future father-in-law on the eve of the wedding, pleading with him to stop talking to the media.

In fact, the couple would insist, it’s not about kicking the press at all. They acknowledge the media’s role to “shine light on dark places, telling stories that would otherwise go untold, standing up for what’s right, challenging power, and holding those who abuse the system to account”.

No, it is about kicking one section of the press specifically – namely the tabloids who have made Markle’s life an unrelenting misery. In particular, four papers that have published contemptuous commentary about every aspect of her life, in terms that she has regarded – often with good reason – as verging on barely disguised racism.

In that context, this is the logical, sensible next step for the couple, whose relationship with the press in general, and these newspapers in particular, has been on a sharp downward trajectory since not long after their wedding in May 2018.

The dress had barely come back from the cleaners – hopefully free of the champagne and 3am ketchup stains and the footprints that are the mark of any decent wedding – when the uneasy truce that existed for a brief period during the couple’s engagement dissolved into mutual acrimony.

The tabloids were quick to blame Markle for this, but the truth is there was never much, or any, love lost between Harry and Fleet Street. To a large degree, the antagonism being expressed by him now is the years of pent-up frustration and grief, fuelled by the legacy of his perception of his mother Diana’s relationship with the media.

Whether his perception is entirely accurate is an argument for another day – he has spoken movingly of the lingering trauma of his very public childhood and bereavement, and there’s no doubt that is playing a part in his view of what happened to Diana. Whatever his reasons, he wants no more to do with the tabloids, and that’s fair enough.

But where, in Diana’s time, cutting all contact with a handful of influential newspapers would have been an effective way to turn off the tap of public attention, the era of social media and the power of online-only news sites means it is no longer that simple.

Adding to the complexity in all of this is the fact that the Markle-Sussexes don’t actually want to turn off the tap. They’re not attempting to retreat from public life. They don’t want to pull an Edward and Wallis. They fully intend to keep up a public profile – they just want to do it on their terms. A few weeks ago, they launched their new charity foundation, Archewell. They have hired a US based communications company and intend now to bypass the media as far as possible and deal directly with the public on social media. They will also, they say, still deal with “journalists and media all over the world, grassroots media, regional and local media and young and up-and-coming journalists.”

The policy, they add, “is not about avoiding criticism. It is not about shutting down public conversation or censoring accurate reporting.”

I applaud them for trying, but I suspect they’ll very quickly discover that it’s not that straightforward. Because the bad news for Harry and Meghan is that fake news and distorted facts aren’t only the preserve of tabloid newspapers anymore.

As we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic, members of the wider public are more than capable of spreading false, nasty and outlandish stories without any input from traditional media whatsoever. You don’t need to be a tabloid publisher to push a wrong or sensationalist or just made-up-for-the-craic agenda these days – all it takes is a WhatsApp account, a decent wifi connection, a fevered imagination, and too much time on your hands.

In many cases, it has been the traditional media that has stepped in to debunk the fake news, while some of the nastiest commentary is coming direct from the public on social media.

The fascination with Meghan and Harry isn’t just about the desire for celebrity tittle-tattle. They have, through no action of their own, come to be seen as a parable for the conflicting forces at play in modern Britain: the modern, progressive, globalist view, versus the traditional, protectionist, pro-Brexit one. This story was always going to be bigger than the couple themselves.

Of course, there is a way for Harry and Meghan to fully take back control: they could retire from public life altogether and live a quiet life in a secluded mansion in the LA hills. Lots of celebrities who don’t want to be celebrities any more have shown it can be done. But that doesn’t seem to be a price they’re yet willing to pay.

One way or another, they’re still in the game. Whether they can succeed in changing the rules remains to be seen.

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