“Never complain, never explain”
That, we are told, is the rule that has governed the relationship between the Royals and the press for decades. If you are in the Royal family and get grief from the papers, you suck it up and keep quiet.
Personal attacks? Libels? Unlawful invasions of privacy? Just keep quiet and get on with it.
In reality it has never been a strict rule. Prince Charles once defeated the Mail on Sunday to court and the Queen herself made a successful complaint against the Sun. But such cases are rare and it is clear that the Windsors prefer to avoid such confrontations. So far as the press is concerned, therefore, royalty does not punch back, and that certainly suits the press.
It is chiefly because Harry and Meghan lost patience with this arrangement and stood up for themselves that they now face an endless, almost desperate stream of abuse, intrusive and toxic coverage at the hands of our largest newspapers.
Groundless allegations of hypocrisy
The justification normally offered for this press onslaught is that the couple are hypocrites. They claim they want privacy, the argument goes, but then they publish an intimate picture of themselves to announce Meghan’s pregnancy, and go on to give high-profile television interviews. Newspapers say they can’t have it both ways.
This may shock the editors of national newspapers, but that is not hypocrisy; it is normal. Everyone, high or low, shares some information about their lives with others while keeping some facts to themselves. For example, it is common for people to post about their everyday lives in Facebook, often including information about family and children, but we do not automatically expect them to upload their entire medical history as well. Withholding that information does not make them hypocrites.
Is it different for famous people? For royalty? Do they have to be open about everything? The judge in Meghan’s court case against the Mail on Sunday considered this question carefully and he wrote in his judgment that, yes, sometimes the rules are different for such people. But he stressed that this did not mean they were entitled to no privacy at all, as many in the press like to suggest. And he ruled, very firmly, that the newspaper had unlawfully breached Meghan’s privacy.
One good reason why they need more privacy than the press wants to give them is their need for personal safety. The death of Princess Diana, Harry’s mother, tells us something about the possible consequences of media harassment. So does the death more recently of the television presenter Caroline Flack.
It is one thing to face the routine pressures and limitations of life in the Royal family (immensely privileged, in many ways, though it is). It is quite another to see abuse, lies and falsehoods published about you and your loved ones in the national press almost every day, and to live in constant fear of intrusion and betrayal. This is press cruelty on a grand scale.
But the hypocrisy charge, like the “don’t care about country” charge, or the “tearing the Royal Family apart” charge, is really just misdirection – a desperate campaign to distract us. Because none of these is the real reason why the press is so hostile to Harry and Meghan. The real reason is that the couple defied their will.
They had the courage to stand up for themselves. They did complain and they did explain, and the people who dominate the press just can’t bear that.
In interviews, Harry in particular has been clear that the behaviour of the press has been unacceptable. Harry has also brought a legal claim against News UK alleging phone hacking going back to when he was just a teenager in a relationship with Chelsey Davy. He also sued the Mail on Sunday for libel before Christmas and forced them to apologise and settle. And most conspicuously Meghan has recently won her case against the same paper after it published extracts of a private letter she wrote to her father.
In the eyes of the press, this is not what is supposed to happen. They believe royalty should be a permanent open goal for dishonest journalism, with them publishing whatever abusive, intrusive sewage they like and the Royals putting up with it as if that were part of their job.
And the sense of entitlement of the papers goes even further. Take the recent announcement of Meghan’s pregnancy, which has been presented as her breaching her own privacy when she objects to others doing so. The reality is that the papers are furious they did not get to break the story themselves at the time and in the style they chose – probably laden with innuendo and speculation.
They are angry that their ability to act unlawfully in their coverage has been curtailed by the couple’s willingness to protect their rights in court. But most of all they are angry that someone has dared to stand up to them. If Harry and Meghan can get away with it, after all, maybe others will too, and over time the threatening, abusive, and democracy-distorting power of the press will falter.