After Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced on their website and Instagram that they are going to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the royal family and work to become financially independent”, there was an explosion of interest on social media and the news. Everyone is asking what “financial independence” means, how this semi-separation will affect the monarchy, and whether the decision was affected by racist and sexist abuse against Markle.
Then there is media relations. The couple have said they will adapt their media approach for more “diverse and open access to their work”. This includes working with grassroots media organisations and more “credible” media outlets.
They will also be using “official communication channels” (the website and Instagram) to engage the public “directly”. Most notably, they will “no longer participate in the royal rota system” that determines which journalists can cover royal events in person – mostly royal correspondents from particular UK media outlets including the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun. It all amounts to a clear attempt to take more control over how they are portrayed by the media – though they are arguably underestimating what is already in place.
No more priority access
The royal family need the media to function. They need to share their initiatives, patronages and philanthropic projects to appear to be “doing good”. This is, as I argue in my forthcoming book, a key mechanism through which to produce public consent for the monarchy.
They know this. Despite serious recent missteps – Prince Andrew’s disastrous Newsnight interview, for example – the monarchy run a very sophisticated PR programme. There is a constant battle over visibility: the monarchy must retain some semblance of fairytale and superiority (of being “above” politics, for example), or it risks being exposed as an institution invested in maintaining wealth and power at any cost. Therefore, visibility has to be tightly stage-managed. As political constitutionalist Walter Bagehot famously wrote: “we must not let in daylight upon magic”.
The royal rota system essentially means that the monarchy has control over who covers their events, what access they get, and who they speak to. Royal correspondent for the Daily Express Richard Palmer has tweeted about how rota journalists are stationed so far away from the royals it becomes impossible to document what happens. This, he says, inevitably leads to a series of identical stories about “good work” or royal women’s clothing.
Media coverage of royal tours works similarly. A team of correspondents have their itinerary organised by Buckingham Palace. This model reflects the “embedded journalism” agreement established during the Vietnam war. The agreement saw reporters attached to a particular military unit and deployed to war zones alongside it. This led to issues around impartiality and objectivity, since it essentially operated as Ministry of Defence propaganda.
Not that any mainstream UK news outlet is sufficiently critical about the monarchy anyway – particularly in terms of wealth inequality, racial inequality or neo/colonialism. But by controlling access, the royals remove a vital opportunity for scrutiny. In view of this, Harry and Meghan’s intention to step away from it is remarkable.
This is not to dismiss the racist and sexist abuse that Meghan Markle has faced at points by certain (right-wing) media outlets. This ranged from articles littered with coded language that called her “exotic” to others that said outright that she was “straight outta Compton” and from “a gang-scarred home” . It raises serious questions about UK media-political alignments and ideologies, particularly at a time of growing far-right movements around the world.
Some coverage, however, such as criticism of the couple using private jets while campaigning against climate change, is entirely valid. Also, the couple’s statement that they will only be permitting “credible” journalists to cover their events begs the question, who gets to decide who is credible?
The National Union of Journalists has said that this is an attempt to “prevent the media from functioning and [compromises] the ability of journalists to do their jobs, which is completely unacceptable”. The new restriction, particularly in light of the couple’s recent statement about suing the Mail on Sunday for publishing a private letter that Markle had sent to her father, feels like a sweeping criticism of all journalists and media organisations. While many have been particularly vicious towards Markle – the Mail on Sunday in particular – others such as Hello! have barely said a negative word about the royals in their history. This raises a different set of questions around bias.
The couple’s need to shape a new kind of royal relationship with the media justifiably raises issues about the practice of royal reporting, the role of the royal correspondent and the structural racism that exists within parts of the British media. It also exposes the battle for control over the royal narrative. As of yet, however, it is unclear whether circumventing the royal rota and carving a new path for engagement will give the Sussexes more say in the story that is told or how much they are hounded in the long run. As the news settles, it seems like things are just the same as they have always been.