Americans are tearing themselves apart over identity politics, and now Britain is divided over identity monarchy.
And you have to give Meghan Markle credit. She took the racial bias and class snobbery she says that she experienced at Buckingham Palace and weaponized it, even as she grabbed her husband and son and fled the royal strictures for a regal, Mediterranean-style spread in Montecito, with Oprah Winfrey leading the welcome wagon. (Given the available evidence, we’ll never know what offended Windsor sensibilities more: Harry’s wife being bi-racial or the fact that she’s a divorced American actress who felt misunderstood and “silenced.”)
The Palace didn’t dare dismiss or deny the charges Meghan made in the interview with Oprah. Instead, the Queen issued a placating statement saying the family took the complaints seriously and would address concerns about racism privately—exactly the place where bias too often finds oxygen.
Yet evidently the Palace felt pressure to promptly take a public step. Prince Charles may in some eyes be suspect No. 1 in the which-royal-said-something-about-Archie’s-skin-color guessing game. Harry said he wouldn’t name names but then eliminated the Queen and Prince Philip from the blood-lineup of usual suspects. Two days after the interview, his father executed a P.R. pantomime: he just coincidentally visited a vaccine clinic set up by (wait for it) a Black church in London and allowed himself to be photographed talking amiably with Black subjects awaiting their shots.
Prince William stepped up on Thursday while visiting a London school with his wife, Kate, saying, “We’re very much not a racist family.”
Piers Morgan, the bristling TV commentator and ardent Megha-phobe (Private Eye refers to him as Piers Moron), took to Good Morning Britain to defend the monarchy, bellowing that he didn’t believe a word Meghan said about having had thoughts of suicide. When a co-host objected to his comments, Morgan stormed off the set, refused to apologize, and was forced to resign. According to The Times of London, Meghan had her people call ITV to complain about Morgan’s rant.
The interview—and how it was perceived—broke down along generational, political, and geographical lines. Britons, being more anti-Meghan than their American counterparts, were negative. Gen Z-ers, who sympathized with the grievances raised, were more pro-Meghan than their elders, and conservatives were more anti-Meghan than liberals were. Another Meghan—Megyn Kelly—the former Fox News anchor, and Tucker Carlson, a current one, defended not the Crown nor Harry and Meghan but … Morgan. Another Queen, Beyoncé, gave her blessing to Meghan. “We are all strengthened and inspired by you,” the performer posted on her Web site. (The two women met at the 2019 opening of The Lion King, when Harry was overheard asking a startled Bob Iger, the head of Disney, to give his wife voice-over work.)
We’ll never know what offended Windsor sensibilities more: Harry’s wife being bi-racial or the fact that she’s a divorced American actress who felt misunderstood and “silenced.”
In Britain, a multicultural country where social fissures are less explored, the Meghan ripple effect was swift. Ian Murray, head of the Society of Editors, had to resign after 160 journalists of color contested his assertion that the British press has no racial bias.
British tabloids questioned some of Meghan’s more gothic claims, notably that her passport and keys were confiscated and that she was barred from having lunch with her friends. (The Sun ticked off 13 foreign vacations Meghan took, including traveling in a private plane to George and Amal Clooney’s villa, in Lake Como, and the New York baby shower that Serena Williams gave Meghan in a $75,000-a-night suite at the Mark Hotel.) But even the most ferocious news organizations in Britain seemed mindful of a worrisome precedent: last month Meghan won a lawsuit against The Mail on Sunday for invasion of privacy. The suit revolved around a letter Meghan had written to her father, portions of which were published by the paper.
Most of the voiced skepticism fell on Harry, who told Oprah that he had been “cut off” financially from his family, had lost his security detail, and therefore had to seek deals with Netflix to support his family and pay for his own security. He acknowledged that he wasn’t penniless, since his mother had left him money, though he didn’t mention how much he inherited from Diana—reportedly close to $13 million—or any other generous family bequests.
Right now, pretty much everyone seems afraid of getting on the wrong side of Meghan (Harry included, if the past two years are any indication). Even Wendell Pierce, a star of The Wire, who played Meghan’s father on the television show Suits, had to walk back comments he had made describing the Oprah interview as a gossipy distraction from the coronavirus pandemic. After a backlash, he clarified that while he had considered the interview “insignificant,” he didn’t mean to suggest that he was dismissive of Meghan’s suicidal thoughts.
When Harry complained to Oprah about press harassment and “history repeating itself,” viewers couldn’t help but squirm: he was the one defying history by choosing the one woman who was guaranteed to drive British tabloids into the kind of frenzied paparazzi pursuit that in 1997 ended in his mother’s death in a car crash. Meghan is the first mixed-race member of the royal family, but she isn’t the first to speak up on-camera about the family’s failure to help a princess in need of psychological support. At times, their dynamic looked a little like a generational version of Vertigo—Meghan stepping into Diana’s role and allowing Harry to refight his mother’s battles—with a happier outcome.
The Sussexes vented a lot about mistreatment by “the Firm,” but they seemed angriest about the Palace’s failure to tame the tabloid press on the couple’s behalf. Given their disparate owners and political slants, as well as competitive drive for sales, curbing them is almost impossible. Still, you can’t help but empathize with Harry, who was 12 when his mother died, for blaming the royal family for not doing more to prevent that tragedy—despite the fact that Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles was over. Evidently, he had hoped the Palace would do better this time around.
In the end, the interview with Oprah, and its aftermath, was both Sophoclean tragedy and a Road Runner cartoon, a spectacle that simultaneously horrifies and gratifies because, well, we knew this would happen, and we even told you to watch out for the Acme anvil falling from above. Harry was expecting too much from a family that is steeped in the past but never learns from it.
Alessandra Stanley is a co-editor of Air Mail