Meghan and Harry’s Oprah Interview and the Problems of Protocol

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Image description: Buckingham Palace 

Most hypothetical rulebooks of ‘appropriate’ royal behaviour probably don’t include sitting down with a chat-show host in a garden in California. However, Harry and Meghan have never represented the model image of traditional British monarchy. Their recent televised conversation with Oprah Winfrey – which touched on issues such as personal security, mental health and racism – prompted explosive reactions from the press and public figures, and even drew a reaction out of the Royal Family themselves. 

The interview (which aired on CBS in the US on 7th March, and on ITV in the UK the next day) appeared several weeks after it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will not be returning as working members of the Royal Family. They moved to Canada in late 2019 and in January 2020 the couple announced that they would be taking a step back from senior roles. In March 2020, they relocated to Los Angeles, California, and it is here that the interview took place.

Back in May 2018 when they were married in a fairy-tale ceremony at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, few would have imagined that matters would come to this. There were high hopes for what this new addition to the House of Windsor might bring. Meghan Markle’s status as a divorced, mixed-race, American actress certainly provided a contrast to the backgrounds of other royal spouses. Yet, in a matter of months, the fairy-tale was crumbling – and in this interview Meghan and Harry lay out their experiences in personal detail, which some found shocking.

Ever since the announcement of the couple’s engagement, the British Press (particularly the tabloids) have subjected Meghan to a high level of scrutiny. She has been criticised for her apparent lack of adherence to the royal dress code and even for eating an avocado – despite the fact that the same paper ran a glowing story about how the same fruit might be the perfect cure for the Duchess of Cambridge’s morning sickness

Yet, in a matter of months, the fairy-tale was crumbling

Meghan managed to laugh about this last comparison in the interview, saying “that’s a loaded piece of toast”. But what is decidedly less funny are the headlines interpreted by many as displaying covert – and sometimes overt – colonialist and racist attitudes. Headlines suggesting that Meghan was “(almost) straight outta Compton” and that Harry was marrying into “gangster royalty” were particularly jarring for some readers. The couple’s critics have pointed out that Meghan is not the only member of the family to have drawn these kinds of negative comments from the press. Before her marriage to William, the Duchess of Cambridge was dubbed “Waity Katie”. But although Meghan acknowledged that this rudeness must have been difficult to deal with, she underlined the fact that “rude and racist are not the same”.

According to Meghan, her main issue with “the firm”, as she calls the Royal Family, is that they did not protect her and her husband from the media onslaught. A particularly thorny topic was a story published several months after the Sussexes’ wedding which alleged that Meghan had made Kate cry over flower girl dresses. Meghan stated that the opposite was true. She used Buckingham Palace’s lack of response to the story as an example of their failure to set the record straight. Although she would have preferred the entire incident to go unpublicised, it seems that she wanted the Palace’s press team to actively debunk it once it was out in the open.

The problem here is that this course of action would go against the established protocol for dealing with such matters. The Royal Family tries to maintain a relationship with the press, and very rarely do they directly respond to something which has appeared in print. A notable exception to this was Prince Andrew’s interview on Newsnight back in November 2019, when he responded to accusations of sex offences and other rumours surrounding his relationship with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But in general, their policy is to say little and wait for the storm to pass.  

Royal protocol also seems to have driven a wedge between the Sussexes and the rest of the family regarding their son. Meghan spoke about how Archie, unlike the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s children, was not given a title or security from birth. The technicalities of this particular protocol are rather convoluted and parts of it date back to letters patent signed by George V in 1917 (see here for details). It is unclear whether the Sussexes were insinuating that their son’s treatment was a reflection of his mixed-race heritage. What was explicit was the couple’s accusation of racism within the Royal Family. Meghan referred to “concerns and conversations” about “how dark” their child’s skin might be. They say these conversations, which took place during the Duchess’ pregnancy, involved Harry and a senior member of the family (although Oprah later revealed that neither the Queen nor Prince Philip were involved). For many observers, this alleged incident represents a clear lack of progressiveness within this historic British  institution and has caused significant distress.

One of the other most moments I found most shocking during the interview was when Meghan talked frankly about experiencing suicidal thoughts. She said that at one point the situation got so bad that she “didn’t want to be alive anymore”. Few watching this revelation could honestly say that they were unmoved by those words— except Piers Morgan, who left Good Morning Britain after thousands of complaints were made to ITV about his comment that he “didn’t believe a word” of Meghan’s claim. 

Few watching this revelation could honestly say that they were unmoved by those words

Meghan described how she attempted to seek help from the Palace HR department, but was turned away because she was not a paid employee. According to her, family members were unwilling for her to seek outside professional help because they were worried about how it “would look”. This version of events certainly supports the traditional image of the British monarchy maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip’. In Harry’s words, the resounding attitude within the family is as follows: “this is how it is. This is how it’s meant to be, you can’t change it. We’ve all been through it”. Again, the lack of progressiveness and modernity in attitudes towards mental health (at least in the narrative presented by Harry and Meghan) is upsetting and disappointing, particularly for younger people who might have hoped that the British monarchy was showing signs of change. 

Several years ago, Harry spoke openly about his struggles with mental health after his mother’s death. He received support from the family, notably his brother William, for doing so. But it appears that the Royal Family still has a long way to go in terms of developing the conversation around mental health. As Harry said during the interview, he was afraid of “history repeating itself” – and the possible comparisons between Meghan’s mental health struggles and Princess Diana’s have not gone unnoticed by commentators.

The Royal Family’s reaction to the interview has been hard to gauge. The timing was far from convenient— the Duke of Edinburgh, Harry’s grandfather, was admitted to hospital three weeks ago, where he has undergone treatment for an infection and surgery for an existing heart condition. The interview also aired soon after bullying allegations were brought against the Duchess of Sussex by former members of staff. Meghan dismisses it as an attack on her character. The Palace says it will be investigating these claims. 

There was intense speculation over whether or not the Palace would respond to the interview. Aside from Diana’s conversation with the BBC in 1995 there was no precedent, and that interview did not contain allegations of racism. 

This time, the Palace settled for a three-line response, saying that they were “saddened” to learn the full extent to the couple’s unhappiness during their time as working royals, and that the allegation of racism was “concerning” and would be addressed privately within the family. Some see this revelation as encouraging. Others think it does not go far enough. Either way, it seems to adhere to the established royal protocol of not providing specific responses to media publications and broadcasts. 

Harry and Meghan might have a reputation for wanting to change the world, and the UK tabloids may have dubbed the interview the toughest royal crisis in 85 years. But one thing remains the same: the Royal Family remains an odd construct, combining elements of a public institution with the life of a private family. This construct is still largely dictated by matters of stringent protocol which, as Meghan and Harry’s case proves, cannot easily be adapted to suit individual members. The long-term impact of the interview remains to be seen.

Image credit: Mike Marrah via Unsplash 

 

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