“Never complain, never explain,” is a phrase coined by Queen Elizabeth II, and a mantra well executed by the majority of the royal institution. However, every once in a while, someone allows the public a look inside at the royal family, as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) did in their recent two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Outside of shortly-worded press releases, well-planned public appearances, and untrustworthy tabloids, the British family hardly ever reveals their inner workings to the public.
People seem so desperate to learn about their business that The Crown, a fictionalized TV series based on their lives, became the most popular show on Netflix this past November. And while Oprah has conducted some of the most notable celebrity interviews in history, it’s her recent interview with Meghan and Harry that broke viewer records.
A History of the Royal Family’s Relationship with the Media
The British royal family’s tumultuous relationship with the media dates back to about 1820, when King George III began publishing his family engagements in The Court Circular in an attempt to rewrite press rumors about his troublemaking sons. This effort to overpower the press later backfired when he was framed as the villain during his divorce with Queen Charlotte.
The closest insight into the royal’s personal lives the public was ever permitted came in the form of a two-hour-long, 1956 TV documentary called The Royal Family, comprised of intimate footage of the royal family filmed over 75 days. The footage included everyday tasks such as putting food into tupperware and was locked in royal archives 14 years after its release as concerns were raised that the family appeared too normal.
The Royal Family and the Tabloids
Since then, the majority of information on the royal family has come exclusively from tabloids that often receive their stories from staff members, or hired sleuths, generating unreliable gossip and outdated stories.
Despite the vast amount of misinformation, The Royal Family’s responses to the media are few-and-far-in-between.
Complaints Against Tabloid Harassment of Kate Middleton
Recent interventions include when the Press Complaints Commission wrote a letter to magazine editors stating that the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was being harassed.
In response, The Sun and News of the World agreed to temporarily stop publishing her pictures. The Palace of Kensington also released a rare and concise statement when rumors regarding a feud between Middleton and Markle circulated, asserting “this never happened.”
Tabloid Treatment of Meghan Markle: Racism and Criticism
However, these few-and-far-in-between interventions weren’t enough to keep up with the disproportionately hateful press regarding Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, the first American and bi-racial woman to join the royal family.
While tabloid headings described Kate Middleton, “tenderly cradling” her baby bump, they also questioned why Meghan “couldn’t keep her hands off” her baby bump. Meanwhile, unsupported claims that Meghan picked fights with workers and members of the royal family fueled a growing racism in the tabloids, and perpetuated the stereotype of the angry Black woman.
In January 2020, Meghan and Harry announced they would be stepping down from their positions as senior members of the royal family to become financially independent while continuing to serve the queen.
As with every other announcement from the family, the press ran wild with rumors, labelling the decision as “Megxit” and releasing stories that the two had “blindsided the queen.” Until this year, no one in the royal family publicly addressed this departure.
Oprah Interview: Meghan and Harry Break their Silence
This March, Harry and Meghan finally broke their year-long silence when they sat down with Oprah for a conversation where, as Oprah put it, “no subject was off-limits.” In contrast to the controversy-driven tabloids and three-word-statements from the royal institution, the intimate nature of the interview gave the two-room to be vulnerable and human.
One by one, Meghan and Harry subverted various media rumors, from the time “Meghan made Kate Middleton cry” to the “queen being blindsided.”
The Reasons for “Megxit”: Tabloid Criticism and Mental Illness
Perhaps the biggest question answered was the reason Meghan and Harry left the institution in the first place.
The two cited multiple contributing factors, from the unwavering media criticism of Meghan, to her increasingly difficult struggle with mental illness, all of which fell under an umbrella of issues that could’ve been solved with better support from the institution.
Meghan and Harry Critique Lack of Support from the Royal Family
This lack of support, both Harry and Meghan noted, came from the royal family’s fear of appearances. Meghan recalled the moments she was told to “lay low” even though she’d only left her estate twice in four months or the time she was denied proper mental health support because it “wouldn’t look good for the institution.”
It all came with a warning not to take every royal family appearance at face value. As Meghan recalled the day she told Harry she was having suicidal thoughts and later attended an event, an image of the two at the event seemingly glowing and grinning appeared on the screen, but Meghan described seeing something completely different.
“What I see is how tightly his knuckles are gripped around mine, you can see the whites of our knuckles. We are smiling and doing our job, but we’re both just trying to hold on,” she spoke with soundness despite blinking back tears.
Similarities to Princess Diana’s 1995 Interview
The interview was the first tell-all discussion on the royal family since Princess Diana’s 1995 interview with Martin Bashir. Despite the incredible gap of time between the two dialogues, both Meghan and Diana had startlingly similar things to say about the dangers of the press, their struggles with mental illness, the lack of support they received from the institution, and the disconnect between the public and the royal family.
Even Harry noted the similarities between his mother and wife, emphasizing his fear of “history repeating itself,” in reference to Diana’s struggles with mental health, and the relentless media attention that eventually resulted in her fatal car accident.
Meghan and Harry Reveal Racism in the Royal Family
While these similarities drew attention to the issues that have persisted within the royal family for the past few decades, Meghan and Harry also drew attention to an issue that has persisted for much, much longer in the institution: racism.
While it’s no secret that the royal institution was built from racism and colonialism, the issue of race in the royal family hasn’t been explicitly touched on by any insider, ever.
Harry Expressed Disappointment at the Institution’s Refusal to Acknowledge Racism
Harry expressed the disappointment he felt when the institution refused to acknowledge that race played a role in disproportionately harmful critiques of Meghan recalling how “over 70 female members of Parliament…came out and called out the colonial undertones of articles and headlines… but no one in [his] family ever said anything, over those 3 years,” before referring back to his family’s relationship with the media, noting that he’s “acutely aware of where [his] family stands, and how scared they are, of the tabloids turning on them.”
The Royal Family’s Racist Concerns Surrounding the Skin Tone of Meghan and Harry’s Baby
The most horrifying insight came when Meghan discussed the royal family’s concern over how dark her son’s skin might be, though both Harry and Meghan refused to reveal who initiated and took part in that conversation. Still, they gave enough information to prove the royal family’s racist, Eurocentric standards remain unaddressed and pervasive.
Royal Family and Tabloid Respond to the Oprah Interview
Both the royal institution and the tabloids responded, in their typical fashion, with an official statement expressing their concern over the issues raised and the tabloids with catty claims that Prince Charles was “deeply hurt” by the Oprah interview.
For now it appears the royal family remains in an invisible contract with the press, and only time will tell if interviews like this one will break it.