The Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced last week that they would be stepping back from their senior duties with the Royal Family. At the same time they published what they called a revised media approach befitting their lesser status. Within days Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, returned to Canada.
The response from the press was as swift as it was deranged. Among the 17 pages of invective published in Wednesday’s Daily Mail, Sarah Vine – wife of Michael Gove and Leeds sick child truther – claimed their decision to forgo the subsidies which accompany “royal duties” revealed a couple “incapable of seeing beyond their own little bubble of privilege”. It transpires that in the contrarian world of the billionaire press, wanting to have a proper job and pay the bills, rather than live at the taxpayer’s expense, is a shameless self-indulgence.
Such sentiments were echoed by Piers Morgan when he declared the royal couple to be “the two most spoiled brats in history”. Morgan, who started his journalistic career as a celebrity gossip columnist with The Sun, and who owes his national profile to Rupert Murdoch (he edited the News of the World at just 28), symbolises the debasement of public life. That he now possesses an air of respectability reveals how far the country has fallen.
Indeed the story of Harry and Meghan says much about Britain and its contradictions – from the fusion of a feudal institution with post-modern celebrity, to a public culture which demands deference and yet is upheld by an unscrupulous press. Beautiful, rich and seemingly content, what outrages Fleet Street is that the royal couple don’t appear to be driven by a sense of obligation to the status quo or the idolisation of money. For the likes of Morgan and Vine, and the billionaires who own the outlets they write for, this is an incomprehensible heresy. By wanting to change the world, the Duke and Duchess set a precedent that terrifies the British press. The message is clear: look great and sound authoritative but don’t deign to say anything of substance; ‘charity work’ is to be encouraged, of course, but how dare you comment on climate change, the biggest issue confronting our species.
In the coming years I would prefer Britain to become a republic – but I’m also realistic. With the succession of Charles III a minimal ambition should be to enhance Britain’s constitutional monarchy. Despite shifting attitudes I don’t expect the public to be clamouring for abolition outright, but you’ll be stretched to find anyone eager to fund the lifestyle of Prince Andrew or foot Princess Eugenie’s wedding bill. The royals should have less profile, less responsibility and, ideally, no access to public funds. In a strange way the break Harry and Meghan now appear intent on pursuing offers a plausible future for the royal family more generally – a status more private than public.
This is eminently practical because, in an observation that will surprise nobody, the House of Windsor has amassed extraordinary private wealth. The Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall are multi-billion pound private concerns, meaning, at the very least, that public subsidies like the civil list and royal grant should be scrapped.
Attendant with such reforms, it would only be fair that the family’s state duties be significantly reduced, as Harry and Meghan appear to have prefigured. Any political power invested in the monarch – ceremonial or otherwise – should be transferred to someone who is actually elected. The occasional birthday might stay (if they so wished) – I don’t doubt many love the pomp – but I fail to see how Britain will get its act together while an OAP is forced to read the government’s annual to-do list, dressed for a Rick Ross video. Queen Elizabeth II is 93 and it is clear Charles would sooner tend to his vegetable garden than justify free ports in Grimsby or wax lyrical about industrial policy. Let him, and his successors, do what they want – as long as they foot the bill.
Such political evolution should be accompanied by something even more important – media reform. What passes for journalism in Britain must be subject to better regulation. That is not to say freedom of the press should be curtailed, but it is clear that outlets like The Sun and Daily Mail can’t be trusted to regulate themselves, which they are effectively doing under the present regulator IPSO. These are businesses which, in recent years, have hacked the phones of dead children, incited hatred towards minorities and published far-right conspiracy theories whose ‘sources’ include Aryan Unity. It’s like having someone who sinks a litre of vodka every day run Alcoholics Anonymous.
Taking on the media is another factor behind why the press are trying to crush the Duke and Duchess. Harry is currently pursuing legal action against the the Trinity Mirror Group (who own the Daily Mirror) and News Group (The Sun and former News of the World) over historic instances of phone-hacking. The Duchess, meanwhile, is suing the Mail on Sunday. Although Harry is the sixth in line to the throne, his pursuit of justice relating to events from more than a decade ago appears to have surprised and irritated the press. After everything – the lies, the illegality, the convictions – the instinct of the press is that the law does not apply to them – no matter the victim’s profile.
Which explains the revised media approach the couple published last week. That included several key changes such as an active effort to engage with grassroots media organisations and to no longer participate in the ‘Royal Rota’ system. In short, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were giving the middle finger to Britain’s billionaire-owned press. In doing so they demonstrated greater bravery, and innovation, than any British politician.
Despite their elevated social status Harry and Meghan reflect a great deal about Britain in the 2020s, as does the deranged response to their recent announcement. A media establishment which views democracy as analogous to sales figures and ethics as something for losers. A post-crisis common sense which presumes anyone who says things could get better, and that this requires political effort, is either a hypocrite or in possession of ulterior motives. Ageing pundits who think it’s normal to hate people they’ve never met and still presume they are society’s victims – despite their cultural and economic dominance.
The rot infecting British society starts in Fleet Street. It’s vacuity and amorality dovetails perfectly with elite interests because the status quo, despite the planet burning and inequality rising, suits them just fine.
Strangely it may be a royal couple, albeit a very modern one, who lead the charge against them. But if the Duke and Duchess of Sussex can’t do that without being terrorised, bullied – and ultimately destroyed – then what hope does Labour’s next leader have?
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.