When Diana sat down with Martin Bashir in November 1995, the BBC hailed it the “scoop of a century”. The Princess of Wales had smuggled the Panorama team into Kensington Palace to lift the lid on her marriage and separation from Prince Charles. Diana spoke candidly on her bulimia, the palace smear operation, and Camilla. It was the most-watched television programme of that year – and the reaction was explosive. The interview catalysed the divorce between the Prince and Princess of Wales, and just weeks after Panorama aired, Diana was stripped of her HRH title. Despite being the most photographed woman in the world, and mother to a future king, the palace denied Diana assistance with security or press management. ‘The Firm’ (a term used to describe the cadre of senior royals) was torture to live with, but impossible to live without. She died two years later, hounded by the paparazzi.
There are those who’d suggest that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s break from the British royal family is a tawdry sideshow; indeed, that the only royal interview that matters is one where Prince Andrew sits down with the FBI. It’s certainly true that what we’re witnessing isn’t quite the March on Versailles – it’s a conflict between elites. But then again, so was Brexit. Splits within the establishment have far-reaching implications for the institutions which dominate our political culture. It’s telling that the Duke and Duchess of Sussexes’ sit-down with Oprah is considered more of a threat to palace interests than Prince Andrew’s Newsnight interview. Jeffrey Epstein’s friend and alleged co-offender still enjoys the protection of the Firm. As long as you do nothing to expose the inner-workings of the palace machine, you get to stay within the circle.
Meghan and Harry did more than lift the lid on royal life: they revealed the rot at the heart of Britain’s first family. Last night, the Duchess of Sussex alleged that a senior royal had subjected her unborn child to racism, and that there were “concerns […] about how dark his skin might be”. She implied that the reason why Archie had never been made a Prince (unlike William and Kate’s younger children) was due to her mixed-race heritage, and said that the lack of title meant that her son would not have the same security protection as other members of the family.
Like Diana did 25 years ago, Meghan spoke frankly of the toll that marrying into the Windsors had taken on her mental health: “I just didn’t want to be alive any more. And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought.” She was barely allowed to leave the house, as the royal household was concerned about “how things might look”. And like the Princess of Wales, she found herself unsupported and undermined by those in the palace she had turned to for help. “They said, my heart goes out to you because I see how bad it is, but there’s nothing we can do to protect you because you’re not a paid employee of the institution.”
The Duchess made it clear that she considered herself to have been “silenced” rather than “silent” – the message from the institution was to sit back and accept the barrage of negative press, even when briefings had emerged from within the palace itself. An argument with Kate Middleton over bridesmaids’ dresses had seen Meghan reduced to tears – it was reported to the press as the opposite. Indeed, during the run-up to the interview with Oprah, stories about Meghan being a bully resurfaced in the media. Last week, Buckingham Palace announced an investigation into allegations from two-and-a-half years ago that she had behaved unreasonably towards royal aides. The couple has dismissed the claims as part of a smear campaign.
None of us can say for sure whether Meghan Markle is a bully or not. Only a close circle of royal insiders know the truth for certain. But it is striking that when Diana began to be seen as a “liability” by the royal household, she found “visits abroad being blocked […] things that had come naturally my way being stopped, letters going that got lost […] my husband’s side were very busy stopping me”. In the interview with Martin Bashir, Diana alleged that her mental health issues had been greeted cruelly by palace insiders. “People were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger […] indicating that I was again unstable, sick, and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better.”
Perhaps it is a coincidence that, when two women posed a threat to the smooth running of the royal machine, they found themselves demonised according to the classic tropes of female misbehaviour. Diana, the aristocratic English rose, was cast as the Victorian hysteric; Meghan, mixed-race and American, emerged as a bully and an angry Black woman. The Princess of Wales identified a sophisticated palace operation in place to undermine and brief against her – a war of words within four walls spilled out onto the tabloid’s front pages. It’s not inconceivable that the same may have happened again to the wife of Harry Windsor.
Last night, Prince Harry himself made it clear that he saw the parallels between his wife’s experience at the hands of the Firm, and how the Princess of Wales had been treated. “My biggest concern was history repeating itself—I’ve said that before on numerous occasions, very publicly. And what I was seeing was history repeating itself, but perhaps, or definitely, far more dangerous, because then you add race in, and you add social media in,” he said. “And when I talk about history repeating itself, I’m talking about my mother.”
Diana named herself a “free spirit” in that interview with Panorama. But even then, she was held hostage by the British establishment of which she herself was a part. The same media which gave her a platform from which to rebuke the Royal family was itself violently invasive and exploitative: Martin Bashir is currently being investigated by the BBC over whether he had used falsified bank documents to coerce the Princess of Wales into an interview. Diana used the press to take on the firm, but upon breaking with the palace, could not find another power structure capable of shielding her. Last night’s interview with Oprah Winfrey has shown that, while Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have inherited Diana’s knack for seizing the narrative, they have learned the hard lessons of her life and untimely death. You do not leave the Firm without establishing the protection of an alternative.
Both Great Britain and the United States are aristocracies masquerading as democracies. The UK is ruled by a public school network, from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street. It owns our land and our printing presses. The US is governed by money. Our aristocracy is formal, feudal and horsey. Theirs – informal, but no less remote – is the upper crust of Washington, Wall Street and L.A. One cannot merely be rich, or indeed famous, to be a part of it. You must be at the pinnacle of accomplishment. Beyonce and Jay Z, Barack and Michelle, George and Amal, Serena and her millionaire husband are all members of this American elite. Kim Kardashian wishes she was in it, but still carries a faint whiff of tackiness. Where the British aristocracy is parochial and hopelessly white, this part of the US ruling class is diverse and touched by glamour. Meghan and Harry have escaped the amateurish, colonial indignities of British feudalism for the comparative inclusivity of the American aristocracy. Indeed, the Sussex’s lucrative deal with Netflix is a near carbon copy of the one signed by the Obamas.
This is the nature of the threat that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle pose to the establishment. Their defection to the states shows that as the world’s ruling classes go, the British elite is rather second-rate. For a hot, rich mixed-race woman who’s married to a prince, there are more attractive options than enduring the petty cruelty of palace apparatchiks. Harry, scarred by his mother’s treatment at the hands of both the press and the palace, has witnessed firsthand what happens to those trapped within the royal family’s sphere of influence. Diana left the Firm, yet she could not escape the British establishment. But last night’s interview shows that no matter how the British ruling class froth and spit, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are under the beneficent protection of US media royalty: in the words of Lydia Polgreen, “America has a queen and her name is Oprah Winfrey.”
Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.