It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Harry. Sure, he’s the black sheep of the world’s most famous billionaire dynasty. But his rebellion has only really extended as far as securing lucrative publishing deals and television exclusives to tell his side of the story. Yes, his phone may have been illegally hacked – but if privacy was such a concern, he might have opted for more of a quiet life in his $15m Californian mansion rather than jumping into the spotlight at every opportunity, including by becoming the first royal in 133 years to give evidence in court, in this case in the phone-hacking trial against Mirror Group.
But Harry’s war with the British press – even more ferocious than his family feud – tells us something important about how the British establishment operates, and the media’s deep embeddedness within it. For what looked at first glance like a fracture in Britain’s elite is in reality a symptom of the media’s fundamental commitment to protecting the realm.
Like his mother before him, Harry has long been perceived as a threat to the stability of the established order, especially since his relationship with Meghan Markle became public. Just as Princess Diana made the mistake of falling in love with the son of an Egyptian oligarch who’d made a habit of squaring up against the British establishment, so too was Harry’s fall from grace accelerated by his marriage to an African American divorcée with a penchant for Noam Chomsky. Markle deepened the longstanding war of attrition between Harry and the so-called fourth estate, a term originally conferred on the British press to reflect its distance from the other three estates of the realm (nobility, clergy and elected politicians). In reality, it’s always been a far cosier relationship.
The British media – especially the tabloid, mid-market and rightwing press – is not just in love with the royal family as an institution, one that invokes patriotism, conservatism and a nostalgic glorification of the past. The press needs the monarchy just as the monarchy needs the press. Royal gossip – just like violent crime and immigration – has been a staple of front pages for decades and even more so in the celebrity-obsessed home pages of the Sun, Mirror, and Mail Online. Similarly, the royals understand that in an era of waning royal influence, the mainstream press retains a unique grip on their subjects’ consciousness. Harry was never going to be able to count on his Dad or brother’s support in his battles with the press – they know the game too well.
Yet the media’s deep love affair with establishment power is by no means exclusive to the tabloid and mid-market press. Witness the BBC’s gushing wall-to-wall coverage of every major royal event, glossing over the routine crackdown on dissent in a way not hugely dissimilar to state projections of power from Moscow to Beijing. The royal family even had the power to censor the BBC’s coverage of the coronation.
Even serious newspapers like the Financial Times and Guardian – once known to shun royal pomp and pageantry – couldn’t resist getting swept up in the coronation. Ironically, it was the latter that famously broke the phone hacking scandal in the first place, which began with the royals – and yet in 2017, the Guardian quietly endorsed the government’s decision to cancel part two of the Leveson inquiry, which was supposed to expose the depths of institutional corruption between press, politicians and the police. This capitulation and falling into line with the rest of the national press is significant. The Guardian’s outcast status, which peaked during coverage of the Ed Snowden leaks, in many ways mirrors Harry’s: it may do things a bit differently here and there, but it’s fundamentally cut from the same cloth as the rest of Fleet Street.
Harry knows the game, too – he’s just playing a slightly different one to his Dad and brother. He’s less preoccupied with winning over British audiences and is acutely aware that his power and influence are maximised on the international stage. Enter Netflix: the platform that dramatised royal titillation with The Crown, then with Harry and Meghan’s three-part documentary series, soon to be followed by a feature film. Indeed, the timing of Harry’s legal action against Mirror Group Newspapers – years after he first claims to have been made aware of the alleged offences – seems remarkably convenient. And what could better distract from, even appear to disprove, the coalescing of royal and press power than a courtroom showdown between a newspaper and a wayward royal?
Justin Schlosberg is a media academic and author based at Birkbeck College, University of London.