Opinion

The Harry and Meghan interview revealed the dysfunction at the heart of the British establishment

09 Mar 2021 7 minutes Read
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Picture by CBS.

Ifan Morgan Jones

There was an air of snootiness by some about the broadcasting of Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, with many disregarding it as some celebrity gossip and a distraction from more important issues.

But this was a fascinating interview that revealed an awful lot about how the upper echelons of the UK state function – or don’t function – in practice.

‘You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,’ as my old editor used to say and Oprah Winfrey’s might just have netted the entire British establishment for her mounting case.

Much was made of familial rivalry – and the revelation that there is racism at the heart of an institution that selects its members by bloodline. Shocked, well not that shocked.

But perhaps one of the most interesting discussions that ran throughout the interview was the question: ‘Who does the Royal Family actually exist for?’

Harry continually spoke of being a member of the family as something more akin to being a hostage of other people, and that Meghan saved him from that situation:

Harry: I wouldn’t have . . . I wouldn’t have been able to, because I myself was trapped as well. I didn’t see a way out.

Oprah: She felt trapped, you were trapped?

Harry: Yeah, I didn’t see a way out.

Oprah: But you’d this life, your whole life. This has been your life your whole life.

Harry: Yeah, but, you know, I was trapped, but I didn’t know I was trapped.

Oprah: Mmm.

Harry: But the moment that I met Meg, and then our worlds sort of collided in the most amazing of ways, and then to see how . . .

Oprah: Please explain how you, Prince Harry, raised in a palace and a life of privilege — literally, a Prince . . . how you were trapped.

Harry: Trapped within the system, like the rest of my family are. My father and my brother, they are trapped. They don’t get to leave. And I have huge compassion for that.

So whose interests does having a Royal Family serve, if not its members?

The important thing to remember about the Royal Family is that the members themselves are just the public face.

It’s a massive machine with thousands of people dependent on it for their employment, running the most sophisticated PR operation in the world – and they’re much cleverer than the members of the family themselves.

But even beyond that, the Royal Family is the lynchpin of the entire British establishment. It’s what gives the whole quasi-feudal system of power in the UK its veneer of mystique and, most importantly, it’s what keeps public support for the entire edifice intact.

The Royal Family and its huge PR operation are simply the gravitational centre of a whole network of privilege which, if the centre were to implode, would no doubt start to collapse as well.

‘Invisible contract’

What was also very striking about the interview was what an important part UK’s London press plays in keeping this entire edifice upright.

Oprah used the term “symbiotic” which went to the heart of the matter – the same tabloid press which is currently on defensive manoeuvres is deeply embedded within the same power structures at the heart of the British establishment.

This shouldn’t be surprising given that, of course, most of these newspapers and news sites are owned by that same wealthy elite.

The UK press is the immune system of the British establishment, regulating public support for it on one hand while driving out anything – like Meghan Markle – it sees as a threat.

Prince Harry himself made this clear in the interview when he spoke of the ‘control by fear’ that the UK press exerted on anyone that didn’t do what they wanted. But he was very candid in admitting that the ‘institution’ – the Royal Family – also ‘survives’ thanks to the UK press.

Harry: There is this invisible . . . what’s termed or referred to as the ‘invisible contract’ behind closed doors between the institution and the tabloids, the UK tabloids.

Oprah: How so?

Harry: Well, it is . . . to simplify it, it’s a case of if you . . . if you as a family member are willing to wine, dine and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press.

Oprah: What do you care about better press if you’re royal?

Harry: I think everyone needs to have some compassion for . . . for them in that situation, right? There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations. I mean, generations.

Oprah: But who’s controlling whom? It’s the institution. From our point of view, just the public. It’s . . .

Harry: Yeah but the institution survives based on that, on that perception. So actually, if you don’t . . .

Oprah: So you’re saying there’s this relationship that Meghan was speaking of . . . it’s like, symbiotic. One lives or thrives because the other exists.

Meghan: Mmm.

Oprah: That’s what you’re saying.

Harry: That’s the . . . that’s the idea.

Meghan: Well, see, I think there’s a reason that these tabloids have holiday parties at the Palace. They’re hosted by the Palace, the tabloids are. You know, there is a construct that’s at play there.

Nothing here is new to anyone who’s ever studied the media but it was fascinating to hear it coming for the first time from the horse’s mouth – and into the ears of 30m people.

Challenge

Reading her final astute remark, it’s quite clear where things went wrong for Meghan – she was a person who, by dint of her self-made fortune and mixed-race background, was used to breaking down power structures who suddenly found herself at the centre of an institution designed for the sole purpose of maintaining them. It was never going to work.

However, she may yet have the last laugh.

The one final interesting thing about the whole Harry/Meghan v Royal Family fight is that it’s pitching one kind of elite (wealthy American celebrities with huge news access) against another (British Royalty PR machine).

And so far, Harry and Meghan are winning the fight. The UK press is spinning at a rate of knots but newspapers with their falling circulations just don’t have the influence they once did.

The British establishment are holding a pea shooter while Meghan has got her hands on a bazooka.

In this case, perhaps not even the Queen can match Oprah Winfrey for media influence.

Being outgunned by Meghan Markle might be just another symptom of the decline of the British elite to file away with Brexit, impending Scottish independence, and Joe ‘I’m Irish’ Biden.

The Royal Family is of course safe as long as the Queen sits on the throne. Everyone loves her and not even Harry and Meghan can say a bad word.

But King Charles? The man at the centre of both Royal familial disasters of the past half-century? The single parent who won’t return his son’s phone calls?

If the Royal Family is the gravity that holds the entire British elite together, if its pull starts to wane things may begin to become very wobbly indeed.

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