The royal row and tabloid tyranny

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

Good drama can hold up a mirror to the world and the real-life drama unfolding around the British royal family certainly does. What it shows reflects very badly on aspects of our culture, particularly the sheer toxicity of much of the tabloid press. Less obviously at the moment, it also has a serious message about our constitutional arrangements.

What must first strike any impartial observer of the current controversy is the degree of nastiness exhibited by populist newspapers and those commentators who emulate their style. I know little about Meghan Markle but it is quite clear that for some time she has been the victim of a sustained campaign of denigration  Anyone doubting this should look at the compilation in Buzzfeed News of headlines  comparing reporting on Markle and Kate Middleton in almost identical circumstances. The crudity of the attacks would be laughable but for the fact that they have been sustained and have certainly influenced the views of a large section of the public.

Kate’s morning sickness cure? Prince William gifted with an avocado for pregnant Duchess” The Express headline, 14 Sept 2017

The pregnant Duchess of Sussex and so-called ‘avocado on toast whisperer’ is wolfing down a fruit linked to water shortages, illegal deforestation and all round general environmental devastation.” The Express: 23. Jan, 2019

Defenders of the tabloids are quick to argue that those in public life should expect robust criticism. “It comes with the territory” is a common theme.  It’s certainly true that from the perspective of the British press there have always been goodies and baddies in the sentimental soap opera that is British royalty. Many years ago, it was Princess Margaret who was the bad fairy. More recently it was Fergie. ‘Princess Pushy’ was the name given to Princess Michael of Kent before more recently being bestowed on Meghan Markle. It is revealing that the villains have all been women despite Prince Andrew, for one, being suspected of far more egregious behaviour.

It is difficult to argue that there is not both misogyny and racism in the treatment of Markle by the press. It would also appear that racism exists within the palace. It is perhaps not surprising that out of date attitudes should persist in an institution so far removed from the modern world, but enthusiasts for so-called ‘Global Britain’ need to think seriously about what it looks like overseas. In particular, what does it look like in the USA where a woman of colour has just been installed as Vice President?

Almost as troubling as the charge of racism levelled by Prince Harry is his assertion that the royal family is terrified of the popular press.

Prince Harry told Winfrey the UK tabloid media is “bigoted” and creates a “toxic environment” of “control and fear”. But he added: “I’m acutely aware of where my family stand and how acutely scared they are of the tabloids turning on them.”

The reaction to his comments rather proves his point. Watching the bile poured on these two young people by large parts of the press might make anyone think twice about incurring the displeasure of the billionaires who own so much of the worst part of our print media.

Looking more closely at some of the criticism levelled at Harry and Meghan suggests it is not just random victimisation of someone to serve as pantomime villain. It appears to be a focused attempt to discredit certain views. Highlighting the significance of slavery seems to be a subject that triggers a hysterical reaction in some right wing circles and attempting to smear the couple as ‘woke’ is a clear signal that royalty should be careful about lending its support to any attempt to develop a broader understanding of our past.

“Harry and Meghan are the perfect leaders of the new international woke elite” The Telegraph 7 March 2021

A more subtle example of the same kind of censorship is the attempt to undermine Prince Charles’ espousal of environmental concerns by constantly lampooning him as a tree-hugger.

“Prince Charles shakes hands with every tree he plants to “wish it well” – and the revelation has sent Twitter into meltdown”. The Sun 7 Nov 2019

The apparent ability of the press to manipulate the monarchy matters greatly in the UK because of the pivotal role the crown plays in a country without a written constitution. The prime minister exercises the prerogative powers of a monarch constrained only by the ability to command a majority in the House of Commons and, in theory, the need for the agreement of the head of state. In practice it is hard to conceive of circumstances in which the monarch might nowadays overrule an elected prime minister in public, though recent revelations in the Guardian illustrate behind the scenes pressure on matters of personal interest.

The Queen has enormous public support but was unwilling to challenge Johnson’s illegal decision to prorogue Parliament. Her successors will be in a weaker position lacking the extra legitimacy that she derives from the length of her reign and her clear commitment to an old-fashioned but honourable view of public service. Whether it is Prince Charles who succeeds, or the decision is made to skip a generation, the new monarch will be far more vulnerable to tabloid bullying, including pressure not to intervene to prevent prime ministerial overreach.

As long as the monarchy stays aligned with the interests of the rich and powerful they can reasonably be assured of the fawning deference that insists that the Queen should not be embarrassed by being ‘dragged into politics’.  What they mean of course is that the monarch should remain as decorative camouflage for a political system lacking in any real checks on executive power.

A family breakup may be the headline story. A broken political system is the bigger issue.