As Prince Harry walked down the aircraft towards the journalists covering his tour of Australia, he was in no mood to make friends.
“Thanks for coming, even though you weren’t invited,” the Duke of Sussex told the small group of journalists, who had noticed his obvious anger towards the media presence on his and new wife Meghan’s 16-day trip in autumn 2018.
“Any engagement that I’m at with him he just scowls at us,” said one royal correspondent on the plane that day. “I can’t stress that clearly enough, he can’t hide his disdain. It’s just so uncomfortable, he has fury and venom in his eyes. He’s very tortured.”
It seems unlikely that a group of royal correspondents will get close enough to experience this level of disdain again. On Wednesday night the Duke and Duchess of Sussex unexpectedly announced their intention to withdraw cooperation with the traditional travelling band of journalists who cover the monarchy for British newspapers, part of a shake-up which will see the couple attempt to take a step back from public life and control their image. And in a statement notable for its sense of grievance, it was the members of the so-called “royal rota” who bore the brunt.
He has grown increasingly into adulthood irritated with media coverage and had an almost unhealthy obsession with it
In a swipe at the established order, the Sussexes said there was an international “misconception” that Britain’s royal correspondents were credible sources for information on the work of members of the royal family or on their private lives. In reality, they claimed, these reporters indulged in “frequent misreporting”, and even accurate stories were rewritten by editors to present false impressions.
“I thought this was an inevitable moment but I’m surprised it happened now,” said the former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt, who interviewed Harry on multiple occasions. Hunt said the prince would fixate on negative coverage: “He always talked about his desire to be normal.
“He has grown increasingly into adulthood irritated with media coverage and had an almost unhealthy obsession with it, to the extent he would even read the comments beneath the articles online. He would then take up issues with the correspondents from those papers when he met them.”
Instead, the couple intend to take an approach more in common with the image management techniques practiced by modern celebrities, communicating directly with the public through social media and carefully choosing which parts of the media they deal with. Rather than feeling obliged to provide universal access, they will deal with outlets they feel foster “inclusivity, diversity and tolerance” – singling out the likes of National Geographic rather than the British tabloids.
“The current structure makes it challenging for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to personally share moments in their lives directly with members of the public,” the Sussexes said, as part of a complaint about the ability of tabloids to profit from them.
Hunt said the ability to control media interest is achievable by Hollywood stars, but is more difficult while the Duke remains a royal: “Celebrities do it, but is it deliverable while you remain HRH Prince Harry, son of Diana, and sixth in line to the throne? That’s the challenge.”
Harry’s disdain for the media was inevitably shaped by the death of his mother, Princess Diana, killed in a Paris car crash while being chased by paparazzi, when he was just 12 years old. The subsequent public mourning – which prompted the Daily Mail’s infamous declaration that they would never again buy paparazzi images– permanently tarred his relationship with the press. This only worsened throughout his 20s and early 30s as tabloids bought pictures of him wearing a Nazi uniform and dancing naked in a Las Vegas hotel.
But by the mid-2010s Harry had managed to turn the media to his advantage, harnessing the attention to focus on his work on the Invictus Games for injured soldiers, and talking frankly about his mental health while going on regular formal visits. Much of this coverage was provided by the royal rota, the group of dedicated royal correspondents for seven national print newspapers who take turns to cover the vast majority of royal visits and share the material they produce across the industry.
“They get really quite positive coverage out of it, and we get access that we are thankful and privileged to have,” said one journalist involved in the arrangement, who said other royals often host drinks parties to get to know the individuals who are covering them.
But any chances of a friendly rapprochement between the press and Harry changed when he began dating Meghan Markle in 2016, raising the potential of a glamorous American actor marrying into the royal family. The very first statement issued regarding their relationship confirmed the pair were an item but attacked the “pressure, scrutiny and harassment” she had felt from the press.
That statement also criticised the “racial undertones of comment pieces” about Meghan – an apparent reference to comments by Mail on Sunday columnist Rachel Johnson, who had written that if the couple had children, “the Windsors will thicken their watery, thin blue blood and Spencer pale skin and ginger hair with some rich and exotic DNA”.
References to Meghan’s race would continue to feature in many of the most controversial pieces about her, but royal correspondents covering the pair said they felt it was the coverage of Meghan’s extended family in the run-up to their May 2018 wedding which caused the relationship with the media to break down beyond repair. The Mail on Sunday in particular regularly featured the thoughts of Meghan’s father Thomas Markle about the future son-in-law he had never met, while Piers Morgan at ITV’s Good Morning Britain regularly interviewed Thomas and other distant relatives.
Matters came to a head on the penultimate day of an otherwise well-received royal tour of southern African countries in October 2019, when it was revealed that Meghan had made the highly unusual move to sue the Mail on Sunday for printing parts of a handwritten letter she had sent to her father.
Weeks later, it was confirmed that Harry was separately seeking claims against the publishers of the Sun and the Mirror over allegations of historic phone hacking, meaning the couple were targeting three of the biggest newspaper companies – seemingly confident that they neither feared nor cared about any consequences.
Journalists on the rota insist they are the wrong target for the couple’s ire, since their articles for print newspapers tend to focus on the straightforward reporting of sanitised official events. Many of the more vicious pieces have been written by columnists and showbiz reporters working for the same titles – a distinction which matters little to the outside world, but means that the aggressive reporting coverage is unlikely to stop.
The royals – and Meghan in particular – drive enormous online interest from both fans and haters of the couple, with almost any comment or claim about the pair consistently driving more traffic than original reporting on nearly any other topic. There has been a particular spike in interest from US readers, aiding British outlets such as MailOnline and the Sun.
How the Sussexes will now communicate with the public – and seek financial independence – remains to be seen. An individual from a major social media marketing agency suggested that if the Sussexes wanted to start monetising their official Instagram account with its 10m followers, they could charge brands upwards of £250,000 for endorsements.
But Hunt said the press and the monarchy have traditionally needed each other, and this is a test of whether that still holds true: “It’s a symbiotic relationship. Both parties get something out of it. One party, the royals, have baulked at it on many occasions but they obviously see the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But clearly for Harry and Meghan they don’t feel that’s the case.”