As a journalist, I’ve worked for a newspaper, a magazine, and had many stories printed in a variety of publications. Those that I’ve worked and written for had strict guidelines about what went into their pages. Information was checked and rechecked. Reporters were often asked to verify a quote or data included in a story. Each line was scrutinized by editors and copy editors. If a mistake made its way into a piece, a correction was run.
Operating outside this universe are the tabloids. They occupy prime positions at checkout counters in grocery stores. The most famous tabloid in the U.S. is The National Enquirer which openly acknowledges that it pays sources for tips. It also is famous for buying stories and then burying them, something it did quite frequently to protect former president Trump.
While it’s easy to dismiss the power these newspapers have, those who have found themselves a target know how demeaning and destructive that constant attention can be. And nowhere is this tabloid travesty better practiced than in Britain where those owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch profit at the expense of others.
Spare, Prince Harry’s memoir, went on sale this week and has set sales records around the world. There seems to be no shortage of interest in the royal family and particularly for Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, who fled Britain after being hounded by the tabloids. It’s easy to dismiss Harry and Meghan as whiners who should have done what previous royals did, just keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it. But reading Harry’s story, and being reminded of the racist headlines that appeared when he began dating Meghan, the couple never had a chance to survive in such a toxic environment when those around them – yes, from the queen on down – did nothing to protect them.
The headlines alone would have been bad enough, but as we’ve seen with social media, what people read and believe often causes them to act, sometimes in violent ways. The paparazzi (or paps, as Harry calls them), never left them alone. Whether they were at an event or riding in a car, the paps followed them, often becoming aggressive, trying to get a reaction and a photo that would sell for top dollar. For Harry, every encounter with the paps was a reminder of how his mother, Princess Diana, died in that Paris tunnel being pursued by photographers. He wanted to protect his wife from that kind of danger.
Of course, the paps have help in carrying out their nefarious deeds. The press that covers the palace make up the Royal Rota, those working for the tabloids and other publications whose sole purpose is covering the royal family. Within the palace, each royal has their own comms person, someone who feeds stories to the press. Not surprisingly, these comms are very competitive, trying their best to get positive coverage for their royal. To do that, why not dish some dirt about another royal? This trading was common. One of the biggest operators? According to Harry, Camilla who, trying to rehabilitate her reputation as the woman responsible for breaking up Charles and Diana’s marriage, didn’t hesitate to dish about Harry and Meghan.
Once a negative headline appeared, the palace forbade Harry from issuing a denial. Prince Charles would tell his son – “darling boy,” he called Harry, well into his son’s adulthood – just ignore it and it will be forgotten. Harry tried to explain that what Meghan was experiencing was different. The stories didn’t just have a racist undertone, they were out and out racist. While they were dating, the tabloids said Meghan was “straight out of Compton,” referring to a film about a hip hop group in California, but, really, casting her as coming from a crime-ridden area. Even though Meghan wasn’t from Compton, although Harry points out, what if she was, she was being portrayed as a low class Black woman who had the temerity of trying to become a royal.
It comes with the territory, some may say. You’re a royal, deal with it. But reading Spare what comes through loud and clear is that Harry never wanted to be a royal, never felt comfortable in the role he was cast. He never sought fame, in fact, tried to run from it. But on so many occasions that proved to be impossible. Once he began to date someone, that woman was hounded by the press and would ultimately tell Harry it was all too much. When Harry joined the British army, the tabloids were intent on finding him. When his location was made public, the army was forced to extract him and send him back to Britain, leaving Harry bereft that he couldn’t fight alongside his troops.
Another criticism being lobbed at the couple – if they want less attention, then why produce a Netflix documentary about their lives, and why Spare? Because they felt forced to set the record straight. No one else would do that. The royals are sticking to their story and the tabloids continue to control the narrative, often with the help of the palace.
Harry’s story is about more than what he and Meghan endured. It’s about all of us who continue to be fed and digest misinformation, whether about the royal family or about some of the politicians we have at home. Media literacy used to be taught in the schools, helping young people discern what was factual and what was made up. The hope was that we would all become more educated readers, going beyond the headlines to make up our own minds rather than being spoon fed what was being dished out. Critical reading is now a thing of the past. Conspiracies are in and the more outrageous the better.
Spare could be that wake up call we need. If so, then Harry will have performed an important public service.
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