Royal reporting and the issue of racism
Ray Snoddy wades into the fall-out caused by Meghan and Harry's on-screen interview with Oprah Winfrey
There was only one UK winner from the Meghan-Harry Royal debacle interview – ITV.
The programme peaked at 12.3 million, with a average of 11.1 million – the channel’s biggest audience since the World Cup Rugby final in November 2019 and up there with the Strictly Come Dancing final in 2020.
The ratings, with ad-rates to match, were testimony to the enduring power of terrestrial television to pull in large audiences for the right event. This one also attracted a large number of younger viewers, many among the 2.2 million who streamed the event.
A nice, if passing boost, following the £205 million hit to ITV profits last year because of the pandemic. ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall did cautiously suggest there were now signs of a strong recovery in ITV ad revenues.
The commercial broadcaster did however spring a small leak in the days after the Oprah interview, in the form of the departure of Piers Morgan from Good Morning Britain after he aggressively questioned the veracity of the claims by the Duchess of Sussex that she had suffered mental health problems and even felt suicidal thoughts.
No one has the right to question what is going on inside another person’s head on mental illness on live television. The more than 41,000 who complained to Ofcom, who may have included Meghan herself, undoubtedly agree.
Piers Morgan’s reputation for having even a semblance of fairness – or awareness on this occasion - has been greatly damaged as a result.
Serious questions can be asked of almost everyone else involved, either directly or by implication, including institutions such as the press and the Royal family itself.
Above all else, Meghan and Harry in their wide-ranging interviews accused the tabloid press, unnamed members of the Royal family and the courtiers who serve them of racism.
They may not care in the slightest, but for the sake of one revengeful TV programme, they have dynamited any bridge back from their self-imposed “exile” in the U.S.
The latest poll for the Mail found that 51% thought the pair should be stripped of their Royal titles with only 28% disagreeing.
As a white Ulsterman of a certain age, I’m in a poor position to pontificate on definitions of racisms, a felt experience. All I can offer up by way of solidarity, is a genuine sighting, when looking for a room in Ealing during the 1960s, of the legendary card saying: “ No blacks, no dogs no Irish.”
But anyone is entitled to ask questions and seek evidence for claims that the growing hostility to Meghan in the press, and the tabloids in particular, was grounded in racism.
The press certainly did not hound Harry and the days were long gone when the papers helped to create a market for the illegal activities of the paparazzi by buying their pictures – something that so afflicted his mother, Princess Diana.
As Neil Fowler, former president of the Institute of Journalists, noted in a letter to The Times this week, the Royal interview coincided with the recent death of Bob Satchwell, founder of the Society of Editors.
It was Satchwell who brokered a deal between the press, broadcasters, the army and Buckingham Palace to stay silent on where Price Harry was serving, enabling the Prince to fulfil a desire to take up frontline duties in Afghanistan.
And it was the Drudge Report in his new home, the U.S, which brought his deployment to an end by revealing his presence there.
If there was racism directed at Meghan by the tabloid press then curiously it was totally missing at the outset.
Her arrival in the Royal family was universally welcomed as a breath of fresh-air for the Royal Family, an American and an actress who has a white father and a black mother. The same was true of her engagement, wedding and the birth of baby Archie.
There had been one snide article, which appeared in Mail Online, saying that Meghan Markle’s social worker Mom lived in Crensham, an LA neighbourhood “plagued by crime and riddled with street gangs” and wondered whether Harry was going to visit anytime soon. Unpleasant certainly but racist?
Harry himself spelled out why the attitude to the Duchess had changed. There was, he said, an invisible contract between the Palace and the press – access in return for favourable coverage.
Harry is correct. This deal, may or may not be right, but it is how the game works and Meghan deliberately declined to play ball.
She refused to provide the traditional baby picture, say where the baby was born or even name the God-parents.
There is other possible evidence that if she is disliked, it may be because of her behaviour not her ethnicity.
It was announced after the interview was filmed, that the Palace is conducting an inquiry into whether Meghan bullied staff.
In the interview itself, the Duchess claimed that the fact that her son Archie had not been made a Prince, or offered the appropriate security protection of a Prince, was evidence of racism.
In fact, Archie can only become a Prince when his grandfather Prince Charles becomes Monarch and the family had plenty of security when they were in the UK.
In the U.S, British security officers cannot permanently be armed, neither do they have access to the latest American intelligence on threats, according to the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s royal protect unit.
As Meghan conceded in the interview, she made no attempt to find out about the curious rules of Royal protocol, up to and including not knowing she had to curtsey to the Queen and rapidly practising at the last minute before their first meeting.
The heart of the racism claim is the “dark skin” issue - a revelation that seemed to send her much-loved American interviewer Oprah Winfrey into a state of deep shock.
There are several contradictions and problems with this “heart of the matter” issue.
Meghan said during the one-on one part of the interview: “When I was pregnant (they raised) concerns about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”
Harry said: “That was right at the beginning, before we even got married”, before adding off camera that the remarks had not been made by his grandmother (the Queen) or grandfather (Duke of Edinburgh). This effectively pointed a finger at the remaining senior members of the Royal Family.
The Queen herself has pointedly stirred in the dimension that “some recollections may vary.”
Even if some such remark was ever made, there are a range of possible explanations.
In another letter to The Times, a Somerset reader says: “When my god-daughter (who is white) was expecting a baby by her partner (who is black), both families spent the entire pregnancy wondering what colour the baby would be. That’s not racism. It’s natural curiosity.”
It is unclear what the long-term consequences of the CBS interview, which played to 49 million worldwide will be.
The press should take this opportunity, in an era where attitudes to and tolerance of all forms of racism are changing rapidly, to redouble efforts to make newsrooms more diverse.
They would then be in less danger of causing offence, inadvertently or not.