5 Dec 2021

Why Meghan Markle ripped up the 'invisible contract' between the royals and British tabloids

3:07 pm on 5 December 2021

By ABC Europe correspondent Isabella Higgins in London

The British royal family and the media have what some describe as an invisible contract: the palace offer access, and the press in return offer favourable coverage.

Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle.

Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle. Photo: AFP or licensors

But it is a relationship that has had its ups and downs, and looks set for another tumultuous period.

In recent weeks, insiders have exposed the behind-the-scenes tactics used by both royals and reporters to own the narrative.

A two-part BBC documentary pulled back the curtain on how the press and palace work together - and sometimes against each other.

And Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, won a legal victory in her fight against a British tabloid over the publication of a letter she sent to her father in August 2018.

Afterwards, she claimed she wanted to "reshape the tabloid industry".

But some believe the attempts of the younger royals to change the rules of engagement with the press are destined to fail.

"Both [press and palace] are powerful … but ultimately the palace cannot go on denying access forever," Robert Hazell, a professor of government and constitution at University College London, told the ABC.

"They need the media … they really do."

Throughout her long reign, the Queen has mostly maintained "popularity a politician would die for", Professor Hazell said.

According to a royal biography by Sally Bedell Smith, for much of her public life the Queen has lived by this mantra: "I have to be seen to be believed."

Cindy McCreery, a historian and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, said that mantra had been there "since the beginning of her reign".

"Then, there was a lot of attention and thought put into her coronation and how that would broadcast," Dr McCreery said.

"The sophistication of the royal family with the press has only increased through her reign."

But increasingly the monarchy has been unable to control the tabloid press, McCreery said, and that press has shown its willingness "to attack the Queen's children and grandchildren".

"Ultimately they are powerless to stop that."

As Queen Elizabeth II withdraws from some duties, and her children and grandchildren take on more public roles, where does the invisible contract stand?

Media experts claim the public has enormous power to determine the future of the relationship.

A peek into the behind-the-scenes briefings

The two-part BBC series, titled The Princes and the Press, showed the extreme lengths the royal family will go to receive positive press.

Numerous reporters described their experiences working with different members of the royal family, airing the behind-the-scenes stories of press trips and revealing how they landed big scoops.

"The reality is there is a far greater level of manipulation that goes on from the royal courts to the media than Joe Public would ever believe," royal biographer Anna Pasternak told the BBC.

The documentary detailed the receptions organised by press secretaries, where royals and reporters mingle.

It suggested that, at times, the households of the different royal family members may work against each other, briefing and leaking to journalists who will give them sympathetic coverage.

In response to the documentary, Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace put out a joint statement slamming the production.

"Too often overblown and unfounded claims from unnamed sources are presented as facts, and it is disappointing when anyone, including the BBC, gives them credibility," the statement read.

A number of reporters and editors described their frustration with both the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, for at times not offering them the access they wanted.

"At the point in which you decide you're not going to play the game, then don't expect other people to play by the rules," broadcaster Trevor Phillips told the BBC.

Editors also described how they would seek out negative stories about the royals when they felt they were not upholding their side of the contract.

"The difficulty for the monarchy is that it's got caught up in celebrity culture and in particular, in all the gossip magazines, and tabloids," Professor Hazell said.

McCreery said the relationship between the media and monarchy had changed significantly over the course of the Queen's 69-year reign.

"I think there has been a really major change from the early days of the reign, where there was much more deference in British society in general, but also a much more regulated press," she said.

"The palace just simply cannot control the press in the way that they might have been able to do in the 1950s."

New battlelines have been drawn

The relationship between the palace and the tabloids hit a breaking point after the death of Princess Diana.

While both sides have been tentatively rebuilding bridges ever since, it appears as if younger members of the royal family are not afraid to challenge what they consider to be an unfair contract.

In 2015, Kensington Palace issued an unprecedented warning to paparazzi, arguing that photographers were using "increasingly dangerous tactics" to obtain images of Prince William and Catherine's son Prince George, who was two years old at the time.

Earlier this year, Prince Harry won an apology and substantial damages from the publishers of Mail on Sunday after he sued the British tabloid for libel.

The paper had claimed he had turned his back on the military when he ended his royal role.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex's own legal action against the Mail on Sunday resulted in a judge ruling the paper had breached her privacy and copyright.

The decision not to let the Mail on Sunday have an appeal trial spares the Duchess of Sussex from having to appear at a trial with her father, Thomas Markle.

In a bold statement released shortly after the court's decision, she wrote that the win was "for anyone who has ever felt scared to stand up for what's right".

"While this win is precedent setting, what matters most is that we are now collectively brave enough to reshape a tabloid industry that conditions people to be cruel, and profits from the lies and pain they create," the duchess said.

The decision by royals to take on the press via legal avenues is increasingly common.

"There's a much greater move among the younger royals, when they don't like something, to ring their lawyers," Pasternak told the BBC.

"Something the Queen or her generation, or Charles and Camilla would never do."

Pasternak wrote a story for Tatler magazine about Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge which labelled her "perilously thin" and questioned her work ethic.

She was involved in legal discussions for months about the piece, which was eventually changed online.

At the time a Kensington Palace spokesperson said the story "contains a swathe of inaccuracies and false misrepresentations".

While some royal households now appear content to push back more forcefully against the press, others are willing to go their own way.

Younger royals seek an alternative

Prince Harry and Meghan have chosen to break from the traditional media routines and instead set up their own means of connection, McCreery said.

They are using social media, having major interviews with the likes of Oprah and appearing on chat shows like Ellen.

"It's a whole other level of engagement and influence, which is distinct from the relationship with the press," McCreery said.

"Younger people who follow social media are very comfortable with the idea of celebrities, of influencers - well that's how the younger British royals are doing it."

Despite any challenges with the press, the British royal family remain popular and much-loved figures, Hazell said.

"The popularity of the monarchy as an institution is well-established and long-lasting, and opinion polls have shown that consistently over the last 30 years or more," he said.

"So, I think it's likely to be a temporary blip."

He also said the public had an important role to play in this power dynamic between palace and press.

"We want it both ways - we want them to be impeccably neutral, but at the same time, we want them to be interesting," he said.

"We, the readers and buyers of those magazines, are just as complicit in the invasions of privacy that are involved.

"It's on us really, and what we choose to support."


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