Prince Harry and his wife Meghan in London, March 5, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
ROLL UP! ROLL UP! IT’S POPCORN O’CLOCK, and time to enjoy the greatest celebrity grudge match of the century. King Charles’ second son, Prince Harry, has gone public with his various gripes about only being ‘the spare’, playing second fiddle to his older brother, the trainee king, Prince William, who is ‘the heir’.
Result—a Force Ten media storm around the arrival of Harry’s misery memoir in the shops this week. Trails, teases and leaks have shown us what it contains, and it is not pretty reading for the heir, who is accused, along with his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, of years of jealous sniping, undermining and even physical violence. It’s all out in the open now, in unprecedented and excruciating detail.
So, pull up a chair and enjoy the Windsor Big Bash, the heavyweight smackdown event we thought we’d never see.
In the blue corner, Harry! The plucky challenger, the noisy underdog. In the slightly bluer corner, it’s Wills! Undefeated, taciturn, a man who can rip a necklace off an opponent with one hand.
We don’t often see two prime celebrities go up against each other. Careful fight-fixing usually keeps such precious stars well apart. Muhammad Ali always dodged a showdown with Mother Theresa in the 1970s, and Elvis neverput his rhinestone-studded belts on the line. But now we are witnessing a clash between two of the world’s most bankable faces.
So what is Harry up to?
He wants to break the rules of the two overlapping worlds he inhabits—royalty and celebrity. Royals don’t fight in public, and celebrity is not meant to carry serious content. Harry’s mission is to establish himself outside royalty and above celebrity, and to secure for himself a merited status based on morality—the social justice causes he champions.
This is hugely empowering for him, and in the short term he gets nothing less than a new life. But there are longer-term risks. Having rejected his official position, he can only speak for himself, and his only claim to moral authenticity is to cast everyone else as the bad guys.
So, is there anything of substance at stake here? Um. No.
Despite the fears of some commentators in Blighty, the monarchy is not in jeopardy. There are no constitutional issues in question and the line of succession is not in dispute.
Harry left the UK after being told he could not be ‘half in, half out’ of the royal family. He insisted he wanted to protect his privacy.
But Hexit did not and will not provoke any kind of crisis. We are seeing a battle of press releases, not another War of the Roses.
Granted, Harry is conducting several legal assaults on selected bastions of British press power, so some changes might eventually come to the domestic media landscape. But the head that wears the crown can sleep easy for now. In a recent 90-minute UK TV interview, the discontented ‘spare’ specifically pledged his loyalty to ‘the institution’ and the people within it. He says he loves his family and supports the monarchy. He assures us that he has never been happier.
So why, at only 38, did this happy man decide to write a tell-all autobiography, full of sex and drugs and rockin’ royal, in which he criticises close family members and the British press across hundreds of pages? Why did he call his stepmother, the Queen Consort Camilla, a ‘villain’ on US TV?
In his own words, it is because he wants to speak his truth, to tell his side of the negative stories about him which appeared in the press. This means abandoning the tried and tested royal strategy of never complaining and never explaining.
His father, he says, begged him not to do this, and urged him to accept the unfairness of the world as it is. King Charles believes that the royal family must rub along with the press as best it can, but Harry’s idealism led him to reject his father’s advice. Silent suffering holds no attractions for a man who has gone through therapy and is married to a woman who believes strongly in it. To remain silent is to collude with abusers, he believes. The book, therefore, is the centrepiece of Harry’s campaign to improve himself, his family and the world.
Harry may be the darling of the tofu-eating wokerati, but the stolid qualities of William—his very dullness—reflect the position he is due to inherit much more accurately than Harry’s scatter-gun compassion. The late queen, for all her public virtues, was essentially an unexciting personality, as was her father before her. The last British monarch who wanted an active role, the late queen’s uncle Edward VIII, was asked to leave. Harry is opting for instability, and ‘the institution’ will reject anything that leads that way, leaving him to saw through the branch on which he is sitting
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And here is the real fight hidden under the personalities—a pitched battle between the egocentric world of therapy, feelings and self-actualisation, and the impersonal, tight-lipped, buttoned-down world of institutions, tradition and hierarchy.
After marrying Meghan Markle in 2018, Harry wanted a flexible role where he could espouse global causes as he chose and drop in on royal business as and when. This would have allowed him to integrate his wife’s priorities into the wider royal matrix, without confronting her too directly with how low she actually ranks in terms of royal protocol. Meanwhile, he could become the star of his own show and not a permanent also-ran in someone else’s. But the senior managers of Brand Windsor would not allow him to be so free.
When Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, asked for something similar about 20 years ago he was also denied, so Harry has not been especially victimised. But he doesn’t see it that way. The new book, Spare, the recent six-part Netflix docuseries and the Oprah Winfrey interview of March 2021 have all been designed to catalogue his and Meghan’s suffering at the hands of an unholy alliance of unnamed members of his own family and the British press. The couple’s only sin? To want freedom to be themselves.
But surely they have that now, living in a mansion in California, with the bonus of a comfortingly large pile of media-generated cash. So, why is that not enough?
He says he wants a reconciliation, but revealing intimate family secrets while accusing close relatives of spreading untruths seems more likely to intensify rather than de-escalate hostilities. Another crucial demand is for the guilty to be held accountable for what they have done. But what can accountability mean in the context of the people he is accusing? Royals aren’t appointed or dismissed in the standard way. Nor are press barons.
This disgruntled former employee will not bring down ‘the Firm’, though if he can successfully prove in court that British newspapers did indeed break into properties in order to conceal microphones, then he stands a good chance of seeing penalties inflicted. Meghan has already won several rounds in British courts over press intrusion. We can only wait and see.
As for the rest, the prospects are bleak. It would be extraordinary if senior royal figures were to break the habit of many lifetimes and engage in public negotiations with one of their own. Wayward royals have low bargaining power and tend to get cut off, at which point they usually wither. Harry may have been seized with the notion that he can get validation via approval from the public and/or contrition from his kin, but the very essence of royal status is that it is unearned. Bringing merit into the equation, in persons and causes, as Harry seems intent on doing, is, to say the least, a novel and unproven strategy.
Harry’s own mother used television to state her case in her own words. Diana had supportive media coverage throughout her life. She could talk to anyone she wanted and plant any story she wished, and she did. But Harry does not seem to understand the nature of the shift between the positive coverage he had prior to his wedding in 2018 and the criticism he endured after it. He sees nothing of his own doing to explain it
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Harry may be the darling of the tofu-eating wokerati, but the stolid qualities of William—his very dullness—reflect the position he is due to inherit much more accurately than Harry’s scatter-gun compassion. The late queen, for all her public virtues, was essentially an unexciting personality, as was her father before her. The last British monarch who wanted an active role, the late queen’s uncle Edward VIII, was asked to leave.
In short, Harry is opting for instability, and ‘the institution’ will reject anything that leads that way, leaving him to saw through the branch on which he is sitting.
For all his apparent poise, and the genuine aura of conciliation he projects, Harry is a deracinated solo player and it is hard to believe that he is really in control of events. He is like a general who does not seem too clear about the geography of the battlefield he has chosen.
The relationship between royalty and the media has always had a strong element of quid pro quo running through it. Harry’s own mother used television to state her case in her own words, though most commentators, in retrospect, view Diana’s famous 1995 interview with Martin Bashir as a disaster. Perhaps Harry thinks he can be surefooted where she slipped, because natural justice is on his side. He may be remembering the enormous popularity he enjoyed when he was first engaged to Meghan. Or he may just be ill-informed, isolated and desperate.
Therapy has rebuilt Harry, guiding him from a state of depression to a sunnier, optimistic place where it turns out that he is not to blame for anything. So, the famous incident when he dressed up as a Nazi for a fancy-dress party turns out to be his brother’s fault. Who chose the costume? Who put it on? The answer to those questions should have told him who was responsible, no matter what an obliging therapist might say.
NOT UNREASONABLY, HE blames paparazzi intrusion for the death of his mother. They hunted her relentlessly and were directly connected to the circumstances of the car crash that killed her. They even stood by and jostled for shots as her life ebbed away. He has expressed fears that the same thing might happen to his wife. But, in wider context, he seems to be a man complaining about a system he does not understand.
Diana had supportive media coverage throughout her life. She could talk to anyone she wanted and plant any story she wished, and she did. But Harry does not seem to understand the nature of the shift between the positive coverage he had prior to his wedding in 2018 and the criticism he endured after it. He sees nothing of his own doing to explain it.
The press is not an organ of moral judgement. It is a capitalist enterprise, and its business is selling papers, attracting eyeballs, and delivering audiences to advertisers. This is not a hidden process and anyone who works in the industry understands it. The press cannot turn a saint into a sinner; what it tends to do is find the sins hiding behind the image of sainthood, which is a way of enforcing accountability on the rich and famous.
There are always limits and discernible guidelines. The British press never ran the ‘George Michael Is Gay’ story; he was well liked and seemed to be doing very little harm. It did not run the ‘Jimmy Savile Is a Monster’ story, partly from fear—he was highly litigious—but mostly because the evidence was never fully compiled in his lifetime.
Harry is attempting an ambitious double move; to present himself as the victim, and the royal family and the media as a many-headed monster. It remains to be seen whether this is overreach, but he already seems to be losing old friends without winning new ones. He once had approval ratings of more than 80 per cent, but now he is ranking at minus-66. Eleven million watched his Oprah interview in the UK; last Sunday, he pulled just over four million.
There is one very obvious misunderstanding here. Harry has a simple equation in his head: newspapers = bad. This conviction led him to sell his story to a book publisher. But books are not necessarily safer or classier than newspapers. The same commercial imperatives drive both. Much of the two sectors is even owned by the same people.
Somehow he has allowed himself to be lulled, coaxed, incentivised or manipulated into revealing salacious and sensational things about his younger days. That kind of truth-telling is superfluous to his stated aims, and it is difficult to explain such revelations unless someone somewhere wanted to boost sales of the book with its self-proclaimed ‘raw, unflinching honesty’. Those he took for sheep might have turned out to be wolves in a book jacket’s clothing.
We now know his side of the story, but by making him more famous, his book has also made him less private. Some of his confessions are already proving damaging and can only create a demand for more such stories. Will he supply them, or will someone else? Where, now, can he be safe from press intrusion?
At present he is surrounded by thick smoke from the many bridges he has burned, and perhaps he is not seeing clearly. But when the smoke lifts, he may find he has walked into a desert with no idea how he got there and no map to get him home.