Meghan Markle’s legal fight and recent documentary reveal new battle lines between the palace and UK tabloids


The British royal family and the media have what some call the invisible contract: the palace provides access, and the press in return provides favorable coverage.

But it’s a relationship that has seen its ups and downs and is shaping up for another tumultuous time.

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

A two-part BBC documentary has lifted the curtain on how the press and the 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 following the publication of a letter she sent to her father in August 2018.

After, she claimed she wanted to “reshape the tabloid industry”.

But some believe the attempts by young royals to change the rules of engagement with the press are doomed.

“The two [press and palace] are powerful… but at the end of the day the palace cannot continue to deny access forever, ”Robert Hazell, 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 primarily maintained “a popularity that a politician would die for,” Professor Hazell said.

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

Despite all the challenges with the press, the British royal family remains popular.(Reuters: Jane Barlow / File)

Cindy McCreery, historian and lecturer at the University of Sydney, said the mantra has been there “since the beginning of her reign”.

“Then a lot of attention and thought went into its crowning glory and how it would be broadcast,” Dr. McCreery said.

“The sophistication of the royal family with the press only increased during his reign.”

But increasingly, the monarchy has been unable to control the tabloid press, said Dr McCreery, and this press has shown its willingness “to attack the children and grandchildren of the Queen”.

“At the end of the day, they are powerless to stop this.”

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

Media experts say the public has enormous power in determining the future of the relationship.

A look at the behind-the-scenes briefings

The BBC’s two-part series, titled The Princes and the Press, showed the extreme efforts the Royal Family will make to receive positive press.

Prince Charles sits on a garden bench with his grandson George on his lap, surrounded by his wife, sons and their families, smiling
There have been allegations that different royal families are briefing the press against each other.(AP: Chris Jackson / Pool)

Many reporters described their experiences working with various members of the royal family, spreading behind-the-scenes stories from press trips and revealing how they landed big scoops.

“The reality is that there is a much greater level of manipulation between the royal courts and the media than Joe Public would ever believe,” royal biographer Anna Pasternak told the BBC.

The documentary details the receptions organized by the press officers, where royals and reporters mingle.

He suggested that sometimes the households of different royals could work against each other, briefing and communicating to reporters who will give them sympathetic coverage.

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

“Too often exaggerated and unfounded allegations from anonymous sources are presented as fact, and it is disappointing that anyone, including the BBC, gives them credibility,” the statement said.

A number of reporters and editors have described their frustration with both the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, for not sometimes giving them access they wanted.

“When you decide not to play the game, don’t expect others to play by the rules,” broadcaster Trevor Phillips told the BBC.

Prince Charles, Prince Willian, Catherine, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Harry on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
The royal family’s relations with the press have changed dramatically during the Queen’s 69-year reign.(Reuters: Stefan Wermuth)

The editors also described how they look for negative stories about the Royal Family when they feel they are not living up to their end of the deal.

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

Dr McCreery said the relationship between the media and the monarchy has changed dramatically over the Queen’s 69-year reign.

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

“The palace just can’t control the press like it might have in the 1950s.”

New battle lines have been drawn

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

While the two sides have tentatively rebuilt bridges since, it appears the young royals are not afraid to challenge what they see as an unfair contract.

In 2015, Kensington Palace issued an unprecedented warning to the paparazzi, claiming that photographers were using “increasingly dangerous tactics” to obtain images of Prince George, the then-aged son of Prince William and Catherine. two years.

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

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

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex’s own lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday resulted in a judge ruling that the newspaper had violated her privacy and copyright.

Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, in a purple dress, waves her hand.
The Duchess of Sussex this week won the latest leg in her long-running privacy lawsuit against a newspaper publisher.(AP: Stefan Jérémie)

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

In a bold statement released shortly after the court ruling, she wrote that the victory was “for anyone who has ever been afraid to stand up for what is right.”

“While this victory sets a precedent, 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 the pain they create. “said the Duchess.

The decision of members of the royal family to attack the press through legal channels is increasingly common.

“There is a much bigger tendency among younger royals, when they don’t like something, to call their lawyers,” Ms Pasternak told the BBC.

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

Ms Pasternak wrote a story for Tatler magazine about Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who called her “dangerously thin” and questioned her work ethic.

She has been involved in legal discussions for months over the article, which was eventually edited online.

At the time, a Kensington Palace spokesperson said the story “contains a series of inaccuracies and false statements”.

While some royal homes now seem to be content to push back the press more forcefully, others are ready to go their own way.

Young royals seek alternative

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

Meghan Markle in a blue dress smiles as she watches Prince Harry in a dark blue suit holding an umbrella.
Prince Harry and Meghan have a “whole new level” of engagement compared to other members of the Royal Family.(Reuters: Hannah McKay)

They use social media, have important interviews with Oprah, and appear on talk shows like Ellen.

“It’s a whole new level of engagement and influence, which is separate from dealing with the press,” said Dr McCreery.

“Younger people who follow social media are very comfortable with the idea of ​​celebrities, influencers – that’s how young members of the British royal family do it.”


Despite all the challenges with the press, the British royal family remain popular and highly regarded figures, Professor Hazell said.

“The popularity of the monarchy as an institution is well established and long standing, and opinion polls have shown it consistently for the past 30 years or more,” he said.

“So I think it’s probably going to be a temporary incident. “

He also said that the public had an important role to play in this power dynamic between the palace and the 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 these magazines, are equally complicit in the privacy breaches that are involved.

“It really depends on us and what we choose to support. “

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