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The toxic feud from which there will be no winner

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will speak to Oprah Winfrey in an upcoming TV special - Credit: CBS

The vendetta between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the press cannot end well for anyone.

That’s it then. They’ve gone for good. Driven out by the press. There have been plenty of instances where newspapers have been accused of hounding celebrities and royals and every time the same defences are wheeled out: “They want the publicity when it suits”, “it goes with the territory”, “taxpayers’ money”, “public interest”, “free speech”, “if you don’t like it, go away…”

Now they have. And it really was the press wot done it. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex said so in so many words when they announced their intention to decamp to Canada. They followed it up with court cases against the Mail on Sunday and the Sun. And now, just as the royal decree nisi was being made absolute, they have said it again. “The British press is toxic. It was destroying my mental health,” Harry told James Corden over cream tea on a tour of Los Angeles on an open-top double-decker bus.

So the country has been deprived of arguably its most popular royal and the 94-year-old Queen has been deprived of time with her great-grandson, which reportedly makes her sad (and gives her something in common with hundreds of thousands of grandparents in this lockdown age).

Does it matter? Our palaces seem still to be well-stocked with royals. Does the public need a villain? And if so, won’t Andrew do? Are the papers being closet racists – whether in terms of colour or nationality? Are the couple being hypocritical as charged?

My suspicion is that most people think they should be left to get on with their lives. The problem is that they still want to live public lives – just not the one Harry was assigned at birth. So every time they open their mouths they open themselves to abuse. Our tabloids won’t let go because they don’t like losing. But they are losing this fight and seem determined to take down Harry, Meghan – and anyone else who gets in the way – with them. And that might include the whole crumbling monarchy. Bravo!

The feud has been simmering almost since the word go. The knives may have been sheathed when the papers ‘celebrated’ the engagement and printed souvenir specials, but they were always in view – as with the ritual search for dodgy relatives and the bounty harvested from the hapless father of the bride – and have been sharpened with every strop. Moments of respite are inevitably followed by days of spite: cooing joy at the birth of Archie, resentment at being excluded from the Christening; gushing “Markle sparkle” on day one of the couple’s brief return for their final farewell duties last spring, “Meghan at war with Camilla” on day two. Meghan had apparently stolen the limelight from Camilla, who was making a speech on domestic abuse, by visiting the National Theatre. She was clearly the villain, because once she appeared on the scene, the press had no choice but to divert their eyes to her.

There’s been a lot of “upstaging” and “overshadowing” – including, we learnt this week, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were touring Pakistan in 2019 and providing the Daily Mail with a “dazzling Kate” front-page picture almost every day. There was more last week – courtesy of the exiles’ amazing powers of second sight. “Prince Harry was last night accused of bad timing over a TV appearance with James Corden,” the Sun reported at the weekend. “His chat threatened to overshadow the Queen’s message about the Covid-19 vaccine.” The Sunday Times meanwhile claimed that with the Duke of Edinburgh in hospital, there were “increasing concerns about the tone and timing” of the couple’s upcoming interview with Oprah Winfrey.

The Corden interview was recorded on February 5, the Oprah special on the 11th and 12th. The Duke went into hospital on the 17th and the Queen recorded her vaccination appeal on the 25th.

That chat with Corden was “toe-curling”, “cheesy”, “the worst thing since It’s a Royal Knockout”. Yet every word was reported and dissected. So it was, too, with that Instagram pregnancy announcement. “Publicity shy woman tells 7.67bn people: I’m pregnant” splashed the Daily Star. Very witty. If only the paper understood that basic thing about owning your own personal news and sharing it with whoever and however you like. The tabloids think such stuff should come either through “friends” or “official channels”. But they still all put it on their front pages.

There are two recurring – and conflicting – themes here. The first is that the Sussexes are self-publicists with nothing to offer beyond their royal connections; they are up their own backsides and no one cares about them. The second is that what they do is “in the public interest” because it reflects on the monarchy – even though they’ve walked away. Thus everything is seen through the prism of how it affects the Queen – denying her access to her great-grandchildren; upsetting her Christmas plans; overshadowing her public pronouncements.

Let’s look a little more closely at the “no one cares” take. “More than half of Brits vowed to switch channels if Harry and Meghan’s interview is broadcast here”, according to a Sun poll. Some 55% said they will not watch, compared with 27% who said they will. Right. With an adult population of, say 60m, an audience of 27% would mean more than 16m people watching. The most watched TV broadcast so far this year was the PM’s Covid lockdown statement on January 4, which was seen by just under 15m people. The top-rated show last week was the final of the Masked Singer, at just under 10m. Advertisers are reported to be paying up to $100,000 for a slot in the commercial breaks. Quite a turn-off then.

Meanwhile the Mail on Sunday toted a photograph of Harry around “small town America” and found that no one recognised him. The newspaper might think Americans aren’t interested, but Oprah Winfrey is a pretty smart woman and if she thinks they are, I’d back her against Ted Verity’s crew. And those advertising rates suggest others share that view.

And if the papers and their websites really think people don’t care about the pair, why waste so much ink and cyberspace on them?

As to the more serious “public interest”, the biggest challenge on that front came when the duchess sued the Mail on Sunday over its publication of a letter she had written to her father. Some of her claims of a “malicious press campaign” were thrown out at the first hurdle. “Humiliated!” cheered the Daily Mail over pages 2 and 3, hailing its great victory. In an “excoriating” ruling, Mr Justice Warby had “branded” parts of her case wholly inadequate, impermissibly vague and irrelevant and struck them out without a full hearing. She would have to pay hundreds of thousands in costs, the paper said. She had been badly advised and should settle and walk away.

But she didn’t. And last month the same judge concluded that her central complaint was so strong and the defence so weak that no trial was needed before finding in her favour. Naturally, the paper ran story less prominently – just as it did a week earlier when the Mail on Sunday paid “substantial” libel damages for suggesting that Harry had turned his back on the Royal Marines.

The Times put the Meghan victory at the top of page one, but was so exercised by the verdict that it ran a leader the next day on the “chilling effect” on press freedom of “judge-made privacy laws”. The risk was that people in power would be able to control press coverage through a “carefully managed feed of public relations curated information”. Because of course that doesn’t happen now.

The paper may have a valid point. If there are to be privacy laws, they should be enacted by parliament rather than rely on judges’ interpretations of the human rights convention. We do need the press to hold the powerful to account. Just as the Times did a week later, when it splashed on “Harry and Meghan hit back after loss of their royal roles” – and gave the court ruling that Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully in not publishing details of millions of pounds worth of PPE contracts a single paragraph at the foot of page 9.

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