On Sunday night, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey finally aired in America. By Monday morning, it already seemed social media had divided itself into two camps: those who were outraged, either for or against the Sussexes, and those who didn’t care – but could be bothered to tweet that they didn’t care.
It’s quite legitimate not to pay attention to a rift within a family of broadly unexceptional people you have never met and have nothing to do with. But blanket, performative indifference when it comes to a very rare insight into a major international institution with vast influence, power, and wealth, which has for so long been apparently immune to criticism or interrogation, is less excusable.
Whatever one’s personal feelings (or lack thereof) about Meghan and Harry, and however different their lives may be to the overwhelming majority, the themes running through their story are resonant for millions of people. The couple have described institutional racism, serious mental health crises, restricted personal freedoms, and fears for their family’s safety.
A person would have to have lived a life of enormous privilege – and ignorance – for none of those themes to strike a chord. When the conversation is this serious, and carries such grave implications, caring about it isn’t the same as being slavishly obsessed with royal news. It’s about abuse, and it’s about power – who has it, what they do with it, how they protect it – and who, if anyone, calls that power to account.
One of the most troubling and illuminating threads running through the entire fiasco is the twin hypocrisy and inconsistency when it comes to the royal household’s priorities. At one point in Meghan’s conversation with Oprah, she made reference to the palace’s willingness to “go on the record and negate the most ridiculous story for anyone,” but allow a “character assassination” of her in the media.
While she may have been referring to any number of things – and both she and Harry were clear that a lack of support amid racist coverage by the British press was the main incentive for them to leave the royal family – that twin willingness and passivity on the part of the royal household, and the complicity of the British media, has undoubtedly played out in many sinister ways in the past.
When The Times last week printed accusations that Meghan had bullied members of staff, the palace responded the next day, saying it would investigate those claims, as it was “clearly very concerned.” Since Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview aired on Sunday night, bringing with it serious accusations of institutional racism, the palace has made no comment. Contrast this with its response to accusations of sexual exploitation by Prince Andrew – a flat denial of any wrongdoing – or its sidestep of a response to Andrew abusing his position as a taxpayer-funded trade envoy.
One of the most disturbing parts of the interview was when Meghan described the royal household’s response to her admission that she was having suicidal thoughts. She said she was told she “couldn’t” get help, because “that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.” This lack of understanding and compassion is especially galling against the backdrop of several years seeing the young royals’ Heads Together campaign grab headlines on the importance of seeking support for mental health issues.
The royals have been allowed to ride out or turn a blind eye to ghastly accusations in the past thanks to a lack of public scrutiny, refusals to answer questions, and a sense that it would be improper to intrude.
Likewise, whether one cares about the monarchy or not, it cannot but feel significant that Meghan and Harry’s son Archie was the first great-grandchild of the Queen to be denied a royal title, and therefore security. Considering the media storm and racism around Meghan, keeping him safe ought to be a priority. Coupled with the horrifying revelation that “conversations” were had within the family about “how dark his skin would be,” there was clearly a serious and sinister bias rooted in the all-white family.
As Meghan pointed out, a huge proportion of the Commonwealth is non-white. The lack of any discernible effort to understand her position reflects an indifference to not only her experience, but that of vast swathes of the world’s population under the supposed guardianship of the Queen. Harry himself admitted that, as a product of the environment he had grown up in, he had no idea what life was like for her as a mixed-race woman until he met Meghan.
The royals have been allowed to ride out or turn a blind eye to ghastly accusations in the past thanks to a lack of public scrutiny, refusals to answer questions, and a sense that it would be improper to intrude. Whether or not one cares about the fate of Harry and Meghan, to disengage with what they have done would be to ignore a vanishingly rare opportunity to interrogate the behaviour and values of an organisation which – like it or loathe it – remains at the heart of the British establishment.
Holly Thomas is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @HolstaT