OPINION
21/10/2019 16:31 BST

Meghan Markle's Suffering Has Forced The British Public To Take A Look At Themselves

We’re not sure whether we owe the Duchess of Sussex privacy or she owes us exposure, especially when taxpayers’ money is involved, freelance journalist Joanna York writes.

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Meghan Markle

When I first moved to France one thing I really enjoyed was not knowing who was on the front of the papers. At the time in the UK, whether you read the papers or not, it felt impossible to not know Cheryl’s relationship status or who Susan Boyle was. I’d look at the French magazine stands, full of people, histories and vocabulary I didn’t understand, and feel relieved not to have an opinion on it all.

The only recognisable figures I did see were Carla Bruni and members of our royal family, most memorably Kate Middleton’s blurry boobs snapped during a holiday in Provence and published in French magazine Closer. The media in the UK responded with moral outrage to this gross invasion of privacy. The French media rolled its eyes, and eventually conceded a €103,000 fine after trying to insist the pictures were in the public interest. I found the public interest angle curious: as a Brit living in France, I’m often asked to explain why the Royal Family exist at all. 

I normally say it’s because we’ve grown attached to them, like characters in a real-time soap opera. The Queen’s our dependable landlady, Charles the morally ambiguous son, William the straight-guy, Kate the demure wife and mother. Harry, tearaway-come-good, is everyone’s favourite. And, along with a full cast of supporting actors, we publicly dissect their lives as a way of judging the moral temperature of the times.

But then there’s Meghan Markle. 

The ethics of celebrity private lives are murky waters. You can’t be a public figure without revealing some aspects of your personal life, the question is how much and on whose terms. Summarising the often cruel treatment of reality TV star Jade Goody, columnist Susanne Moore writes: “We crave celebrity and we then want to punish those who achieve it.” As such we expect this year’s Love Islanders to reveal their every move to cameras for nine weeks and then be publicly eviscerated (or hero-worshipped) in the aftermath, even as we wring our hands over reports of past contestants’ suicides. 

But reality stars are the most human of celebrities. 

Blame for Diana’s death may have been laid at the feet of the media, but the uncomfortable truth is it was us who had an appetite for the stories.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those figures whose place in public life seems so inevitable that questioning their status makes us deeply uncomfortable. Michael Jackson, for example. Normally transcendently talented or born into fame, their celebrity is so entrenched that hearing the difficult details of their private lives doesn’t enliven public debate – it threatens to destabilise the foundations as we know them. Cases in point: the lack of public appetite for any investigation into Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffery Epstein.

No one embodies our strange attitudes towards celebrity revelations as much as Meghan Markle. Having transcended through the echelons of public figurehood, we’re not sure whether we owe her privacy or she owes us exposure, especially when taxpayers’ money is involved. “They can’t have it both ways,” royal biographer Penny Junor told The Times after Megan and Harry refused any public access to their son’s christening. “Either they are totally private, pay for their own house and disappear out of view, or play the game the way it is played.” 

Watching Meghan, more than any other public figure, we are forced to consider what we expect from our celebrities and our media and how we, the audience, might contribute to the plotline.

It seems like Meghan and Harry aren’t sure either. In the past month, Megan has sued the Mail On Sunday for publishing a private letter she wrote to her father, Harry released a statement calling on the press to end a malicious campaign against his wife and recognise the “human cost” at stake, and they have released a documentary, aired yesterday on ITV, offering insider access of their recent tour in South Africa.

In the documentary, Meghan is revealed as a woman made vulnerable, visibly shaken after a year of being dissected in the British press. We see her, struggling to describe her experiences, thank her interviewer for asking how she is. “Not many people have asked if I’m OK,” she says. 

It’s an uncomfortable watch. The human cost Harry wrote of is evident, the reference to Princess Diana unavoidable. Diana, who trod the same path as Meghan in reverse, from royal to public figure, and who’s calculation of how much she owed the press and the public ended with her brother referring to her as “the most hunted person of the modern age” in a speech at her funeral.

And it’s uncomfortable because it draws us in to the soap opera, not as a viewer but as a participant. Blame for Diana’s death may have been laid at the feet of the media, but the uncomfortable truth is it was us who had an appetite for the stories. 

Watching Meghan, more than any other public figure, we are forced to consider what we expect from our celebrities and our media and how we, the audience, might contribute to the plotline.

Joanna York is a freelance journalist.