Harry and Meghan's mistimed attempt to control the tabloids will backfire

<span>Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

It has been less than two years since we were meant to be thrilled that some “exotic DNA” was being introduced into the royal family, with the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Never mind the racism inherent in headlines that announced the arrival of Meghan from “(almost) straight outta Compton” – the wedding was seen as a triumph. The nation congratulated itself on taking this beautiful divorcee into its midst.

However, this “acceptance” turned out to be as flimsy as a veil. Meghan soon did all sorts of crimes, according to the tabloids: going bare legged, being too “woke”, turning Harry into a social justice warrior. The popular press indulged in a nasty game of compare and contrast. Kate Middleton – bland, skinny and pliable – was the good princess, Meghan the evil one.

Eventually Harry and Meghan couldn’t take it any more and decided they wanted a new life outside of the UK. They also wanted to hit back at the press, starting with suing the Mail on Sunday for publishing a letter Meghan had originally sent to her estranged father, Thomas Markle. Hearings are due to begin this week. To up the ante, on Monday they issued an overwrought letter to the tabloids, the Sun, the Mirror, the Daily Mail and the Express, saying they will no longer deal with them. “There will be no corroboration and zero engagement,” the couple declared.

What are they doing? In the midst of a pandemic this letter looks purely solipsistic. Now is simply not the time for a display of their very thin skins, when others are covering themselves in PPE to help the gravely sick.

The court case, the grandiose letter and their exhibition of hurt has been met with predictable scorn from tabloid rottweilers. But all of it indicates that the symbiotic contract between royals and the tabloids is even more dysfunctional than ever. The Sussexes, minus their royal duties, now fall into that category of celebs around which any gossip can be spun. If they had truly wanted privacy, perhaps they wouldn’t have moved to Los Angeles, where paparazzi lie in wait too.

All rich and powerful people would love to dictate what the media says about them. This is not to defend the worst excesses of the tabloids, but Meghan’s shock at her treatment by the British tabloids is hard to understand. Gossip mags and tabloid exposure exist in her homeland.

“I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a ‘stiff upper lip’,” she told Tom Bradby in an ITV interview last year. “I really tried, but I think what that does internally is probably really damaging. I never thought it would be easy, but I thought it would be fair.”

Fair it is not, and if Harry was attracted to Meghan’s need to be emotionally open, he must also have known what happened to the last royal woman who would not be silent about her feelings: his mother. It took Harry a long time to talk publicly about what it was like to lose Diana.

Many remember the long, silent walk he was made to do as a small boy behind her coffin in 1997, his head down and fists clenched. There is “still talk about the silence”, Harry said years later, “but what I remember is every 50 yards or whatever, certain people in the crowd just unable to contain their emotion”. How awful. He blames the tabloids for his mother’s death and he wants to protect his wife. Who is not sympathetic to that?

Yet somehow this couple have blown much of the goodwill they had by wanting to be both special and yet left alone. Royal in name only. They didn’t stay in Vancouver after their initial move out of the UK. Meghan has been on TV talking about elephants. They Zoomed the Queen on her birthday. It’s all so dislocated.

However, they did not get the deal they wanted in their separation from the royal family, because in the end the firm is utterly ruthless. The new role they thought they could carve out for themselves was vetoed. They couldn’t use the term royal or be called “royal highness” any more. Their offices in Buckingham Palace would be closed. They can no longer perform royal duties. They are out on their own.

The control they sought over the firm backfired, as will the control they seek over the tabloids, for whom Meghan in particular is simply a villain akin to someone from reality TV.

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But without publicity, Harry and Meghan and the various humanitarian causes they support do not exist. The Queen is widely loved because people see that her sense of duty seems to come before personal desires.

Meghan and Harry may well be right about press intrusion before their wedding. They are certainly right that tabloid journalism must be held to account. But is now the right time for this complaint to be aired? With everyone shut in their homes, we are overburdened with self-obsessed and oversharing celebs as it is. None of this is fair, just as Meghan said.

They could have continued in self-isolation, far away in LA. But in the time of Covid-19 their actions look both petty and grandiose. Some much vaunted emotional intelligence would be appropriate from the couple now. The privacy they desire would be more achievable if they undertook a period of extended silence.

• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist

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