There was a moment that took place before the Sussexes’ docuseries Harry & Meghan went live that, while I sat watching the first three episodes, I couldn’t get out of my mind.
It's not that there wasn’t enough interesting material to digest. The show had emotional stories, sweet anecdotes and interesting historical context that made it a fascinating watch. But you don’t need a journalist — especially one who is far too in the weeds — to tell you what they thought of it. Best to see it for yourself (if you haven't already).
No, what had consumed my thoughts was a response to the first trailer for the six-part series, where Prince Harry is heard talking about the culture of briefing and leaks within the Palace. “There's a hierarchy of the family,” he says. “You know there's leaking, but there's also planting of stories. . . It’s a dirty game.”
Though it was just a few words (and only a preview of what’s to come), it was the first time since Princess Diana’s Panorama interview that a member of the Royal Family had so openly lifted the lid on one of the most toxic practices going on behind palace walls.
Though racism and lack of support are both important to the couple's story, the damaging stories leaked by individuals within the House of Windsor were also one of the main reasons the Sussexes felt a need to find a different path. A place to thrive, not survive, to borrow Meghan's words.
So when I saw a British tabloid article quoting a “royal source” (that’s usually code for someone at the palace who doesn’t want to go on the record) insisting that it was “absolutely wrong” to suggest the Sussexes had been briefed against, I had to reread the sentence a second time just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. It was gaslighting to the extreme.
Remember the 2018 tabloid stories moaning about Meghan’s 5am emails? The drama around her tiara? These reports, and many others, included anonymous quotes from palace sources and aides.
Yet some of the more royal-friendly members of the press have been quick to express outrage at Harry suggesting such a thing took place. But then, as is often the case, mirroring palace outrage is nothing new round these parts.
The reality is, people working at the Palace did brief against Harry and Meghan while they were working royals. Regularly. And it was hardly a secret, either. While writing the book Finding Freedom, a number of the staff I spoke to complained about the culture of leaking and negative briefings within the institution. Some felt it was out of jealousy of the couple’s unrivalled popularity at the time, others shrugged and said that’s just how it goes, and a couple believed that much of it came from a place of disliking Meghan.
Palace aides also brief against other royals. With three different households back then—Clarence House, Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace—all with their own teams, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) uncommon for an aide to look out for their boss by using information about another member of the family (from a different household, and usually less senior) as currency to curry favour with the outlets you never want to be on the wrong side of. This doesn’t really happen with TV media, but is common with print and online press.
Briefing off the record or as a quotable source is by no means a bad thing and is often used by journalists, including myself. Publicists and representatives for the likes of celebrities, sports stars, politicians, companies and governments all rely on being able to quietly speak to journalists about stories or issues they may not want to go officially on the record for. In the palace's case, it can be a useful way of sharing useful or sensitive information to journalists ahead of an engagement or important moment, or simply to deny or address a story they may not want to give oxygen to.
Over the years I have written many times about the darker uses of this tool, and how it affected the Sussexes. But it wasn’t until last year that my reporting saw the Palace hit back.
On a 2021 primetime royal documentary, I suggested that it was no coincidence that stories of Prince William’s “fears” for Harry’s “fragile” state of mind had appeared in newspapers less than a day after the Duke of Sussex revealed the growing distance between the brothers during a TV special. The fact that a senior member of the then-Duke of Cambridge’s staff had used supposed concerns about Harry’s mental health as an opportunity for positive press about brother William was very much noticed by the Sussexes, I added.
Kensington Palace quickly intervened. And producers behind the show were put under pressure to remove my words. Aides for Prince William warned that it was “potentially defamatory”.
The tug-of-war went as far as executive level at the network until an 11th hour agreement to mute the audio of my voice for several seconds in the airing of the documentary was made. Certain journalists were then briefed by Kensington Palace—who did not reach out to me beforehand—that I had “no evidence” to support my claim.
“It provided a vivid example that Kensington Palace is certainly more prepared to wade in to influence media coverage when it chooses to,” says director of the William and Harry: What Went Wrong? documentary, Richard Sanders. “On the day of transmission, the Palace demanded that we remove [the] quote. People more important than myself acquiesced, although it seemed to me perfectly legally defensible.”
Defensible, indeed. In fact, what was not pointed out by outlets at the time were the original articles containing said briefings, which were published immediately after Harry & Meghan: An African Journey was broadcast in October 2019. They’re still easy to find online and, clear as day, quote a source at Kensington Palace.
“WILLS: MY FEARS FOR FRAGILE HARRY”, was The Sun’s October 21, 2019 front page. Inside the paper, a senior royal source revealed that William was worried about Harry’s “fragile" state of mind. Another source in the story added, “Harry is not in great shape. . . I’d say he’s not well.”
And a Kensington Palace source was also quoted by BBC News on the same day, revealing that The Duke of Cambridge was "worried" about his brother. Harry and Meghan, they add, were in a “fragile” place.
Similar language appeared in a number of other outlets, including the front page of the Daily Mail: “WILLIAM’S FEARS FOR TROUBLED HARRY”.
For full transparency, these articles were not my confirmation on the origins of the original briefing. I was briefed by a senior aide at another royal household. The individual—who, at the time, felt strongly about a line being crossed by someone working for William—had sent me text messages about the briefings relating to William’s concerns for Harry’s mental health the night the newspaper stories went to print with the information.
This is just one example of the games that have long gone on behind the scenes at the palace. And what so many there, including some of the family, get dragged into, no matter how much they resist. For Harry, it’s what he says he wanted to get his family away from. Princess Diana was not so lucky.
In the past I have called the relationship between a journalist and the palaces a delicate dance, a game that needs to be an almost equal give and take to maintain access. But—as the example above illustrates—when the stakes are high, that dance can turn into something altogether more dangerous. Facts can be distorted, reputations damaged, mistruths can easily be put out into the world in seconds.
The next three episodes of Harry & Meghan will tackle this subject and the Royal Family’s relationship with the media. A new trailer released on Monday features the Duke claiming, "They were happy to lie to protect my brother. They were never willing to tell the truth to protect us". As I write this, Kensington Palace have no comment to make on the series and also declined to comment on the story I share above, but I can imagine when the second batch of episodes is released it may be different.
These first three episodes saw very little reason for a peep to come out of The Firm. In fact, the only drama to emerge was over whether or not the Palace had been given the right of reply to claims made in the Netflix series.
After a full-screen card at the start of Harry & Meghan read, “Members of the Royal Family declined to comment on the content within the series”, both Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace quickly denied being given a heads-up. Sources at both anonymously claimed they were not approached for comment (instead, they say, an email purporting to be from a third-production company was received, but no one replied when they attempted to verify its origins). A Netflix source, however, insists the communications officers of both King Charles and Prince William were contacted in advance. This is by no means the last we will hear of this story, but that’s as far it goes for now.
As is often the case, these back-and-forths quickly get messy. And it’s a shame, because so much of it could be avoided by simply not being so compelled to respond to and brief on every little thing. For a family that pretty much owns the term “never complain, never explain”, it’s almost laughable that the majority of them—and the people they keep close to their sides—have yet to actually master it.