Voices: We’re not asking the right question about Harry and Meghan

Perhaps because he’s experienced its worst side for virtually his entire life, broadly speaking, Prince Harry is right about the British press. It’s a raucous institution, a “feral beast” you might say, intrusive, rude, abrasive, on a deadline for a story and insatiable.

The media has peddled stories about him and his wife that are sometimes wide of the mark, shall we say. The Sussexes have launched successful legal actions against some big titles to make their point. Some of the coverage – more often commentary – they’ve endured since Meghan Markle entered the royal orbit like a meteorite in 2016 has been snobby and had racist overtones.

There was a brief honeymoon, when she was lauded as a symbol of a modernised, multiracial House of Windsor more fitted to contemporary British life and the Commonwealth. Meghan gave everything she could to the institution, but the media habits of intense scrutiny, the search for gossip and a taste for speculation undermined the relationship.

Unfortunately, that is even more true of the cesspits of social media and the comments sections of media websites, and is a disturbing reflection of a kind of misogyny and racism that many hoped had been expunged in recent years. The controversy about Jeremy Clarkson’s recent column shows how things still are. It’s gruesome, and been taken down on his request, but worth reminding ourselves of in the build-up to the next set of Sussex stories: “Meghan, though, is a different story. Not like I hate Nicola Sturgeon or Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level. At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.” He added that many people agreed with him; sadly, that seems likely to be true.

So Harry and Meghan understand only too well what journalists, an unlovely bunch, are capable of. They do not, however, appear to understand how the media works. They seem to think the House of Windsor rules rather than reigns. They are wrong in claiming that the rest of the family and the Buckingham Palace staff have ever been in any position to do anything about the media, or indeed, to answer Harry’s charge more directly, to control any leaking from various royal households.

Back in the 1980s, disturbed by the intensive coverage of the marriage of Charles and Diana, the Queen asked newspaper editors to come in and she pleaded personally with them to give the couple some space. She was ignored. We no longer live in a deferential society.

The Sussexes are very naive indeed – surprisingly so – if they imagine that the likes of Paul Dacre, Supreme Ruler of the Mail titles, Rupert Murdoch or even Jeremy Clarkson are going to take orders from some palace flunky. They might take the most strenuous denials by the most senior figures into account when forming an editorial judgement, but they might not too.

But Harry goes further, and his resentments against his father and his brother are painful to hear. In Harry’s view, they actively leaked and spun against him and his wife, and failed to even try to close down damaging stories (true or not is not yet clear). It was a briefing war.

Without much in the way of evidence, thus far, it’s hard to know if he’s entirely right. He sounds paranoid at times in the various interviews he’s given over the past few years – Tom Bradby on safari, Oprah Winfrey, Netflix, plus the favourable account in the book Finding Freedom. But being paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

The truth is that palaces, like government departments, political parties, charities, hospitals, universities, indeed newspaper offices can be leaky places, and the media getting it wrong goes with the territory of public life. No doubt there were some bitchy hangers-on offering titbits in return for a long boozy lunch, some disgruntled courtiers freelancing, and maybe sometimes people in responsible positions given the nod to conduct background briefings. It’s the way it is, and the Sussexes are proving quite adept at it themselves these days. Good for them.

Here’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough. Let’s say everything the Sussexes say is 100 per cent true. And the global public believes them and sides with them. Well, what’s the point? What do Harry and Meghan actually want? What would make them happy? What would heal the personal rift between them and the Prince and Princess of Wales, and between them and the King and Queen Consort?

Ironically, according to “sources”, they want an apology for the wrongs they feel were done against them, and a royal summit to discuss the issues, also raised in the racism row about Lady Susan Hussey. If Hussey and her victim, Ngozi Fulani, can have a meeting of reconciliation, how about one for Harry and Megs?

The implied threat from the Sussexes is that the pair won’t turn up for the coronation in the summer, that there will be yet more books and TV shows and embarrassing interviews, and – the ultimate deterrent – the release of one or more revelations about which members of the family may have made racist remarks about baby Archie’s skin shade or hair. Given that, I expect they’ll probably get their way.

But I wonder whether what Harry and Meghan really want is much more – a new, revised Megxit deal. Like Brexit, Megxit isn’t working out that well for anyone. When Harry says he wants his father and brother “back”, he is sincere – of course he does. But is he really seeking to renegotiate the terms of Megxit after the passing of the Queen?

Maybe he wants to be more royal and conduct official duties and be a patron of regiments and charities – but live much of the time in California. He wants perhaps to be a harmonious member of The Firm, but for the Sussexes to pursue their own “progressive” causes. Can his family be included in the institution, but with their own PR operation, and able to make their own money through commercial ventures?

Maybe he wants what the Queen couldn’t find it in herself to accept – being “half in, half out”. If he wants to have his cake and eat it, it’s just not possible to be a part-time royal based on another continent. Like with the Leavers and Brexit, Harry and Meghan are suffering a bad case of cakeism. Unfortunately, it is incurable.