By Victoria Murphy
For the journalists in Johannesburg covering the final leg of the Sussexes’ trip to Africa, the subtle ping of a message dropping totally belied the scale of the news that was to follow.
Just when we thought that we were on the home stretch, ahead of the final day of the trip (confession, I was ready for bed), word that the couple were launching legal action against the Mail on Sunday kick-started a whole new cycle of coverage.
However, the level of interest wasn’t simply because the Sussexes had announced a legal challenge to a specific British publication. It was also because of the jaw-dropping personal statement that Harry wrote to accompany the announcement.
Posted on a website that appeared to exist entirely for the purpose of hosting the statement (away from the couple’s other official channels and the official Buckingham Palace website, where it has yet to be referenced), the message was extraordinary, even by the standards of a couple who have issued previously searing statements.
Personal, emotional, and brimming with outrage at what he described as a “ruthless campaign” against his wife, Harry’s 565 words read in some ways like the email many of us draft in haste but never send.
But its contents also made it clear that this defense (or attack) is something that has been simmering for a long time.
Many would argue, and have argued, that this approach is entirely justified. Meghan has been on the receiving end of an explosion of coverage, a lot of it critical and not all of it accurate.
No one would contradict the prince’s assertion that online coverage now tends to be cumulative, building like an avalanche (“one day’s coverage is no longer tomorrow’s chip paper”) and that this considerably amplifies the intensity of the spotlight.
It is also hard to read the statement without feeling significant sympathy for the real and genuine pain he describes they have felt. Harry’s continued grief over his mother is palpable, and he clearly adores Meghan and wants to protect her. It is obvious that this raw emotion has driven his words.
The legal proceedings relate to the Mail on Sunday and its parent company, Associated Newspapers, and were filed on Sunday September 29 and processed by the court the following day.
Particulars need to be filed by October 14, but the information supplied so far makes it clear that the proceedings relate to “the unlawful publication of a private letter.” (Last February, the Mail on Sunday published a lengthy letter Meghan wrote to her father, asking him to stop speaking to the press.)
The legal firm Schillings, which represents the Sussexes in this matter, provided a statement also describing “a campaign by this media group to publish false and deliberately derogatory stories about her, as well as her husband.” The Mail on Sunday has so far responded by saying it stands by the story published and will “be defending this case vigorously.”
“There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly false and malicious, and though we have continued to put on a brave face, I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been.” —Prince Harry
British tabloid press that wages campaigns with no thought to the consequences
Harry’s personal statement, however, covered far more ground. In addition to the “digital age,” he spoke of a “British tabloid press that wages campaigns with no thought to the consequences.”
He also described the “double standards” of “this specific press pack” when referring to positive coverage of the latest tour. It is not clear if his use of the term “press pack” is intended to refer to the journalists traveling to cover the trip, but this group, of which I am a member, did not, incidentally, include a reporter from the Mail on Sunday.
(For those unfamiliar with British media ecosystem, The Mail on Sunday is a U.K. tabloid that is the sister title to the Daily Mail. The two newspapers are run separately, with different editors and reporters, but stories from both papers run on the same website. There is also a significant—and separate—digital team that produces stories for the DailyMail.com.)
Among the 80 journalists accredited to travel to cover the visit was The Times’s long-standing royal correspondent Valentine Low, who wrote the paper’s front page story today about the legal proceedings from Johannesburg.
Describing Harry’s statement as “astonishing,” Low added that it “appeared to tar all the royal media with the same brush and certainly tarred all the tabloid royal media with the same brush when in fact specifically in this instance it is an argument that he’s got with the Mail on Sunday.”
Low also shared how the timing of the statement meant that his paper cut a story about the royal tour to make way for a big piece on the legal proceedings and that he was no longer able to travel to write about the couple meeting the President Ramaphosa because he needed to dedicate more time to writing about the legal story. “It has completely overshadowed the tour,” he said.
This article was published in Town and Country.
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