Prince Harry and Meghan had hoped to escape the worst of the media attention that so troubles them — the "powerful forces," as Harry called them — but still play a part in the official duties of the royal family. But under the agreement they reached with Buckingham Palace over the weekend, they didn't get what they wished for. Neither did any other member of the royal family, including the queen — even if, at face value, it might seem that the couple had to bow to her demands.
Indeed, there is just one party that is really a winner here: the sections of the news media that form those "powerful forces." However much Harry and Meghan were looking to defeat them, their new arrangement only feeds the story and the press that draws sustenance from it.
At first sight, the monarchy may seem to have emerged unscathed. The authority of Queen Elizabeth II, and therefore the centuries-old structure she maintains, is intact. She rebuffed the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's stated intention "to step back as 'senior' members of the Royal Family, and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen."
Harry and Meghan's best-of-both-worlds plan proved unrealistic. They have not been allowed to define their own roles; they have not been allowed to be both in and out of the royal family. They are out.
As if to emphasize that unhappy ending, that original statement of their intentions on the Sussexes' website now appears beneath one that says, "In line with the statement by Her Majesty the Queen, information on the roles and work of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will be updated on this website in due course." In other words, the queen is making the decisions.
At the same time, the monarch is losing, as well. Gone from the royal circle are two people whose marriage was hailed as a modernizing symbol for an ancient institution. (At least its public face, as the queen has emphasized that "Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family.")
Even Britain's raucous right-wing tabloid The Sun (definitely one of those newspapers Harry would see as part of the "powerful forces") joined the enthusiastic chorus of welcome when Harry and Meghan married in 2018. Meghan was "a thoroughly modern bride" who "perfected her new role." Less than two years later, that role and opportunity are over.
For Harry and Meghan's part, not only have they lost their traditional royal status, but they also are to pay back the $3 million in public money they spent renovating their U.K. residence. According to the statement from Buckingham Palace, handing back the cash was "their wish," but, thanks again to those "powerful forces," they didn't have a great deal of choice: Any other course of action wouldn't have been a good look, to say the least. Especially after critical reporting of their lavish renovations made much of the fact that it was taxpayer-funded.
That means their financial future is uncertain, if still bright; note that their original desire was to "work to become" financially independent, as opposed to having the purse strings cut at once. Although they can probably still cash in on their names — experts cited in The Economist suggested that they have "'a ready-made brand' that could earn them as much as 500 million pounds ($650 million) in their first year" — such income would depend on finding commercial activities that wouldn't embarrass their royal relatives or otherwise pose conflicts.
One potential source of revenue: They will be free of the obligation to cooperate with official press arrangements for the royal family, opening up the possibility that they would sell access to favorable media outlets. In a possible sign of things to come, they have already issued a warning to photographers. That comes on top of legal action the couple have already started against one newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, over the publication of a letter Meghan wrote to her father. She alleges breach of copyright, invasion of privacy and misuse of personal data.
The newspaper denies the allegations and has made it clear that it will fight the case, and there is no sign that the media scrutiny will let up in the face of the steps the Sussexes are taking. In fact, those steps have given the press more fodder. The royal rift has been dominating the news and fueling even more attention and rumors than usual.
Despite the media frenzy, it's important to keep a sense of perspective: Harry is not the crown prince. As sixth in line to the throne, he was unlikely ever to be king. Still, his unconventional move could damage those who do eventually sit on the throne.
Harry and Meghan's wedding might have been modern — as is their aspiration to have more control over their destinies — but ultimately, the monarchy hasn't moved enough with the times to accommodate a desire for royal roles to change. What does that mean for the future? The queen is 93. And there's no guarantee that Harry's father, Prince Charles, as king would command the same respect afforded to his mother.
Which might only help feed the media beast that much more. While the royals lost out in this cross-continental shake-up, it looks like the distance is insufficient to tame the royal-obsessed press. It is still guaranteed plenty to write about; the "powerful forces" are far from spent.
- James Rodgers is an author and lecturer in international journalism at City University of London. He is a former BBC correspondent
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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