Many years ago, I spent some time following Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall around, including on a tour of Pakistan.
It was a weird experience, not least for the dynamic between us journalists and the royals. There are two types of royal press coverage: the official type, governed by rules set down in more deferential times, compels reporters to cover the royal family while abiding by a strict set of protocols; the unofficial type, often written by the same people in the same publications, serves as a kind of release mechanism for resentment generated by the former.
The country’s entire push-me-pull-you relationship with the royals is contained within these modes of discourse, co-dependent and neither acknowledging the other.
I thought about this last week in connection with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the question of whether their complaints about the press are justified.
On the couple’s recent tour of southern Africa, Harry told off a reporter from Sky News for asking a question a benign inquiry about what he hoped to achieve that broke protocol for being “unscheduled” as he left a health centre in Malawi.
“Rhiannon, don’t behave like this,” he said, while an aide practically threw her body between them. The prince looked like his father in that moment – sour and petulant, undeserving – and it was easy to imagine getting from there to a sentence starting “Hey, a*****e” and ending with “we pay your salary”.
Still, when the ITV documentary ran, I felt sorry for the couple. The argument that if you put yourself in the public eye you deserve everything you get seems as disingenuous as the royals’ assumption of deference.
Neither permits those on the other side to be fully human; both are grounded in resentment and something else, a reflex that seems to me like the satisfaction people get from telling smokers they can’t be treated on the NHS or that poor people shouldn’t buy luxuries. Nothing boosts the serotonin like a little light hatred as long as it can be justified as morally superior.
Which isn’t to say we can’t criticise them. Negative coverage of Harry and Meghan divides between legitimate inquiries about whether people who travel by private jet can lecture the rest of us about the environment, prurient stuff relating to Meghan’s dad and increasingly loopy coverage featuring “body language experts” and speculations about Harry’s fragile mental state. Jan Moir, discovering a sudden affinity with “luckless Africans”, argued in the Mail that it was wildly inappropriate for this wealthy couple to complain about their lot with Angola as a backdrop.
This might well be the case, but one assumes their complaints would have been equally poorly received had they been issued from St James’s Palace.
Of course, the fact that the focus of negative coverage has been on Meghan, not Harry, doesn’t smell quite right. Some of this is evidently to do with race. But there is also a class factor: who does she think she is, trying to exert PR control over royal coverage?
My dear, that might wash in Hollywood, but not here. Meghan has a five-month-old baby boy at home, which can be a rough emotional time no matter how big your house is, but that doesn’t excuse her failure to grasp a simple, plangent truth: that while tugging our forelocks, the British like to knee our royals in the groin as we mutter to ourselves, “they asked for it”.