Harry and Meghan are settled somewhere in a “secluded compound” in Los Angeles, waiting out the coronavirus. Their new life is already in motion, with both an ocean and a continent between them and their old existence. They’ve announced the name of their new foundation, “Archewell,” and they’ve been delivering meals as part of relief efforts, accounting for their first media sighting in L.A. But their business across the pond isn’t finished, after all; it turns out they’re still locked in the fight that has consumed so much of their existence as a couple in the public eye—a battle with the British tabloid press which, it seems, isn’t quite over yet.
Whatever their plans before the covid-19 pandemic upended society, Harry and Meghan have been keeping a comparatively low profile. Beyond announcing their new foundation name—after the Telegraph uncovered their trademark application—they’ve kept a low profile. “This isn’t the right time to be making any big announcements, they feel awkward because this news has broken at a time when they want everyone’s attention to be on the pandemic,” a “source connected to the charity,” told Vanity Fair. After a flurry of excitement about Meghan’s first splashy interview after leaving the ranks of working royals for Good Morning America, it turned out the segment was a bit of a letdown, just a months-old press clip to promote her Disney documentary Elephant—a never-before-seen exclusive, sure, but nothing earth-shattering.
Which makes their fuck-you letter to four prominent British tabloids that much more of a bombshell.
Sunday night, Harry and Meghan sent a letter to the editors of the Sun, Daily Mail, Mirror and Express, expressly cutting the publications off from any information about their doings. “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will not be engaging with your outlet,” the letter announced. “There will be no corroboration and zero engagement.” They added that the ban is specific to the publications that received the letter, their Sunday editions, and their online operations; the pair expressed their support for press freedom and their desire to work with journalists worldwide in the future. “What they won’t do is offer themselves up as currency for an economy of clickbait and distortion.”
The couple’s rancor for the legendarily vicious British tabloids is understandable. Harry has a lifetime of ugly history with the press that’s intimately connected with his childhood trauma, and Meghan was barely introduced to the Daily Mail before they were saying that she was “(almost) straight outta Compton.” Not that this was a surprising development: The British tabloids’ treatment of Meghan has to be read in the context of a long history of sensationalism, xenophobia, and racism. (In 1934, for instance, Viscount Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail and the Mirror, literally wrote op-eds that cheered, “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” and “Give the Blackshirts a helping hand,” though the papers quickly backed off their overt support for Britain’s fascists.)
And, too, the timing of the letter, just the latest in a series of broadsides against the tabloids, didn’t come out of the blue. Meghan’s lawsuit against the Daily Mail for publishing excerpts from a letter she wrote to her father after his behavior leading up to her wedding is currently moving forward in the British courts. The case, which predates the coronavirus, goes to (virtual) court on Friday, and ITV reported that “with legal action against the Mail on Sunday moving forward in the High Court, the couple said it was ‘necessary’ to set out their new agenda now.” (The Mail is arguing the letter was fair game, after a group of Meghan’s friends anonymously spoke to People and referenced the letter, making it a topic of public interest.) New documents are already coming to light as part of the court process, including text messages from Harry and Meghan before the wedding, pleading with Markle not to speak to the press. In one, the groom basically begs: “Tom, Harry again! Really need to speak to u. U do not need to apologize, we understand the circumstances but ‘going public’ will only make the situation worse.” It’s unsurprising that Harry and Meghan would choose to drop a big, news-making dig at the tabs right now.
But outside events have intervened, garbling their narrative, leaving them committed to going on offense when many celebrities are going relentlessly positive in response to world events.
The shot didn’t quite land the way it would before the global pandemic, which has completely reoriented priorities around the world and set off an economic meltdown that has people worrying about how they’re going to put food on the table—and, for that matter, panic-purchasing out of concern that the supply chains will break down. It also put the tabloids in the perfect position to manipulate the story to their advantage. The cover of the Sun, for instance, praised the Duke of Edinburgh’s supportive letter to frontline workers and added just underneath “...but some bloke called Harry, 35, from Hollywood, has sent a different kind of message,” setting the two actions at odds, even though they’re completely unrelated. Ultimately, the letter—even if coming from an understandable place—adds new fuel to the fire.
What remains to be seen is just how much better the American press will treat them. There’s an entire American publicity ecosystem that revolves around “positivity,” in which celebrities perform their cheerful relatability as a way of preemptively disarming any critics or naysayers. A fairly rarified version of that would fit with their priorities and personal images, and one of their final high-profile Instagram follows on the Sussex Royal Instagram account (before they mothballed it) was something called The Good News Movement: “This journalist run-page covers and celebrates acts of kindness and good news in our global community,” their post explained. It shares a lot of DNA with John Krasinski’s quarantine project, Some Good News, and a whole raft of other modern celebrity initiatives from Ellen to Jimmy Fallon. The coverage of mainstream American press outlets, from Good Morning America to People, remains positive and basically on the side of the American woman who married into the British monarchy.
There are some signs, though, that at least certain segments of the American media are ready to get a little rougher with the couple. US Weekly, for instance, has already begun to adopt a more negative tone with Meghan, declaring her “CRUEL MEGHAN” on a cover story about the negotiations for Harry and Meghan’s future, over the dramatic quote: “You’ll never see Archie again!” (Meanwhile, they’ve elevated Kate to a near patron saint of motherhood.) There’s a straight line from Murdoch-owned outlets like the Sun to Murdoch-owned Fox News, which is already painting the couple as entitled millennials. While initially, the American press was almost universally positive to the beautiful new American princess, it’s not just British tabloids that have a long racist history.
And even outlets that are neutral or even sympathetic aren’t necessarily going to abide by Harry and Meghan’s wishes about how they want their life to work, with paparazzi shots from their life in L.A. already popping up. Perhaps worst of all, they’re in TMZ territory now, and it was TMZ that got the first shots of the couple in Los Angeles, security cam shots of a delivery run on behalf of a nonprofit, Project Angel Food. They may find they’ve jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.