There are two successful strategies for entertainment teasers and trailers: either put your best clips and quotes in them, in hope of sucking in viewers to an ultimately boring showbiz event, or say little so as to tantalize viewers into being witnesses to something even more breathtaking. The two-hour Oprah Winfrey interview of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and her husband, Prince Harry, was most definitely the latter.
On Sunday night, millions heard the couple tell their side of a saga that has generated headlines and alerts for the past four years. “Life is about storytelling—about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we are told and the stories we buy into,” Meghan said at the end of that dramatic interview. She and her husband raised so many issues and controversies, including accusations of royal racism and wanton cruelty, that it will take weeks to process all of them.
There were heartbreaking revelations, including that Meghan had suicidal ideations when pregnant with Archie. “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. And that’s a very clear, and real and frightening constant thought,” she revealed. She told her husband just before they were to go to a glittering event at Royal Albert Hall in 2019. Though Harry thought she should stay home, Meghan said “I can’t be left alone.” They went, tightly holding each other’s hands during the event, as she wept whenever the lights went down and she had privacy in the royal box.
Meghan says her pleas for help were ignored. “I went to the institution [described as “one of the most senior people”] and I said, ‘I need to go somewhere to get help,’ that I’ve never felt like this before and I need to go somewhere, and I was told I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.” She said she went to palace human resources but was told that its aid was reserved for employees, not royals like her. Harry said, “I had no idea what to do. I wasn’t prepared for that. I went to a very dark place as well,” though he didn’t tell his own family of Meghan’s mental health problems, saying, “I guess I was ashamed of admitting it to them. I don’t know whether they’ve had the same feelings or thoughts. I have no idea. It’s a very trapping environment they are stuck in.”
Then there was their bombshell discussion of racism of an unnamed royal. Meghan, the first woman of colour to marry a senior royal, says that while pregnant with Archie, there were “concerns and conversations about how dark his [Archie’s] skin would be.” She says it was “several conversations” though she won’t say that person’s name: “I think that would be very damaging to them,” saying the racist comments were “relayed to me from Harry; those were conversations that the family had with him,” seeming to suggest it was several members. Harry says, “That conversation I am never going to share,” before going on to say, “But at the time it was awkward; I was a bit shocked.” He also puts the timing much earlier, saying it was at the very beginning of their relationship when she was still acting and living in Toronto.
The racism allegation is enormously damaging to the royal family, which eight hours before had taken part in the annual multicultural celebration of Commonwealth Day, though this year it’s not in-person but on the BBC. (On Monday morning, Oprah Winfrey said that while she doesn’t know the name of the royal, Harry told her that his grandparents, the Queen and Prince Philip, were not “part of those conversations.”)
Harry said they stepped back from their senior roles as full-time royals because of a “lack of support and a lack of understanding,” saying further, “We were desperate. I went to all the places that I thought I should go to, we both did, separately, together.” They got no help, they say.
Furthermore, “what is different to me was the race element,” Harry explains. “Because it wasn’t just about her but it was about what she represents and therefore it wasn’t just affecting my wife but it was affecting so many other people as well. And that was the trigger for me to engage in those conversations with senior palace staff and with my family, to say, ‘This is not going to end well.’” He said that although there were “many opportunities for my family to show some public support” for him and his wife as they dealt with an onslaught of racism from social media, the press and institutions, “No one from my family ever said anything over those three years. That hurts.” In a clip that aired on CBS on Monday, Harry says racism played a “large part” in their decision to leave Britain, also stating that he was warned that the United Kingdom was bigoted and the press would destroy him.
During the broadcast, he said that he thinks his family is “controlled by fear,” “scared…of the tabloids turning on them,” so much so that if they “are willing to wine, dine and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press.” And furthermore, he believes “My father and my brother, they are trapped” within the royal system, saying, “They don’t get to leave and I have huge compassion for that.”
For the royal family, its staff and advisers, the interview was an unmitigated disaster, as they face multiple accusations of being racist, callous, uncaring and downright cruel. “How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” asked Winfrey. “I don’t know how they could expect that after all of this time we would still just be silent if there’s an active role that the Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us and if that comes with risk of losing things, there’s a lot that’s been lost already,” responded Meghan.
The Sussex interview by Oprah Winfrey was aimed squarely at the American market, where the couple is focusing their new ventures (including deals with Netflix and Spotify) and where the royal family is seen as entertainment.
American viewers can’t be expected to understand the institution of the monarchy, whether “palace” or “they” or “institution” refers to the family itself or their staff, let alone the difference between working royals (of which there are around a dozen) and the members of the Queen’s extended family, who are private citizens who earn their own livings.
For many Americans, the interview reinforces their view of Meghan as a woman forced to flee a racist, hidebound royal family; that the monarchy sought to destroy her hopes to reform and rejuvenate the House of Windsor; and that the royal opposition was aided by tabloid media that continues its anti-Meghan campaign to this day. As the interview drove to its finale, talk of abolishing royal privileges, the monarchy, the Commonwealth, swirled on social media. As Nate Cohn, a writer for the New York Times, tweeted: “Canada: we’re always here. When you’re ready.”
For two hours, Harry and Meghan effectively lobbed grenade after grenade over the gilded fences of Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace. Indeed, the only person to escape unscathed was the Queen. Meghan said it was Kate who drove her to tears in the lead-up to her 2018 wedding, not the other way around, as the British media reported. Whatever Kate said about bridesmaid dresses, “made me cry and it really hurt my feelings,” Meghan recounted, though “I don’t think it’s fair to her to get into the details. She’s apologized and I forgave her.”
In addition to not communicating with his brother, Prince William, Harry also revealed that his father stopped talking to him in the midst of their discussions about stepping back from royal duties. Harry said that when they did decamp permanently for Canada, and shortly afterward, for the United States, “my family literally cut me off financially…in the first quarter of 2020” leaving him and Meghan to scramble to put together financial deals “to afford security for us.” (Though, he does say that he’s got his inheritance from his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. That is estimated to be in the tens of millions of pounds.)
At times, Oprah’s trademark interviewing style, perfected over the decades to appear non-threatening while she extracts jaw-dropping revelations, meant that gaps in their story went either unanswered or unchallenged. While Meghan and Harry’s recounting of the agony of dealing with her suicidal thoughts is obviously still raw, Oprah didn’t follow up to ask whether Harry, who had years of therapy to deal with his mother’s death and who has championed mental health issues, had called his own therapist or doctor to get help. Or if he’d asked his brother, who has also been open with his mental struggles. Or his father, who went through more than a decade of therapy.
As I watched the Sussexes recount their experiences during the interview, one thought kept cycling through my mind: Why hadn’t Prince Harry clearly explained to Meghan what a life of royal duty involved when he proposed in 2017? Or gotten someone else to explain the strictures of royal life and its grinding protocol and hierarchy? They both seemed woefully unprepared for their new royal roles and the fairytale turned into a nightmare for both of them.
The overall impression is that there were two sets of standards: a restricted, unfair and even dangerous one for Harry and Meghan, and another kinder, more generous one for other royals.
While the interview is very laudatory of Harry and Meghan—after all, this is their big chance to tell their story—I’m too much of a fact-checker not to point out a few inconsistencies with their narrative, and a few seeming inaccuracies.
In this interview, the pronouns “They” and “You” do heavy lifting, usually with no clarity as to whether Harry and/or Meghan were referring to the royal family itself (slang: the Firm), their staff and courtiers, or an amorphous tradition-bound “institution.” “They didn’t want to do that”; “It was a decision they felt was appropriate”; “They said, “That’s just not possible.”
At one point, Harry said, their taxpayer-funded police protection was suddenly removed: “Their justification was a change of status. Was there a change of risk or threats? No, but we weren’t working members of the royal family.” Left unsaid is why British taxpayers would fund U.K. police officers to indefinitely protect a now-private person living in Canada and later the United States (he says nothing of the cost of the extensive RCMP protection while they lived on Vancouver Island). As Meghan said, the royal family is a business; people’s benefits usually don’t continue after they leave a job, especially when they have sizable inheritances and trusts given to them by said family.
Some errors were just slips of the tongue: When Meghan revealed that the Archbishop of Canterbury had “married” her and Harry in a private ceremony three days before the huge religious service at Windsor Castle, it was later clarified as a “private exchange of vows” rather than a legal ceremony.
Sometimes, I desperately wanted Oprah Winfrey to ask just one more follow-up to pin down exactly who was being referenced and to give an example. When talking of the “Kate crying” story, Meghan said, “They would go on the record and negate the most ridiculous story for anyone…things that are super artificial and inconsequential, but the narrative about making Kate cry was a real character assassination and they knew it wasn’t true. And I felt, ‘If they aren’t going to kill things like that, what are they going to do?’” At another time, Meghan cryptically says she came to understand “not only was I not being protected but that they were willing to lie to protect other members of the family but they weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband.” I’m curious to know the backstories to these comments.
At times I wanted to know who exactly was providing the couple with their information about royal life. For instance, Meghan references the “non-senior” working roles that they wanted to occupy, saying, “I can think of so many right now who are all their royal highnesses, prince or princess, duke or duchess, who earn a living, live on palace grounds, and support the Queen, if and when called upon.” But there are no non-senior working royals who have careers and also take on official duties on behalf of the Queen. She seems to be referring to princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, who have careers and who pay commercial rents to live in private accommodations at royal palaces while occasionally appearing at a Buckingham Palace tea party or accompanying the Queen to Ascot, though they aren’t considered working royals.
Then there is the remarkably long, rather baffling section in which Meghan says that her son was refused the title of “prince” that was his by birth. She was pregnant “when they were saying they didn’t want him to be a prince or princess…which would be different from protocol,” she explained, going on to say, “The idea of the first member of colour in this family not being titled in the same way that other grandchildren would be” confused her. She claims that, under the title-naming convention established by King George V, “it’s not their right to take it away…while I was pregnant they said they wanted to change the convention. For Archie. Why?” She goes on to say, without naming names within the institution, that the lack of title is one reason why they didn’t release the traditional hospital doorstop image of their new baby: “Can you just tell them the truth? Can you say to the world, ‘You’re not giving him a title and we want to keep him safe and that if he’s not a prince, that’s not part of the tradition. Just tell people and then they will understand.’ But they didn’t want to do that.”
At that point in the interview, I wrote, “WUUUUUT????” in my notes. For that’s not what the convention actually says. And this is a topic Harry should know well, as would any member of his family, household or anyone who did a quick Google search. It is discussed ad nauseum at every wedding and royal birth.
Here is my well-worn precis: In 1917, George V issued a royal proclamation dropping German titles for his family and outlining exactly who gets British royal titles and style: the titles “prince” and “princess” as well as the styles “Royal Highness” would be reserved for children of the monarch, children of the sons of a monarch and, finally, the eldest son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales. That system worked until 2012, when Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, announced they were expecting their first child. With changes to the rights of succession, that baby—whether male or female—would automatically be the future monarch. Yet, if the child was a girl, she wouldn’t get a royal title, as she wasn’t the “eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales,” as dictated by the existing rules. Queen Elizabeth II solved the problem by issuing a new Letters Patent on the last day of 2012 that bestowed royal titles and styles to all of William and Kate’s children. Thus arrived HRH Prince George in 2013, HRH Princess Charlotte in 2015 and HRH Prince Louis in 2018. But that tweak didn’t extend beyond the direct line of succession to any future children of Harry.
So the rule wasn’t changed for Archie; rather, Harry’s granny didn’t issue a new Letters Patent to bestow the title of “prince” on her great-grandson. Archie is technically Earl of Dumbarton and automatically becomes a prince when his grandfather, Charles, becomes king. He was going to keep falling down the line of succession as he grew up as a private member of the royal family. (Prince Edward’s young children Louise and James, who are technically a princess and prince, don’t use those titles as they aren’t going to be working royals.)
In addition, Meghan said that by changing the rules to deny Archie the title of “prince” he also “wasn’t going to receive security,” in other words, the lack of title means a lack of protection. “I heard a lot of it through Harry and other parts of it through conversations with family members. It was a decision they felt was appropriate.” Yet, again, that’s not exactly correct. The Queen’s own adult granddaughters, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie, have titles but no taxpayer-funded police protection as they aren’t working royals. As well, over the years, the qualifications for police protection have increased to the point that some junior working royals only get protection while at public events, in addition to their residences, which are on royal estates for that very reason. And children of other working royals are protected by extension through the protection given to their parents.
In January 2020, Harry’s beloved granny announced the separation agreement involving Harry and Meghan. While the Queen stated, “I recognise the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life,” that acceptance that the couple was free to earn their own way through commercial endorsements and deals, came with one big promise from the young couple: “While they can no longer formally represent The Queen, the Sussexes have made clear that everything they do will continue to uphold the values of Her Majesty.”
Those values are duty and loyalty and sacrifice. Now, as the world absorbs the interview Meghan and Harry just gave, the question is asked: did they keep their promise to the monarchy, or irretrievably damage it? Or did they, somehow, spectacularly, do both?