Fame fascinates us. In ancient Rome, successful generals were awarded “triumphs”. Thousands lined the streets at these parades to see their heroes; to catch a glimpse of Julius Caesar returning from his latest conquest.
But celebrity can bring unwanted intrusion. The conflict between fame and the right to privacy is at the heart of the fallout from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s TV interview with Oprah Winfrey.
I have to confess that I have some skin in this game. In 2016, I was the editor of a British national newspaper, the Daily Star Sunday, when we – with our sister paper, The Sunday Express – broke the news that Prince Harry was dating an actress called Meghan Markle.
Under the banner “Royal romance world exclusive”, the headline read: “PRINCE HARRY’S SECRET US TV LOVER”. It was picked up by outlets around the globe. It’s fair to say it went viral.
I had no qualms about running the story. It came from a long-standing contact who had spent many years as a highly respected royal correspondent. The exclusive meant that both newspapers sold in huge numbers. Many believe newspapers are a public service. They are not. Most are privately-owned businesses.
In the age of 24-hour news and social media feeds, newspaper circulations have plummeted. In a shrinking market, the battle to sell papers has become ever more cut-throat – and the best way to sell them is to unearth exclusive stories. This pressure has led to the worst excesses of the UK tabloid Press, including the phone-hacking scandal.
The biggest stories – wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters – sell newspapers. But, aside from these, people love to read about the rich and famous. Celebrity is a global industry, with thousands of outlets dedicated to churning out gossip. For those who seek fame, this is part of the trade-off. They need to maintain a high profile and these platforms serve their purpose.
I don’t excuse the intrusion that many have suffered, I simply point out that celebrity is often a two-way street.
What sets the British royal family apart from “ordinary” celebs is that they were born into fame, they did not ask for it. For many, this adds to their mystique. For millions of people, they represent an old-fashioned glamour that few pop stars or actors possess. Even in countries with no monarchy, there is a fascination with British royalty. Almost 30 million Americans got up in the middle of the night to watch Harry and Meghan’s wedding.
The couple spoke of their wish for privacy in their interview with Oprah – on a show whose original broadcast alone was viewed by 17 million people in the US and 11 million in the UK.
Here lies the paradox in the relationship between the Sussexes and the media.
Do Harry and Meghan have a basic right to privacy? Of course they do. Have they been allowed the privacy they are entitled to? Certainly not.
But even the sensation-hungry British tabloids have, on occasion, shown restraint. When William went to university, an agreement was struck between the Palace and the Press and he was left alone. When Harry served two tours of duty with the British Army in Afghanistan, to preserve his safety and that of those around him, not a word appeared in the UK Press.
In contrast to the coverage Kate Middleton receives, the treatment of Meghan has been excessively hostile. Whether race is behind that, I do not know. None of the people I worked with was racist. But there is a destructive side to the tabloids’ coverage of the royals. It is exemplified by the hounding of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana.
It is inaccurate, though, to cast Diana as an entirely innocent victim of a ravenous Press. She fed negative stories about Prince Charles and others to journalists. The fact that she, at times, manipulated the media can never excuse the behaviour of the paparazzi who chased her into a Parisian tunnel on that tragic night in August 1997. It illustrates, though, that her relationship with the Press was complex.
Anyone who watched the heart-breaking scenes as 12-year-old Prince Harry walked behind his mother’s coffin, seen by millions, can only feel enormous sympathy when he compares his and Meghan’s situation to Diana’s.
Is the Palace entirely blameless in this media war? Before the Oprah interview, royal aides revealed to The Times that Meghan faced a bullying complaint made by a member of her staff. Interesting timing.
But at the heart of the couple’s plea for privacy lies a contradiction.
Of course they have the right to a private life. Of course the public cannot expect unrestricted access to them.
But, if privacy is what they seek, is a TV show that will be viewed by tens of millions the place to find it? Will making shocking allegations of racism in the royal family – since denied by Prince William – bring them greater privacy, or will it generate even more scrutiny?
Harry and Meghan can never disappear entirely from the public eye, but, in the pursuit of a private life, surely it is better to back away from the cameras rather than to step into the spotlight?