This is not – definitely not – a newspaper column about Meghan and Harry. How could it be? I've never met them. All I know is what I read in newspapers – although lack of knowledge does not seem to deter British tabloids.
Every day there are stories about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex based on “information", from anonymous “royal sources” and supposed “friends”. These stories read not like journalism but romantic fiction. There are long-suffering heroes, dastardly villains, glamorous locations, English palaces filled with flunkies and Californian sun-kissed movie-star hideaways. Like eating junk food, some crave more of this stuff, while reading it leaves me empty inside.
For example, a popular British tabloid's front page revealed Meghan was involved in a "plot" to appear on the The Oprah Winfrey Show, well before she married Prince Harry. A plot? Terrorists conspiring to blow up a building or hijack an airliner construct a "plot". A young actor, Meghan Markle, wanting to be on Oprah Winfrey's show is not a "plot". It's a public relations opportunity. Yet, in romantic fiction style, Meghan is cast as the Wicked Schemer manipulating the Naive Prince Harry, a cross between Cruella de Vil in the Disney film 101 Dalmatians and Scarlet Overkill in Minions.
This caricature, however, sells some newspapers. It takes everyone's mind off coronavirus and Brexit in the UK and permits otherwise normal people to believe that they have an insight into the lives of the rich and famous, who – apparently – endure family crises and unhappiness. Like the rest of us.
Perhaps I am also trying to explain why, for all the years I have been a broadcaster and journalist, I have often gone to great lengths to avoid what is called “royal reporting”. It's not a lack of respect. It’s the opposite. I have been lucky enough to meet Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and others. I appreciate their sense of duty. The monarchy historically brings stability to the UK, especially in difficult times. Prince Charles, in particular, has suffered tabloid newspaper caricatures, presenting him as eccentric. At one event I attended in Scotland, the heir to the throne spoke eloquently about organic food, advocating better ways of farming and what we would now call a “greener” environment. He quipped that 30 years ago, when he first spoke about such matters, newspapers suggested he was “crazy”. In fact he was thoughtful, prescient and ahead of his time.
But I confess my own judgement on what makes a “royal story” is seriously flawed.
I once reported on Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Washington in the 1990s and apparently got it all wrong. She was warmly welcomed by then president George HW Bush, but Bush was very tall. And when he moved away from the White House podium it was clear that the lectern was adjusted to his height but not right for the Queen, since she was considerably shorter than the president.
As she made her speech, the head-on TV camera showed viewers just the top of her hat emerging from the podium. Since there were half a dozen other live TV cameras recording the event, in my report I cut away from the silly hat shot to a side view in which she could be seen clearly. Other TV networks stuck with the “talking hat” shot. That – apparently – was “the story”. Even now I persist in thinking it was, in actual fact, about the renewed close relationship between the US and Britain after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the affectionate words from the British monarch to the American people, and the generous welcome from Bush. Wrong!
And I was probably wrong again when Princess Diana was killed in the Paris car crash in August 1997. The glamorous but often unhappy woman had been tormented and pursued by newspapers and supposed “royal” reporters, who wrote negative stories about her relationships including that with Dodi Al Fayed. The moment Diana died, those same newspapers turned 180 degrees, speaking of their “heartbreak” at losing the “people’s princess”.
The word hypocrisy is too soft for all this, but this same hypocrisy continues today. It tortures Prince Harry, the man who as a little boy in 1997 had to bury his mother and has apparently found happiness in his marriage to a woman strong enough to have her own opinions. For Prince Harry, this new witch-hunt against his wife must be an unimaginable repetition of the cruelty endured by his mother.
I am not naive enough to believe that all the newspaper codes of conduct and supposed soul-searching among British tabloid editors will ever stop the bullying of Meghan Markle. The fact that she is African-American seems to ignite even more vitriol from some. Yet royalty-obsessed tabloids supply stories for which there must be some kind of demand. Maybe royalty-obsessed readers should ask themselves what is it about such stories that appeal. The soap-opera? The destruction of people in the public eye? The cruelty? Don’t ask me. I always get royal stories wrong.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National