Why it Was Time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to Fight Back

After months of maintaining a stiff upper lip—and seeing visions of his late mother's struggles—the Sussexes have had enough.

By Sarah Grossbart Oct 28, 2019 11:30 AMTags
Watch: Prince Harry Blasts British Press for Bullying Meghan Markle

Steering clear of Twitter only accomplishes so much. 

While Meghan Markle has said she doesn't read her own press and would never subject herself to the mess of opinions hurled about on social media ("I think positive or negative, it can all sort of just feel like noise to a certain extent," she said in March), short of moving about the world with blinders on and never logging onto the Internet, there's little she could have done to avoid the avalanche of negativity pumped out regularly by the British tabloids. 

Most recently it was that she lauded 15 "brilliant female changemakers" in her guest editorship for British Vogue, but failed to include Queen Elizabeth II, people willing to praise the monarch, of course, being in short supply. There was also her decision to make a quick jaunt to New York to support pal Serena Williams quest for a U.S. Open title, which left the duchess' critics wondering who was staying with 5-month-old Archie Harrison. (The obvious answer to every mother's favorite question, of course, being his very competent father.) She was also picked at for her lavish New York City baby shower, her security officer asking Wimbledon attendees not to snap photos of her as she watched a match, and her and husband Prince Harry's decision to skip out on a weekend with granny.

And, as always, there's the slow and incredibly public disintegration of her relationship with father Thomas Markle to pick at. You know, that old chestnut.

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It was, perhaps, the most shocking beat in that ongoing family feud that finally prompted the duo to take action. Earlier this month, in a statement penned by Harry himself, the couple revealed they are suing The Mail on Sunday's parent company for infringement of copyright and misuse of private information tied to the paper's decision to publish the purportedly private letter Meghan wrote to her dad after he missed her 2018 vows. 

That particular violation was their catalyst for taking legal action, the couple taking umbrage with the paper's decision to omit "select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year." But as Harry put it in the lengthy statement released just 24 hours before the close of their African tour, it was just "one incident in a long and disturbing pattern of behavior by British tabloid media."

In other words, they're done taking crap, a sentiment punctuated by the duo's announcement that they were also filing papers against the owners of the Sun and the Daily Mirror over alleged phone hacking claims and the recent release of their documentary, Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, in which they both discuss how the negative stories have affected them. 


"Any woman, especially when they're pregnant, you're really vulnerable and so that was made really challenging," she told interviewer Tom Bradby of the endless attacks in the documentary. "And then when you have a newborn, you know...especially as a woman, it's really, it's a lot, so you add this on top of just trying to be a new mom or trying to be a newlywed its, yeah, well I guess....And also thank you for asking because not many people have asked if I'm OK, but it's, uh, it's a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes."

She was woefully underprepared for the turn her life would take when she wed Harry, she continued. "My British friends said to me, 'I'm sure he's great but you shouldn't do it because the British tabloids will destroy your life...And I very naively—I'm American. We don't have that there—[I said], 'What are you talking about? That doesn't make any sense. I'm not in any tabloids.' I didn't get it. So it's been, yeah, it's been complicated."

For Harry, though, it's been agonizing. "He sees the pain of his wife and the attacks she faces," a source told People of his impetus for speaking out, "and he wants to try to sort it out."

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

In the three years since Harry had fired a warning shot, blasting the press for the "wave of abuse and harassment" against then-girlfriend Meghan Markle, the duo had tried to maintain that requisite stiff upper lip.

Heeding the long-followed royal mantra that addressing a false story only keeps it alive, they ignored the chatter about Meghan's supposedly nasty relationship with sister-in-law Kate Middleton and chose not to address speculation that the former actress and philanthropist was behind the exodus of a few key staff members. 

"Up to now, we have been unable to correct the continual misrepresentations—something that these select media outlets have been aware of and have therefore exploited on a daily and sometimes hourly basis," Harry wrote. But as the nasty press ramped up throughout Meghan's pregnancy and reached a particularly hostile peak during her maternity leave, he hit his breaking point.

"Look, part of this job and part of any job, like everybody, means putting on a brave face and turning a cheek to a lot of the stuff. But again, for me and for my wife, of course, there's a lot of stuff that hurts—especially when the majority of it is untrue," he told Bradby. "But all we need to do is focus on being real, focus on being the people we are and standing up for what we believe in. I will not be bullied into playing a game that killed my mum."

Peter Nicholls/PA Wire

Because Harry has already seen how this can play out; he's lived through the horrible, heartbreaking ending. Evident in the searing, 565-word statement is his still simmering anger over losing his mother in a horrific, entirely preventable, 1997 car crash. 

In the two-plus decades since the then-12-year-old learned Princess Diana had been killed, he's never forgotten the aggressive paparazzi that pursued her Mercedes into that Parisian tunnel and then snapped photos as she lay bleeding. 

"I think one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that the people who chased her into the tunnel were the same people that were taking photographs of her while she was still dying on the back seat of the car," he shared in a 2017 BBC documentary meant to mark the 20th anniversary of her passing. "And William and I know that, we've been told that numerous times by people that know that was the case. And those people that caused the accident, instead of helping, were taking photographs of her dying on the back seat."

Now he's seeing that same absence of humanity in the sundry of commentators and writers castigating his bride's every move. The criticism is eerily reminiscent of what his mom once endured as the deeply scrutinized wife of a future king—a situation the royals have worked hard to avoid in the decades since.  

"My deepest fear is history repeating itself," he shared in the statement's closing lines. "I've seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

Tim Rooke/Shutterstock

Much like Diana, Meghan has often felt she had no recourse to make the negativity stop. Playing the part of duchess meant shuttering her social media accounts and smiling in the face of some of the harshest criticism. 

"I have said for a long time to H—that's what I call him—it's not enough to just survive something, right? That's not the point of life." she said in the documentary. "You've got to thrive, you've got to feel happy and I think I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip. I tried, I really tried. But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging and the biggest thing that I know is that I never thought this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair."

She never imagined quite how hard it would be to let things slide off of her. 

"It's just been frustrating and stressful to have no voice," a royal insider told Us Weekly. "She's always relied on her own voice to stand up for others, and for herself. So not being able to say anything is a debilitating feeling. She's always been so independent, her entire life, and that's all been taken away from her. She's always been able to clap back on social media and now she can't."

Fortunately her husband has always had a bit of a rebellious streak. "He is trying to protect them all," a Diana friend told People. "He is doing what he can."

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It's not as if the legal action came without precedent. Prince William and Kate successfully sued a French paper in 2012 for printing photos of the duchess sunbathing topless, William also invoking the horrific scrutiny his late mother received by calling the move "particularly shocking because it reminded us of the harassment that led to the death of my mother." And the Queen, herself, has filed litigation twice. 

Still—big surprise here—the action has had its critics.

Those in the media, who felt they had been chastised along with The Mail on Sunday and various other British tabloids, questioned the timing of Harry's initial no-holds-barred statement. They were still on the ground covering the waning hours of the couple's African tour, after all. 

And the 10-day trip, with it's plentiful photo opportunities of the happy couple, was meant to serve as a sort of truce between the Sussexes and the outlets who covered them. 

Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Following months of scathing headlines, taking the pair to task for the costly renovations of their new Windsor home and their choice to fly private after lecturing others on the importance of cutting down on carbon emissions, they were in desperate need of good press. (Yes, Elton John explained he had provided the use of his own jet to the pair and made a donation to offset the cost to the environment, and Harry had acknowledged the travel arrangements were a necessity "to ensure my family are safe," but the bad feelings still remained.) 

And what better way to court public favor than to get down to the nuts-and-bolts of their job as royals, lining up some 86 engagements highlighting the causes most dear to them, such as conservation, mental health and female empowerment? (Arriving via commercial airliner wouldn't hurt, either.) 

"It will take more than a great tour to turn the tide completely," royal commentator Ingrid Seward told Vanity Fair pre-trip, "but if it goes well then it could be the start of a smoother path for them in the press. There's a lot riding on the tour and the feeling is it really has to go well for the couple."

Toby Melville /PA Wire

By all accounts it did, the couple graciously granting interviews to the likes of CNN, Sky News and BBC and giving photographers a much-desired glimpse of their little one, having Arch (that would be Archbishop, Desmond Tutu) meet Archie.

Playing the game netted them a slew of happy headlines and even a public shoutout from former First Lady Michelle Obama.

"Coverage in the celebrity and show business media has been ecstatic, not least in the U.S.," Patrick Jephson, Diana's former private secretary and author of The Meghan Factor told Vanity Fair. "And certainly such support is nice to see. But when the cheers have died away, for a prince and princess of the United Kingdom, the only audience that matters is the British public."

And there were mixed takes on how the statement would be received, with one former BBC correspondent likening it to "a sledgehammer to the symbiotic relationship once tolerated by the royals and the tabloids." 

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Other members of the press pointed out that covering the lawsuit forced them to shred stories they had written about the tour itself, and the very charities the couple were hoping to bring awareness to. 

"The statement has become the story," ITV's royal editor Chris Ship told Vanity Fair. "We had to drop our story last night on gender-based violence—an issue the duchess has been really keen to highlight—to talk about Harry and Meghan's relationship with the press."

Opinions on the personal bent the couple took in their documentary are equally mixed. While Meghan's pals are thrilled she's finally speaking out, believing her vulnerability will get those in the press to back off ("It's been almost a relief seeing her at a point where she can be honest about what's been happening," makeup artist Daniel Martin said on CBS This Morning,") royal watchers are taking issue with the pair diverting from the done thing. 

"The royal family has always in the past very successfully pursued this policy of keeping their head down and saying nothing. I think that is a dignified way of dealing with problems," commentator Penny Junor told the Daily Mail. "It's fine to speak to someone in private, a therapist, but don't spill your soul in public. I don't think it works."

Chris Jackson/PA Wire

But Harry doesn't much care if he's violated the royal's unspoken arrangement to play nice with the press in exchange for a modicum of privacy in their personal lives. The way he sees it, certain outlets have long since trounced on that very agreement. 

"As far as Harry is concerned, he is making a point," a source explained to Vanity Fair. "He says he has simply had enough of the negative stories about his wife and he wants things to change."

And now Meghan has faith hey just might. "She's really hoping the critics will give her a break now they've been made aware of how the negativity is affecting her. She wants the public to know that she's vulnerable just like everyone else," a source told Us Weekly. "Meghan's happy that she made the statement and plans to be more honest with the public. In fact, it's something she wishes she'd done earlier."

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