The recent rejection of four primary tabloid outlets is a bold move by Sussexes, demonstrating the change in tolerance by high profile figures and their dealings with the press. The message is clear. They will not tolerate press exploitation. This is a strong and necessary action signaling for more press accountability, but the misguided timing of such a message poses a risk for the couple’s public support. But how has this impacted the authority of the former royals and will such a sorely needed message prevail?
There was once a time the British public raved about the new American divorcee, who brought a much-needed sense of modernity to the British Royal Family. However, this previous veil of acceptance has proved to be a flimsy façade as the tabloid press soon began to chase Meghan. Exploitative headlines with overtly racist undertones and intrusive stories soon emerged, the most famous being “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton”. Mentions about her love of nation-wide favourite ‘avocado-on-toast’ was linked to claims of human slavery and environmental destruction. A nasty game of contrast and comparison with Kate Middleton continued as a consistent thorn in Meghan’s side as her crimes surrounding her love of jeans, nail polish and public displays of affection soon made it to our papers. Could this woman ever have caught a break in the relentless British rottweiler press? I think not.
It is no surprise then that the recent departure of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, caused further rip-waves across society. The Sussexes most recent refusal to interact with tabloid press, coupled with their ongoing legal action against ‘Association Newspapers’, owners of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday is their latest affront to the status quo, once again attracting new attention to the controversial couple. Markle is suing Association Newspapers over the infringement of the UK Data Protection Act (2018), relating to the manipulative editing and publication of a private letter to her father. Whilst it is true Harry has previously had a strained relationship with the press due to the treatment of his mother Diana, the new “zero tolerance” interaction policy with the Sun, The Mirror, the Daily Mail and The Express is the start of a new era for the former-royals. The couple are quick to reassure that this move is against exploitative press outlets, and they whole-heartedly support freedom of press opinion. However, the Sussexes no longer wish “to offer themselves up as currency for an economy of clickbait and distortion” and have justly slated the tabloid paper’s lack of accountability over the destruction and turmoil it has caused in the lives of individuals.
The move has been met by criticism from some, including journalists such as Roy Greenslade who argues that by publicly rejecting the well-known tabloid papers the couple bring more attention to the outlets they seek to condemn. It is also stated that the influence of tabloids is now not as strong as in past era’s, such as Diana’s and therefore the couple’s actions against these media publications are counterproductive. However, to side with this view is largely ignorant of the current, powerful impacts the tabloids generate. A most recent example of this is Caroline Flack, a TV presenter accused of domestic abuse against her boyfriend, who received an increasingly large negative and intrusive coverage during her court case. Friends of the ITV presenter spoke out against the manipulation of the press during such a vulnerable time. The Sun retracted stories published about Flack after her death, prompting further backlash in public domains. The line between exploitation and criticism is seemingly not as thin as some would like to make out. What author Matt Haig describes as ‘manslaughter via the press’ must be increasingly challenged. Such a public response to press manipulation, does not detract from the Sussexes previous authority as former royals but rather adds to their significance as social justice campaigners.
The couple are correct about press responsibility, but is now the time for such an announcement to be made? The message intended is admirable; but gravely mistimed. During unprecedented circumstances which have brought about new priorities in the immediate and uncertain context of COVID-19, the announcement of tabloid rejection has been ridiculed as people face fears of the virus, economic hardships and mental health outbreaks. Whilst the British nation is trapped at home simmering in impatience and boredom, such a move will not gain the positive attention it desperately needs nor the moral backing necessary. Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore correctly insinuates that this shows their ‘thin skins’, while others such as critical workers are covering themselves in PPE. The Sussexes’ most recent actions can be seen as petty and even grandiose. Surely the privacy and support they seek would have been more achievable if they had waited for normality to return? Whenever that will be. This is perhaps a lesson in emotional intelligence for Harry and Meghan.
Despite the mistiming of such a message, the necessity for challenging tabloid exploitation remains increasingly relevant in modern society. The impacts of manipulation and destruction are clear. Regardless of personal opinions of Meghan and Harry, their promotion of zero tolerance is a much-needed step towards pushing for press accountability and responsible journalism.