What the tabloid treatment of Harry and Meghan teaches us about our popular press
Although most of my work now is for corporate clients, I cut my teeth as a partner at Schillings representing elite athletes, actors, celebrities and members of the Royal Family. I remember the chilling sensation of acting for the Duchess of York when en masse the print media turned on her, branding her "The Duchess of Pork"; as they have on Meghan Markle. I now more usually deal with the Mail and Sun titles on behalf of corporates, which is rather less nerve‑racking.
Learning what you are dealing with
The place to start to learn how to do Crisis PR is to understand what you are dealing with in the media. There is a huge divergence in character and conduct between the broadcast media and titles such as the Guardian at one end of the scale, and Associated Newspapers and News UK at the other. This has to be taken into account when you are doing Crisis PR.
The brutality meted out against the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by the popular press can only be evaluated, and the lessons learned, by beginning with Harry and Meghan themselves.
The Duchess of Sussex
Meghan Markle's parents divorced when she was six. As we all now know, her father is a monster, added to which she was brought up in a single‑parent family. She was also 'ethnically ambiguous' and (to quote her): "I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones". It is inconceivable that Meghan Markle was not the victim of racial abuse in her formative years.
Despite these difficulties, she achieved a degree of academic success, and became a successful actress in an immensely competitive industry. She has also successfully created and released two fashion lines of clothing for women.
Suddenly, shortly after her relationship with Prince Harry became public, she became the victim of trolling, both the mainstream and social media.
The Duke of Sussex
Prince Harry also comes from a broken home. His parents divorced when he was 11. When he was 12 his mother died a sudden and violent death in a road accident when her car was being chased by a posse of paparazzi. These two immense life traumas led him to seek counselling.
Harry served in the military with distinction between 2005 and 2015. This included periods where he was in the frontline despite vows by the Taliban to kill him. He also proved to be an excellent helicopter pilot.
Harry then started the Invictus Games, a Paralympic-style sporting event for injured servicemen and women, and has invested a lot of his time in the care of wounded service personnel.
Piers Morgan and the tabloids – "I don't believe a word of it"
Much of the controversy has centred around Piers Morgan's crude dismissal of the interview which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gave to Oprah Winfrey and, in particular, her speaking about her struggles with depression, by effectively calling both of them liars. This assertion has achieved the dubious record of gathering more OFCOM complaints than any predecessor.
The popular press, and in particular the Associated Newspapers and News UK titles, has overwhelmingly weighed in against Meghan Markle and in support of Piers Morgan. How likely is it then that he/they are right?
Who should we believe?
Meghan Markle suffered from a broken marriage as a child, difficulties because of her race, the challenges of trying to make a living in the world of entertainment (of which I have some experience), giving birth to a child, and suffering a miscarriage. On top of this, she has had to cope with a nasty and brutal father whom the British tabloid press has weaponised against her.
Around 80% of mothers suffer from post-natal depression, which is also common amongst women who have suffered miscarriages. In America just under 50% of adults will suffer from mental illness during their lifetime.
Putting all these together, it is extremely likely that Meghan Markle is telling the truth when she describes suffering from depression. On what basis then does Piers Morgan elect to disbelieve her?
The ugly truth
On the broader front, what have these two young people done which could possibility warrant the poisonous broadsides that they have suffered at the hands of the British popular press? What then does that teach us about those relatively small number of almost exclusively white and male individuals who are responsible for such apparent misogyny and racism?
This then is what all of us have to factor in to our work doing Crisis PR; the nature of the beast that we are dealing with. We are not dealing with entities for which reason, truth, or humanity are primary values. We have to deal with the British popular press on the basis of it as it is, as laid bare by its treatment of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Written by Jonathan Coad, media lawyer (https://www.jonathancoad.co.uk/). His Crisis PR book will be published in the new year.
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