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British tabloids and their “invisible contract” with the royals

Monitoring Desk

Viewed from across the pond, it was simply surreal – the sixth in line to the British throne in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, even showing off his pet chickens.  His wife shared how royal life drove her to contemplate suicide, and claimed at least one member of the royal family raised “concerns” about the color of their son’s skin.Mary-Kate Olsen et al. on a newspaper: Reaction after Prince Harry, Markle interview © Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Reaction after Prince Harry, Markle interview

But another revelation got less attention: Harry’s claim that his family is frightened of Britain’s powerful tabloid newspapers. He described to Winfrey “what’s termed or referred to as the ‘invisible contract’ behind closed doors, between the institution and the tabloids, U.K. tabloids.”

How so? “Well, to simplify, it’s a case of, if you as a family member are willing to wine, dine and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press,” he said. “It’s really a trapping environment.”Prince Harry posing for the camera: Prince Harry on U.K. tabloids, bigotry 02:07 © Provided by CBS News Prince Harry on U.K. tabloids, bigotry 02:07

Tabloid newspapers dominate Britain’s public life, shaping public opinion and giving their owners breath-taking influence.

“When the tabloids decide your time has come, you’re toast,” said James O’Brien, a talk radio host who enjoys getting under the skin of the British establishment.

Correspondent Holly Williams asked, “How powerful are the British tabloid newspapers?”

“Their power is almost absolute,” O’Brien replied. “They put up prime ministers at the pinnacle of power. And they run the mother of all popularity contests.”

“Are they kingmakers politically?”

“Wow, without a doubt.”

The tabloids love the royal family because their glamour, and their scandals, sell newspapers – and the royal family needs positive coverage to justify its very existence, partly paid for by the British taxpayer.

O’Brien said, “They are birds in a gilded cage, and if they make an enemy of the tabloids, the tabloids don’t stop writing about it, they just stop writing the good stuff.”

All royals face tabloid criticism, and sometimes harassment. Even the Queen was accused of not showing enough compassion after Princess Diana’s death. But there was a racial element to coverage of the Duchess of Sussex, some of it blatant. a close up of a newspaper:  / Credit: CBS News © Provided by CBS News / Credit: CBS News

“I do accept that the institution would have been foreign to her,” said Kelvin MacKenzie, who used to be the editor of one of Britain’s top-selling tabloids, The Sun. He said it wasn’t race but Meghan’s behavior that made her unpopular. For one thing, he told Williams, the royals are supposed to be apolitical, and she was too opinionated.

He said, “I do think we have now reached a point where actually people don’t want to read good news about Meghan.”

“So, she’s so unpopular that the tabloid media know that people just want to hear negative things about her?” asked Williams.

“They just want bad news.”

“And so, they give it to the public?”

“Give it to them, yeah.”

Others here believe that, consciously or not, the British tabloids – and parts of the British establishment – couldn’t accept a biracial American at the very pinnacle of the British class system.

Dawn Butler, a member of Parliament, said of the tabloids, “I think they’ve shown their true colors. They have shown that they have a bias, and they’ve shown that they are racist in their reporting, we know that.”

Williams asked, “Why have they gone after her?”

“Because they can,” she replied. “The tabloid press hunts us all.”

Butler told us she’s been bullied by the tabloids herself. What’s most troubling, she said , is Meghan’s allegation that the palace didn’t defend her when false stories were printed, including that she made her sister-in-law Kate cry.

Butler said, “Was the relationship between the two institutions so close that instead of calling out the truth, they decided to perpetuate a lie?”

The duchess now admits that when she wed her fairytale prince, she didn’t understand the institution she was marrying into, or its complicated connection with the tabloid media.

According to James O’Brien, “You are supposed to know your place. People who refuse to recognize their place, [or] they don’t know their place, I think that is a bit like painting a target on your back.”