Will UK Tabloids Face a Reckoning Over Meghan Markle Coverage?

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“There wasn’t the slightest acknowledgment that there might be a problem,” a professor at the University of Westminster says

Meghan Markle tabloid coverage
Daily Mail / Express / Getty Images / TheWrap

Those hoping that Oprah Winfrey’s bombshell Sunday interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry will lead to sweeping changes in how the British tabloids approach royal coverage may be disappointed. For viewers watching from the U.S., the reexamination of celebrity media coverage hits close to home, especially in light of a recent Britney Spears documentary that led to mea culpas from gossip bloggers, comedians and commentators who had previously derided the singer and other stars like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. The reminder of the relentlessly negative coverage of Markle and her admission during the Oprah interview that the pressure drove her to consider suicide raised the specter of whether the British tabloid sector would express regret. “I would love to think that this was the inflection point. I would love to believe that they would look at this and be a little bit introspective and start asking questions of themselves,” Steven Barnett, a communications professor at the University of Westminster, told TheWrap. “But it ain’t gonna happen, I’m afraid.” In fact, Britain’s Society of Editors on Monday issued a statement denying Prince Harry’s assertion to Winfrey that the U.K. press was bigoted or racist and criticized the Duke and Duchess of Sussex for making such claims “without providing any supporting evidence.” Reps for The Sun, The Daily Mail and its publisher, DMG Media, did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story. “There wasn’t the slightest acknowledgment that there might be a problem. And that complete blindness, the knee-jerk defensive reaction to any kind of criticism, I’m afraid, is what defines the U.K. press,” Barnett said. “It’s white; it’s male; it’s old. I think it’s in decline.” ‘We’ve been here before more than once’ For Barnett, the tabloids’ continued hostility toward Markle can be narrowed down to three points: The high-profile legal cases brought against the U.K. press by the Sussexes; the need to sell papers and draw in readers with clickbait; and the longstanding tradition in British culture that the lives of royals are “fair game” for the media to cover. But for viewers watching Sunday’s interview, woven between all the bombshells was a stark reminder of the immense power of the U.K. press and a demonstration of how negative tabloid coverage helped erode the Duchess of Sussex’s mental health.
Prince Harry Meghan Markle Oprah Winfrey CBS
(Harpo Productions/Joe Pugliese)
During the interview, Prince Harry referenced the press treatment of his mother, Diana, who died in a car crash in 1997 after being chased by paparazzi, and said he feared “history repeating itself.” Ben Widdicombe, the editor-in-chief of Avenue magazine and the author of the gossip memoir, “Gatecrasher,” said he already saw that happening. “We’ve been here before more than once,” Widdicombe told TheWrap. “What horrified me about Diana was that there was a consensus for about a year, maybe 18 months, after she died that the media absolutely had to change our approach to the Royals or, indeed, women celebrities in general. And within seven years, the gossip media were doing as bad — or worse — to the holy trinity of Paris, Britney and Lindsay, as anyone ever did to Diana.” Widdicombe, whose nationalities are British and Australian, said he was “shocked” and had “whiplash” when he saw the press abandon the media lessons gleaned from Princess Diana’s death and do a “complete 180” with a new generation of young celebrities. “History teaches us that whatever reckoning there will be will probably be short-lived,” he said. Royal historian Marlene Koenig also noted that a few key points in the Oprah interview lacked nuance or follow-up, such as Meghan’s comments about Archie being refused a prince title or the palace not defending her from untrue stores — comments that could further divide the Sussexes from tabloids or viewers who support the monarchy. As for the disconnect between coverage of Catherine Middleton and Meghan Markle, Koenig noted that the Duchess of Cambridge was on the receiving end of negative press early in her relationship with Prince William, too. “Catherine received the brunt of the press in a different way,” Koenig said. “It was nasty, especially about her family.” But racism and xenophobia undoubtedly played a role in the negative coverage of Meghan, Koenig said, pointing to a particularly egregious 2016 headline from the Daily Mail that said Meghan was “(almost) straight outta Compton” and referred to her mother’s home as being “gang-scarred.” “It’s a situation that they need to grapple with. They need to look at themselves because there’s no accountability when you put in a headline, ‘Straight outta Compton,’ which is totally not true,” Koenig said. ‘A Faustian pact’ As Oprah’s Meghan-Harry interview continues to reverberate on social media and in Buckingham Palace, any discussion of tabloid coverage cannot ignore the “Faustian pact” between the royal family and the U.K. tabloids, as Barnett put it. “It’s a poisonous relationship, and I don’t actually know where it goes,” he said, noting that the palace would be “slaughtered in the press” if they were to eschew their relationship with the tabloids and refrain from feeding stories to those outlets.
Daily Mirror
U.K. tabloids, like media outlets in the U.S., have struggled financially in recent years with the decline of print sales and advertising. Last year, Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun reported £68 million in losses, while the Daily Mail reported a 69% decline in print advertising and 17% decline in digital income. But that could also mean a larger conversation should be had with advertisers on which publications they choose to put their money into, Barnett said. “The answer isn’t to try and prevent this kind of tabloid extremism,” he said. “The answer is to say to advertisers, ‘Are you comfortable having your brand associated with this kind of hatred, with this kind of extensively hostile and frequently racist coverage?’” And that may also be where readers come into the picture, too. Widdicombe said that it’s easy to “demonize the media” as a “malignant third-party” without recognizing that tabloid coverage is often a reflection of the “id of our collective culture.” “Honestly, so-called ‘normal’ people on social media are being meaner every day on Twitter and Instagram comments than the worst of the tabloids everywhere,” he said. “So I think the question should always be, ‘What are we consuming as a culture?’”

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