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Exploding ‘Megxit’: Our Royalty and Press Paint a Distorted Portrait of Britain
In her editorial for our world exclusive retail edition, Hardeep reveals what the story of Prince Harry and Meghan’s departure from the Royal Family raises about power and identity in Britain today
This is a repost from Byline Times news site. Only subscribers to the paper have access to the whole three-part investigation either online or in print, or now available at WH Smith, Waitrose and 1,500 newsagents. Byline Supplement is a separate additional subscription, though some of the content here appears in the paper
On a visit to London’s recently reopened National Portrait Gallery, an American couple next to me gasped.
Alongside Marcus Rashford, Riz Ahmed, Grayson Perry, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Stormzy (with his mum – my personal favourite), Ed Sheeran, Andy Murray, Maureen Lipman, and many others in its ‘history makers’ display, one particular painting had caught their eye.
“Now that is a portrait,” they observed, to the canvas as much as to each other, before taking several phone snaps of the life-sized depiction of Prince William and Kate, wearing luscious greens and ironic smiles.
Of the Brits depicted in that collection, the Prince and Princess of Wales (or King Charles, who was also nearby, for that matter) weren’t the ones I personally felt expressed something about my identification with Britain. But, as the reaction of my anecdotal outsiders shows, our royalty retains the power of its charisma.
Whether those of us who live here are indifferent to them or not (seemingly the majority of us are, bar those from the older and younger generations who are broadly in favour or broadly against), our monarchy sets the tone.
Hierarchy. Class. Tradition. Blood. Inequality. Deference. Continuity. Exceptionalism. Symbolism. Duty.
Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee captured it well during a panel on democracy we spoke on at the recent Labour Party Conference. When asked why she believes the monarchy’s abolition is so key to moving the country forward, Polly replied that its importance lies in how it “captures our minds and imaginations”. It says something to us about the sort of country we are – and our places in it.
In a rapidly changing 21st Century, how can monarchy and modernity go together?
For the British Royal Family, this has rested on a continual quest to stay relevant. Drawing in the tourists, local engagements, balcony appearances, the pomp of state banquets, public campaigns. The problem is its reliance on Britain’s established press – specifically the tabloids – to portray this image.
They have no guarantee of being able to favourably portray this image because, alongside the photo ops and puff pieces, the press requires drama too. Individuals through which moral judgements or approbation can be channelled to feed our more base instincts; the need for a national soap opera.
The story of our royalty and press then is a story about power and where it lies within the British establishment; about the two institutions’ mutual reliance in the name of the public, with neither subjected to any real scrutiny despite their considerable influence behind closed doors.
So why does this relationship matter?
A year on from the death of our longest reigning Queen, Elizabeth II, whose life straddled the British Empire at its height in the 1920s to its diminished status a century later, the symbolism of the monarch – often portrayed as its most important quality – is beginning to be wrought anew by King Charles, whose hands are tied by his arch rivals in national storytelling: the right-wing press.
That same ‘feral press’ is often seen as the invasive force which paid the paparazzi to hound Princess Diana, a hot pursuit for lucrative tabloid pictures which was a contributing factor to her premature death in a car crash in Paris in 1997. As the phone-hacking trial a decade ago proved, Diana’s sons, William and Harry, were some of the most prolific targets of the News of the World’s intrusion in their teens and early 20s.
According to one former member of the royal household, Queen Elizabeth once warned: “There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge.” What did she have in mind? Could it have been the powerful right-wing press?
While the monarchy shapes our “minds and imaginations”, the press has the ability to affect our everyday lives in ways we may not be consciously aware of.
Our newspapers are partisan, too often advancing the personal interests of their wealthy offshore owners in conjunction with those in positions of power; while algorithmic-driven social media platforms, online clickbait advertising models, and the rise of US ‘culture war’-style broadcasters such as GB News only add to the division and disinformation disseminated.
Byline Times was founded in 2019 as one of the only publications in the British media landscape willing to hold the press to account. Independently funded by our readers, and outside of any establishment system, this newspaper – without fear or favour – is able to scrutinise how our tabloid press and monarchy are “powers at work”.
This is why, in its first retail edition available in shops, we are revealing the world exclusive story about how and why Prince Harry and Meghan left our Royal Family: ‘The Truth About Megxit’.
As Dan Evans and Tom Latchem’s detailed investigation shows, it appears that the institution of the monarchy was willing to avoid fully investigating the leak of confidential information about the Sussexes to journalist Dan Wootton, and seemed to take sides with the press over Prince Harry.
Given King Charles’ known dislike of the tabloids, the story sheds new light on the toxic co-dependency between the royals and the Murdoch press, and raises fresh questions about the extent to which the monarchy will go to protect the reputation of its key members.
Whatever (we think) we think about Harry and Meghan, they represented a chance to modernise the monarchy and change how this country sees itself. Many like me – young people, people of colour, those who value openness, vulnerability, individuality and ambition, who relate to the diverse Britain of opportunities we grew up in while living with the deep-rooted cultural and systemic problems it still must confront – will have found something to relate to in Prince Harry and Meghan.
Their departure from the Royal Family is another marker of Britain’s retreat into Little England. We are moving further away from the outward-looking, diverse, modern country Britain really is – at exactly the moment we need to be moving with the times.
Hardeep Matharu is the Editor of Byline Times