On Thursday, Catherine, now Princess of Wales, led the largest gathering of royals since the death of Elizabeth II at a carol service in Westminster Abbey, the ancient coronation church of kings. In a ceremony dedicated to the late Queen’s memory, Catherine’s husband, Prince William, delivered an address hailing “the spirit of togetherness” — a nod to the nation’s needy mood at the end of a stressful British year.
Harry and Meghan Aren’t Doing Themselves Any Favors
That spirit of togetherness is notably absent from the final three installments of “Harry and Meghan.” The Netflix series about the estranged Duke and Duchess of Sussex broadcast a roster of further complaints against the royal family, the most wounding of which were directed at King Charles III and Prince William. Harry accused his brother of “shouting and screaming” and his father of “telling lies.” It sounds like the worst kind of family gathering.
Under fraught circumstances, the royals’ initial response has been restrained. Instead of rebutting Harry and Meghan’s emotional accusations, the Firm, as the family like to call themselves, have wisely stayed silent and put on an unostentatious display of unity. The new King will also seize the opportunity of his first Christmas message to project himself as a benevolent uncle to the nation. Recently, he has been supporting charities that help the poor with the cost-of-living crisis — an attempt to bring the institution closer to the daily lives and concerns of Britons.
Harry and Meghan may have won the ratings battle — more than 80 million viewers are estimated to have tuned in worldwide to hear their story — but have they lost the war for popularity three months after the death of the Queen? Whereas many, myself included, initially sympathized with the Sussexes’ complaints about their cold reception in Britain and the stuffy royal protocol, their latest accusations against the Palace and the press feel wild and unsubstantiated. It’s not doing them any favors in the opinion polls either.
According to Matthew Goodwin, a polling analyst and professor at the University of Kent, the Sussexes “are now among the most unpopular public figures in Britain.” The couple have a net rating of -26. Harry’s ratings, according to YouGov, have crashed by 13 points since the documentary to -26, while Meghan’s are in free fall at -39. Only Prince Andrew, disgraced by his former association with Jeffrey Epstein, is more unpopular. Meanwhile, William and Catherine, the Prince and Princess of Wales, enjoy net ratings of +62 and +57, respectively.
Game, set and match to the Firm?
Goodwin believes that the Sussexes’ slide in popularity is in part due to British people disliking being branded as racist. Ostensibly, Meghan being rejected on the grounds of being biracial was one of the chief reasons why the couple quit the country for life in California. Yet, as Goodwin points out, the UK has a non-white prime minister and levels of racial prejudice have been recorded at an all-time low.
Of course, this is not the whole story. Last month, William’s godmother, the 83-year-old Lady Susan Hussey stepped away from her long-serving role — as a Lady in Waiting to the Queen Consort — after she upset a Clack charity boss, Ngozi Fulani, with persistent questions about her “origins.” As a scene-setter to the Netflix series, it was a gift to the Sussexes’ publicity machine. On Friday, however, the Palace staged a meeting of reconciliation between the two parties in which it was accepted that “no malice had been intended.” The new King wants to be seen as encouraging diversity.
My own response, watching a lot of these episodes, is that although the Sussexes do have the unfortunate habit of employing language and arguments plucked from America’s culture wars, the explanation for their fall in public esteem is simpler: No one loves a whiner, especially when fault is always on one side. Not a whisper of self-criticism or doubt is heard throughout the series.
Harry claims that it was jealousy at his wife’s popularity — she was getting more prominent coverage than the Duchess of Cambridge — that first prompted Palace media officials to leak negative stories about her: “The issue is when someone who’s marrying in, who should be a supporting act, is then stealing the limelight or doing the job better than the person who is born to do this, that upsets people. It shifts the balance.” The explanation may strike uncommitted observers as a bit paranoid.
There is too much unintended comedy also to escape a British eye-roll: Take the couple’s complaints that Nottingham Cottage, their home in the grounds of Kensington Palace, was “too small,” prompting shocked disapproval from their mighty media friend Oprah Winfrey. They moved out before the birth of their first son, Archie, further cramped their style. In fact, the Waleses had lived there before when their oldest child George was a baby.
I am also bemused by Harry’s accusation that The Sunday Times — then under my editorship — scuppered a plan for the couple to move to South Africa by revealing news of it. This hardly makes sense. According to Harry’s own former foreign affairs adviser, David Manning, the proposal was killed off because the cost of providing security in the country was too great. Similarly bizarre accusations are made against The Sunday Times’s sister paper, The Times of London, for doing a routine reporting job on the couple. It is as if all media, not just the tabloid newspapers, are the enemy.
Of course, there has been blowback. The Times thundered in an editorial on Friday that Harry and Meghan have “damaged Britain in the world” and demanded they give up their royal titles which “have no relevance for two people simply trading on their image as celebrities.”
Harry and Meghan’s televised cry for help has been lucrative for the box-office, but the script could hardly be confused with that durable old guide, “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” It sets them firmly on a course of being “tell-all” celebrities in the US market. They have turned their back on Britain, and I don’t see the British ever wanting them back.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.
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