As an Eton schoolboy, Prince Harry thought he had cracked the problem that has haunted his life. He could sidestep the journalists hounding his family by setting up his own newspaper with his brother Prince William and fill it with real royal facts. His friends politely laughed it off.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the Duke of Sussex, once seen as the royal family’s beaming rogue, is back on a mission to remake Fleet Street.
This time the 35-year-old is bolstered by an Instagram account with 9m followers (more than the combined print circulation of all UK daily newspapers) and a team of merciless libel lawyers. By his side is his wife Meghan, the savvy Californian actress who is changing how the world sees the Windsors — and how Prince Harry sees the world.
On Tuesday, the duchess announced something that was, in many ways, ordinary: she sued the Mail on Sunday for publishing a private letter to her estranged father Thomas Markle. The royals have issued writs against publishers so often it could be a rite of passage.
Back in 1849, Prince Albert established the “law of confidence” with a lawsuit against the printer of bootleg copies of etchings he made with Queen Victoria. Prince Harry’s mother Diana used that precedent against a paper that published photographs of her sweating in a gym. Even Queen Elizabeth has sued The Sun for publishing a leaked copy of her Christmas broadcast.
What made this legal foray remarkable was the 500-word online broadside that came with it. Raw, emotional, brimming with righteous anger, the statement was the voice of Harry unbound. What it lacked in facts or vetting it made up for in chutzpah. His warmth, public service during two military tours of Afghanistan and a rebellious streak have him vying with his grandmother the Queen to be the UK’s most popular royal. But one person who knows the duke well admitted it was more “machine gun than sniper rifle”, adding: “You might think it unwise to pick a fight with all the press.” No royal has ever tried anything like it, perhaps for good reason.
Britain’s tabloids, Prince Harry wrote, were peddling “relentless propaganda”, “fabrications” and “lie after lie”. His new wife had been “vilified”. He also referred to the 1997 death of his mother in a Paris car crash while fleeing paparazzi. “I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person,” he wrote. “I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.” He followed up on Friday with legal action in his own name against two more tabloids.
The UK’s first multiracial royal couple faced a media onslaught from the start. The official statement acknowledging their relationship was a plea to cease the “racial undertone” of coverage. The past 18 months would have been dizzying, with a wedding televised around the world, the birth of baby Archie and the duchess’s painfully public rift with her father, tempted into disclosures by tabloid money (although the Mail on Sunday insists it has not paid Mr Markle for such disclosures). The proudly “woke” pair have also committed some howlers: they gallivanted on private jets while preaching action on climate change. “Heir Heads,” cried The Sun.
For the duke, this fight is about more than his wife. A lifetime of pent-up anger has gushed out, against the advice of cautious aides. His youthful tangles with tabloids include publishing a video from his days at Sandhurst, the military academy. The press lapped up other transgressions, from a nude Las Vegas party to wearing Nazi fancy dress.
People close to the duke say he sees himself mounting a bigger mission against a manipulative and deceitful press — the rot in Britain’s civic life.
“Such crap,” responds one tabloid editor. “It is the most extraordinary statement I have ever seen come from the royal household,” says Penny Junor, his biographer. “To make the comparison with his mother was over-emotional and excessive . . . This smacks of Harry on his own.”
That indeed may be the point. Diana called him “my danger-loving Harry” and he now seems intent on blazing a distinctive trail. This year the Sussexes established a separate household and a charity foundation.
His wife, as a former television star, was used to Hollywood’s more controlled media style, in which tabloid influence is waning as fast as its revenues. Whether that model can work for taxpayer-funded royals is another matter. Now sixth in line to the throne, Prince Harry is trying to re-engineer the pact between the royals and the press that sees them trading access for half-decent coverage and a bit of peace. “The game,” to Harry, is just dangerous folly.
In addition to using direct social media channels and tightening up access to staple fodder like pictures of the royal baby, Prince Harry has his sights on the Royal Rota, the self-governing press club that decides who attends events and how material is shared. To the Sussexes, it is “The Cartel”; Buckingham Palace is reviewing the system. But if Prince Harry wants to choose who covers him, he would have to pay for events.
Bruised royal correspondents pine for a better relationship. Jocular Harry used to creep up on them and whisper: “Still writing bollocks then?” These days “he just glowers”, said one old hand.
The risks are plain. Prince Harry cannot resist delving into news coverage, even venturing into online comments sections — what friends call “the dark hole”. If his gambit backfires, the question will be whether he can climb out.
The writer is the Financial Times’ global media editor