Under fire: the Duchess dividing the world

No love lost: Markle said Buckingham Palace was "perpetuating falsehoods" about her and Harry. © CBS

Is Meghan right to speak out? The Duchess of Sussex has hit out at the Royal Family in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Her criticism raises hard questions for British society as a whole.

It was supposed to be a fairytale.

On a sunny day in May 2018, A-list celebrities, a gospel choir and an African-American bishop gathered at a chapel in Windsor to watch a mixed-race American actress join the heart of the royal family.

Instead, the union ended in disaster. Not the marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry – the couple are due to welcome their second child later this year. Rather, it is the relationship between Meghan Markle and the royal family, the British media and even British society itself that everyone agrees has gone horribly wrong.

The problems started even before the couple married. In November 2016, shortly after their relationship became public, Prince Harry condemned the press for racist comment pieces, saying his girlfriend had suffered a “wave of abuse and harassment”.

Then, in January 2020, less than two years on from their wedding day, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex broke free from Britain, leaving their royal roles behind to start a new life in California.

Now Meghan has turned her ire on the Royal Family itself. In a trailer for a new two-hour interview, which is set to be broadcast on Sunday, the Duchess finally breaks her silence on the family’s frosty relationship.

“I don’t know how they could expect that, after all of this time, we would still be silent if there is an active role that The Firm is playing in perpetuating falsehoods about us,” she tells host Oprah Winfrey.

Critics say the problem is not the press or the palace, but Meghan herself.

“The criticism of Meghan Markle has nothing to do with her skin colour and everything to do with her being a shameless piece of work doing huge damage to our royal family,” wrote broadcaster Piers Morgan in a scathing report last year.

In recent days, the bad press surrounding Meghan has been relentless. Buckingham Palace launched an investigation into claims she bullied her staff. New reports suggest she wore earrings gifted by Saudi Prince Salman just three weeks after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Now some accuse her of shamelessly attacking Harry’s family while his grandfather Prince Philip lies dangerously ill in hospital.

But in a statement, the Sussexes’ spokesman said the accusations amounted to nothing more than a “calculated smear campaign”.

For Meghan’s supporters, the palace’s hypocrisy is obvious. Officials were quick to investigate the Duchess’s alleged bullying, but when Prince Andrew was accused of sexual assault in 2019, Buckingham Palace released several statements in his support.

And the racism endemic in British society is simply undeniable – one journalist was even fired for comparing the couple’s son to a chimpanzee.

For broadcaster Munya Chawawa, who was a pundit for the BBC on Meghan’s wedding day, watching the Royal Family and the British public applaud a foreign woman of colour felt like a historic moment.

Now, he wonders if “any smiling done on the day might have been smiling through gritted teeth”.

Is Meghan right to speak out?

Royal row

Of course, say some. Just like everyone else, the Duchess of Sussex has a right to freedom of expression. But in her case, speaking out is even more important than just invoking her rights. Meghan has been the victim of attacks from a society still dealing with institutional racism and unconscious bias. It is vitally important that she should be able to tell her side of the story.

No, say others. The Duke and Duchess’s interview with Oprah Winfrey is more about boosting their own reputations and Hollywood careers than calling out racism and bigotry. All international celebrities are subject to scrutiny, and Meghan and Harry are no exception. There is no unfairness; the Duchess cannot hope to avoid difficult questions about her behaviour to her staff.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to be a member of the royal family?
  2. Is anyone to blame for the couple’s decision to leave the UK?

Activities

  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of either the Duke or Duchess of Sussex. What hopes and fears do you think they have ahead of the interview’s release?
  2. Hold a class debate on the motion: “British society is intrinsically racist.”

Some People Say...

“The British press has an insatiable appetite for making public things that should be private.”

Niall Ferguson (1964 – ), Scottish historian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that racial inequality does exist in Britain, despite claims to the contrary. “We have convinced ourselves that if we contort ourselves into a form of blindness, then issues of identity will quietly disappear,” writes British author Afua Hirsch. However, statistics show that Black people are nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than White people in Britain, and are disproportionately unlikely to own their own home.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether criticism of the Duchess is justified or the result of unconscious bias. Many say she has been compared unfavourably to her sister-in-law the Duchess of Cambridge, who is White, despite doing many of the same things. But others say critiques of Hollywood actress Markle are more likely to be the result of a culture clash than racism – for example, some say a more direct American style of communication could be the reason for the bullying claims.

Word Watch

The Firm
A nickname for the Royal Family coined by the Queen’s husband Prince Philip. It was often used by Princess Diana.
Perpetuating
To encourage something and make it continue.
Prince Salman
Last week, a US intelligence report concluded that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Prince Philip
The Duke of Edinburgh has been in hospital in London for more than two weeks with a heart condition.
Smear campaign
The Sussexes’ representative suggested Buckingham Palace was behind the leak of an email accusing Meghan Markle of driving two personal assistants out of the Royal Household in 2018.
Investigate
The leaked email appeared in a British newspaper on Wednesday. Later the same day, the Palace said it would launch an investigation.
Prince Andrew
The Duke of Sussex’s uncle has faced intense criticism for his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. He has denied being involved in abuse himself, despite high profile allegations.
Endemic
Very common in a particular group or people. Last July, Prince Harry declared that institutional racism is “still endemic” in society.

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