Royalty

Meghan and Harry interview fallout: What happens now?

Patricia Treble on the seismic effects of the racism allegation, why the interview has come under fire and what the future holds for the Sussexes

Day two of the fallout from that interview began with Prince Charles going to Jesus House, a Black-majority church in London, for a previously planned engagement lauding its transformation into a pop-up vaccination clinic. During his visit, the heir to the throne gave a short speech, saying, “We are all immensely proud of the role Black majority churches play. And it is of course a profound sorrow to me to know that Black communities have been hit particularly hard by this pernicious virus.” 

It was one of those royal appearances that rarely makes headlines outside its community. But this was Charles’s first public appearance since his son, Prince Harry, and daughter-in-law, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, alleged racism, callousness, neglect and cruelty on the part of the royal family and its administrators, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired on Sunday evening. (Charles didn’t comment on the interview when reporters asked about it.)  

Since it aired, royal officials, including the palace’s communications department, hunkered down, phones off, as they figured out how to react to the two-hour torrent of accusations from the couple, who now live in California. A few hours after Charles’s visit to the church, the Queen released a statement: “The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning.  While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.”

It goes almost without saying that those five sentences failed to dampen the controversy and speculation the pair stirred with their words and omissions. Some answers to key questions the interview has raised:

Can Harry and Meghan ever return to being working royals? 

Officially, that door closed on Feb. 19, 2021, when after an agreed-upon review a year after the couple stepped back from royal duty, the Queen issued a statement: “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have confirmed to Her Majesty The Queen that they will not be returning as working members of the royal family.” 

If that slammed door wasn’t enough, the interview adds multiple deadbolts, because Harry described his experience as a royal in such scathing terms. “I was trapped but I didn’t know I was trapped,” he said,” within the system, like the rest of my family are. My father and my brother, they are trapped. They don’t get to leave and I have huge compassion for that.”

The interview reminds me of a crucial scene in The Hunt for Red October when the Soviet submarine captain ends any talk by other officers of unwinding their plot to hand over their sub to the Americans: 

“There will be no going back. Before we sailed, I mailed a letter to Adm. Padorin in which I announced our intention to defect.”

“In the name of God, why?”

“When he reached the New World, Cortés burned his ships. As a result, his men were well motivated.”

Why has the nature of this interview become an issue? 

Oprah Winfrey gave a master class in celebrity interviewing. She let Harry and Meghan talk, but circled back to key moments, such as Meghan’s thoughts of suicide while pregnant with Archie; or the racist comments expressed by an unnamed royal “about how dark his [Archie’s] skin would be,” as Meghan put it. The result made for riveting television. 

Yet it was decidedly not a news interview. It was produced by Winfrey’s company for the entertainment division of CBS, not the news division. That is a distinction with a difference: For one, news organizations regularly bar journalists from a story, an interview or the field if they have a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of one. Being personal friends with the interviewees is such a conflict.  

In this case, the conflict was so obvious that it was one of the first things Winfrey and Meghan discussed in the interview. Winfrey had occupied a prime seat at their 2018 wedding at Windsor Castle. In 2019, she announced a partnership with Prince Harry on a mental health series for Apple TV (which she mentioned during the interview), and in 2020 became their neighbour when the Sussexes bought a US$14-million estate in Santa Barbara. Her magazine, O, says they “have been friends for a few years;” Winfrey revealed in an Instagram video that Meghan had delivered a “basket of deliciousness” in December, including her “new drink of choice” from Clevr, a firm Meghan had invested in that sells instant oat milk lattes.

Moreover, most hard-news journalists have a stack of carefully collated questions and research notes in their lap so they can nail down claims and allegations during the interview, as British journalist Emily Maitlis did in her clinical 2019 dissection of Prince Andrew’s account and defences of his relationship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. That brutal, hour-long interview on Newsnight revealed a prince “seemingly devoid of empathy for Epstein’s victims and bewildered about how his gilded, privileged life has somehow ended up like this,” I wrote at the time

The approach stands in contrast to Winfrey’s softer style, honed through decades of interviews. While she frequently asked for more details, or to know who said what, she often moved on when Harry and Meghan failed to answer those queries. (My review, including a fact-check of some inaccuracies, is here). As one journalist said to me, “much of that interview would never have made it” into a news magazine or program.

What were the after-effects of the racism allegation?

Meghan, the first woman of colour to marry a senior royal, said in the interview that, while pregnant with Archie, there were “concerns and conversations about how dark his [Archie’s] skin would be.” She says these remarks arose in “several conversations,” though she wouldn’t say specifically with whom. “I think that would be very damaging to them,” she said, adding that the comments were “relayed to me from Harry; those were conversations that the family had with him.” Harry, meanwhile, told Winfrey he is “never going to share” the specifics of that conversation, before adding: “But at the time it was awkward; I was a bit shocked.”

They are exceedingly serious allegations, which, because the person wasn’t identified, now hang like a cloud of acid over the entire family. Sure enough, everyone is now speculating as to the name of the person or persons. (On Monday, Oprah clarified on behalf of the couple that it wasn’t the Queen, or Prince Philip.) 

As British journalist Nana Akua explained on Good Morning Britain on Tuesday, “What was the context with regard to the colour of the child’s skin? I myself have faced racism, so I support Meghan if people are being racist because that is just not acceptable on any level. But I think we need to be very clear about the context here. I have two mixed-race children. My son is called Ivory and we were all laughing and talking, ‘What if he comes out really dark?’

“People make comments. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are racist. It could be based on a lack of understanding and ignorance. But I do feel if there was any level of actual racism, then yes, that should be investigated. But it’s not good enough to say, “Oh we’re not going tell you who it is or what they said.’ If you’re going to bring it to the forefront, then who are they, what did they say, what was the context?” 

Is Canada going to ditch the monarchy? 

“Whither the maple leaf Crown” is a perennial story that is lately back in the news, helped by the scandalous resignation of governor general Julie Payette. Polls here looked bad for the monarchy even before the Winfrey interview. One released last week by Research Co., found that 45 per cent of Canadians prefer an elected head of state to Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada—a jump of 13 points from the previous year, CTV News reported. Canada relationship with the Crown is undeniably an oddity: we have a head of state who doesn’t live in Canada, and who hasn’t visited in 11 years due to old age. 

While social media lit up during and after the interview with calls to abolish the Canadian monarchy, the question then becomes how to replace it and with what

It won’t be easy, even if there is the political will to make such a change. As Crown expert Philippe Lagassé of Carleton University, who has tweeted non-stop on the issue since the interview, explained: “Changes to the office of the Queen require the unanimous consent of the provinces, Commons, and Senate. So getting rid of the monarchy altogether is, well, tough.” Though Lagassé and others have ideas to reform the office in ways that may avoid that constitutional unanimity, whatever solution they devise would inevitably face court or political challenges. 

And for anyone who wasn’t an adult during the last rounds of constitutional crises, ask your relatives about those experiences—about the anxieties and divisions they caused.   

What happens to Harry’s relationship with his brother and father? 

In her statement on Tuesday, the Queen said Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.” Yet, during that interview, Harry laid down some harsh criticism in recalling the onslaught of racism he and his wife faced from social media, the press and institutions. There were “many opportunities for my family to show some public support,” he said, adding: “No one from my family ever said anything over those three years. That hurts.”

He also revealed that his father “stopped taking my calls” while the Sussexes were in Canada, when they were in the early stages of trying to negotiate an exit from full-time royal duties. While Charles is now taking his calls, Harry said, “there is a lot to work through there. I feel really let down because he’s been through something similar, he knows what pain feels like, and Archie is his grandson. But at the same time I will always love him.”

He admitted that he doesn’t have a relationship with William, even though the brothers were famously close for years: “I will continue to make it one of my priorities to try to heal that relationship. But they only know what they know….I love William to bits. We’ve been through hell together but we are on different paths.” This echoes what he said of his brother nearly 18 months ago: “Inevitably, stuff happens,” he said. “As brothers, you have good days, you have bad days.”

Those strains will be intensified by Harry’s attacks on the monarchical system that Charles and William are destined to lead.

While the imminent arrival of Harry and Meghan’s second child, a girl, could help the healing process, the next few months could be awkward. Harry is expected to join William in London in the summer for the unveiling of a statue of their mother, Diana.

What does the future hold for the Sussexes? 

In a few months, their son Archie will be a big brother, as Meghan announced she’s expecting a girl in the summer. The family is living on a luxurious estate in a gated community in southern California. So their private life looks blissfully happy. 

As for the rest of their lives, that’s still not clear. They have built an expensive lifestyle in California, and the bills are coming due. They’ve already struck production deals with Netflix and Spotify that are reportedly quite lucrative, though nothing but one celebrity-filled podcast has been released. Their Archewell Foundation—slogan: “Compassion in Action”—is a work in progress. 

Perhaps Helen Lewis of The Atlantic summed up their predicament best: “The problem for Meghan and Harry is that their beef with the House of Windsor is currently the most interesting thing about them.” 

Now, they have to show the world what they can do, not just what they thought of their lives as royals.