The couple's plan to reject public funds has gotten the most attention, but their desire to separate from a portion of the British press is arguably the driving force of their recent moves.
Last fall, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex filmed a documentary for ITV while touring Africa as part of their royal duties. In interviews with journalist (and personal friend) Tom Bradby, the couple detailed the difficulties of royal life, calling out the ruthless (and often racist) coverage by the British tabloids. "When I first met my now-husband, my friends were really happy because I was so happy," Meghan Markle said. "But my British friends said to me: ‘I'm sure he's great. But you shouldn't do it because the British tabloids will destroy your life."
On that same trip, just days later, Prince Harry and Meghan announced that they were suing the Mail on Sunday (the print version of The Daily Mail) for, among other things, allegedly publishing a manipulated version of a private letter Meghan sent her father, Thomas Markle, in the lead up to her wedding. In a statement, Harry said the incident was part of a "long and disturbing pattern of behaviour by British tabloid media." He also compared Meghan's struggle with the tabloids to Princess Diana's: "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. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."
Since the moment the press learned they were dating in 2016, Harry and Meghan have fought to change the seedy culture of the British tabloids, with little success. Now, with this lawsuit, and their monumental decision to "step back" from royal life, will they finally be able to escape the wrath of the Daily Mail?
Meghan and Harry's tabloid history
It would be an understatement to say the royal family has a complicated history with the British tabloids. But in the last two and a half years, no one in "The Firm" has seen more negative coverage than Meghan. When she was first reported to be dating Harry, the Daily Mail published a slew of racist stories about her mixed-race background, including an "exclusive" with the headline, "Harry's girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed - so will he be dropping by for tea?"
The tenor of the tabloid coverage has not much improved since then, despite Harry's admonishment. In addition to running several interviews (some of them paid) with Meghan's father, Thomas Markle, and her antagonistic half-sister, Samantha Markle, the British tabloids found ways to criticize Meghan throughout her wedding-planning and pregnancy with baby Archie. This week, BuzzFeed compiled an especially helpful comparison of the tabloids' coverage of Meghan and the Duchess of Cambridge. Looking at headlines from The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, TheDaily Mirror, The Evening Standard, The Telegraph, The Times, and The Sun, a pattern becomes clear: Meghan has been criticized while Kate Middleton has been praised.
The tabloids have created scandals over everything from Meghan's apparent fondness for avocados to her habit of touching her belly while pregnant. (Meanwhile, an actual scandal involving William, Kate, and Kate's ex-friend Rose Hanbury has been brewing for about a year, and the British tabloids have all but abandoned it. Prince Andrew, too, has escaped with little punishment from the tabloids for his role in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.)
According to Harry and Meghan, this relentless negativity is what prompted them to file the Daily Mail lawsuit and contributed to their decision to step back from the royal family.
Cutting off the royal rota
Meghan's lawsuit against the Daily Mail may or may not be successful. This week, the outlet filed documents in London's High Court suggesting that the paper's defense will rely on testimony from Thomas Markle. Whether he will actually come testify remains to be seen—he hasn't made it to the U.K. yet, not even for Meghan and Harry's wedding—but that kind of spectacle is surely something Meghan and Harry would want to avoid. A media law expert told The Washington Post this week that Meghan is likely to win the case, at least on the copyright claim, but she may decide going to trial isn't worth it.
Aside from this legal proceeding, Meghan and Harry's most aggressive strategy to cut off the British tabloids has yet to be implemented. That would be removing themselves from the royal rota system, something they said they plan to do as they negotiate a new position for themselves within the royal family. On their new website, Meghan and Harry spend an entire page outlining their perspective on the rota and explaining why they will no longer participate in it. While their proposal to no longer receive specific palace funds has gotten the most attention by the public, this desire to separate from a specific portion of the British press is, one could argue, the driving force of their recent moves.
For those unfamiliar, the royal rota is a pool of reporters from seven U.K. publications that was set up 40 years ago to grant press access to royal engagements. Since Harry and Meghan plan to reject public funds and become financially independent in their new roles, they do not believe they should be subject to the rota system anymore. (I should note that details of this plan for "financial independence" have not been released, and nobody really knows how it will work in practice.) Harry and Meghan make a point to say that the rota system "predates the dramatic transformation of news reporting in the digital age" and that four of the seven outlets in the rota are tabloids (including The Daily Mail).
According to their website, they plan to transition away from it this spring. Instead, they say they will "engage with grassroots media organizations and young, up-and-coming journalists" and "provide access to credible media outlets focused on objective news reporting to cover key moments and events." They will also share more on Instagram.
This may be the most effective way for Meghan and Harry to diminish the influence of tabloids like The Daily Mail and The Sun. But it could also make royal reporters even angrier and more prone to criticize the couple. At least, from Meghan and Harry's perspective, the tabloids won't be able to claim "exclusives" with quite so much frequency. By cutting off access, the public may stop viewing the Daily Mail and others as having some kind of insider's view on Sussex activities.