Exiting the vampires' palace: The tabloids are angry because Harry revealed how it works

You're not meant to explain how the gossip gets made.

The British Royal Family, the Captain Renault in Casablanca of repressed and repressive families, is shocked! shocked! to find out that bad parenting was going on in there. Prince Harry’s decision to talk about parenting — his experience of it and approach to it — on the Armchair Expert podcast has sent the firm and its frenemies in the tabloid press into a frenzy.

But the real issue is not that Harry discussed his relationship with his father or the fact that coldness permeates the parenting style of the royal family from top to bottom, it’s that he continues to unpick the devil’s bargain between the monarchy and tabloid press. It’s a deal that’s epitomised by the headline and sub-deck over pictures of William and Kate in yesterday’s Daily Mail:

Here’s how to do it, Harry!
William and Kate get stuck in with a day of play — and pets — for Mental Health Awareness Week…

On the previous page, the paper castigates Harry for choosing to “broadcast his pain again”. So there’s how you do it to get the approval of the tabloid press:

Don’t actually talk about mental health issues, just goon around for the cameras and make sure you tolerate The Mail on Sunday publishing creepy calendars full of pictures of your children. That’s the deal.

The quote that’s really angered the newspapers is not one you see plastered in the headlines or dropped into huge pull quotes. It’s the moment early on in the Armchair Expert episode when Harry says:

I used to be fearful of it. Now, it’s almost like the same groups of people that come at it so negatively or try to turn it against you or weaponise it, and therefore prevent so many millions of people from doing so, actually encourages me to speak out more… I’m going to be vulnerable, if I get attacked for it, let’s see who’s actually attacking me and what’s their story? What’s their agenda? Who do they work for?

The tabloids — and I do include The Daily Mail among their number — are particularly aggrieved because Harry is refuting their claim that he was ‘turned’ against them and the monarchy by Meghan. He says he wanted out long before he met her and that the British press was a huge cause of that:

It’s the job, right? Grin and bear it. Get on with it. I was in my early twenties and I was thinking, ‘I don’t want this job. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be doing this. Look what it did to my mum. How am I ever going to settle down and have a wife and family, when I know it’s going to happen again?’ I’ve seen behind the curtain, I’ve seen the business model, and seen how this whole thing works and I don’t want to be a part of this.

It’s those words that are driving the tabloids even more deranged than usual. The business of celebrity gossip — and royal reporting is just celebrity gossip about one family — requires the people playing the game to pretend there is no game.

In the most privileged professional wrestling ever, Prince Harry has broken kayfabe; he is consistently choosing to tell the story behind the story, to point at the paparazzi, the columnists, the palace flunkies, and the press barons and say, “Who are they working for? And what is their agenda?”

It’s one of the things a prince is categorically not allowed to do.

That’s why a softly spoken line about how he’s trying to be a different kind of parent than his own parents and grandparents becomes “a broadside”, “a bitter attack” and “a parenting bombshell” in the hands of the tabloids.

Just look at how Harry’s words were trailed in yesterday’s Daily Mail:

Prince Harry yesterday launched another broadside at the Royal Family in which he appeared to suggest both his father and the Queen failed as parents.

But what did Prince Harry actually say? Well, substantial quotes — even then partial and cherry-picked — didn’t feature on the front page of the paper. You had to go digging inside to find them. Harry said:

“Isn’t life about breaking the cycle? there’s no blame. I don’t think we should be pointing the finger or blaming anybody. But…when it comes to parenting, I’ve experienced some form of pain or suffering because of the pain or suffering that perhaps my father or my parents had suffered…

… For me it comes down to awareness like I never, I never saw it, I never knew about it, and then suddenly I started to piece it all together and go, okay, so this is where he went to school, this is what happened, I know this bit about his life. I also know that’s connected to his parents, so that means that he’s treating me this way that he was treated which means, how can I change that for my own kids? And, well, here I am.”

It hardly reads as a broadside or a condemnation of his parents or grandparents. It comes across even less like that if you listen to the podcast to hear the tone of Harry’s words and place them within the context of the conversation. But context isn’t king for the tabloids, it’s not even allowed into the palace. Context lives out the back, milks the cows, and waits for a regime change.

In 1994, when Prince Charles was 46, 10 years old than Prince Harry is now, he spoke to Jonathan Dimbleby for an authorised biography and a notorious documentary. As The Independent reported at the time:

It is abundantly clear that Prince Charles did not feel the affect of a loving father and mother, and that he considers his parents, in the words of the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, to have been not 'good enough'.

Dimbleby, with Prince Charles's approval, accuses the Queen of being physically and emotionally distant. But his deepest anger is reserved for the Duke of Edinburgh, who is described as 'harsh', 'hectoring' and deeply irked by his son's solemn and over-sensitive nature.

Prince Charles blames his father for sending him to Gordonstoun, the Scottish public school, where he was beaten up, bullied and abused, and he accuses Prince Philip of forcing him into marriage with a woman he scarcely knew and never loved.

But with Prince Philip now dead, the Queen in her final years, and Prince Charles set to succeed her as King Charles, all that stuff is meant to be stuffed back into the wardrobe. The story is that Harry and Meghan are bad and William and Kate are good and anything that complicates that picture is ignored.

So instead we get stories about how shocking! Prince Harry’s mild comments actually are and outraged stories from places like The Sun about swearing:

Prince Harry SWEARS on podcast as he asks Dax Shepard about ‘s*** load of drugs’ and ‘getting s*** done’

Yes, The Sun that leers over women daily and writes lasciviously about “romps” is too chickens*** to write the word “shit” out in full and pretends that the Royal Family themselves don’t swear like navvies when they’re in private.

Meanwhile, in The Daily Telegraph, Royal Family sources — the same family who forced Prince Harry to walk in public beside his mother’s coffin when he was just 12, remember — decry him for his “woeful lack of compassion”. And, of course, the issue of swearing is brought up:

And aside from the highly personal content, royal sources suggested that the family was disappointed by the foul language used during the expletive-strewn 90-minute interview.

There’s nothing but compassion in the interview, but focusing on the ‘rude’ words and implying criticisms that simply aren’t there is just part of the tabloid game. They are livid with Prince Harry for making it clear that the dirty deal with the press was a huge part of what made him leave.

It’s not that Prince Harry is talking that so angers the tabloids, but that he is talking about them and the things they do; that one of his examples of times he felt helpless is being in a car with his mother and being chased by paparazzi. Royals saying quotable things is part of “the business model” but royals talking frankly about the poisonous role of the British press in public life is not.

Sarah Vine, deploying the industrial-strength feigned ignorance which is one of her great superpowers as a columnist, wrote in The Daily Mail yesterday:

It’s clear now that Harry is someone who, for whatever reason, has come to loathe the very fabric of royal life and managed to convince himself, for all the privilege and status afforded him, his upbringing was a prolonged torture. And that is very sad and destructive…

… Far from exorcising his demons, Harry’s newfound freedom seems only to be feeding the monsters. He talks about his shoulders dropping and a weight lifting since he moved to America; but all the evidence seems to point to him becoming more, not less, unhappy.

As ever, it’s The Daily Mail delighting in gaslighting and a partial retelling of the facts, cutting itself and its rivals from the frame. What could possibly have made Prince Harry feel he was trapped in a golden cage? The media looks around and conveniently spies no mirrors. And, even if it was a cage, Sarah Vine argues, this songbird should have been grateful for the accommodation.

Curiously Vine and The Mail don’t include the section about it taking pictures of people’s children or when Prince Harry says…

…because of the way the UK media are they feel an ownership over you. Literally, a full-on ownership, and then they give an impression to… most of their readers that that is the case.

your saying that the moment we step out of our house that it’s open season and free game, what because of public interest? There’s no public interest in you taking your kids for a walk down the beach.

it’s this rabid feeding frenzy.

I’m a republican — I don’t believe the UK should have a monarchy at all — so I don’t believe the golden cage should exist. But while it does, the tabloids benefit from it and they cannot allow anyone to get away with disparaging the system. They exist not to criticise it but to defend it and feed on it.

Prince Harry cannot ‘be normal’ now or simply shut up because even if he did, the tabloid press would not respect that silence. They would tell their own stories of why he wasn’t speaking, filling the void with fictions and half-truths. In talking about parenting and pain — even from the extraordinarily unusual situation he finds himself in — Harry will help others.

And while he’s a little too fond of Californian therapy speak, the fact that he’s talking about how we can parent differently to the way our parents or grandparents did it is an unquestionably good thing.

If you only read his words pushed through the prism of the tabloid press, you’ll think he was ranting and raving about his families failings but actually, he’s saying — he knows they did their best but he wants to do better for his own children. In the abnormal world of the royals, that’s one of the most normal things anyone has said in ages…