Harried #3: Pulling dead rabbits from the hat
An argument for why the Prince Harry stories matter to the bigger picture.
This is the third instalment of this mini-series. I appreciate some readers might be a little weary of this topic but I hope to demonstrate how it links to other stories and the general culture of the British media.
Harried #1: Soldiering on | The response to Prince Harry's leaked reflections on his deployments in Afghanistan is symptomatic of a broken media…
Harried #2: Close Protection Racket | The response to Prince Harry's memoir so far has been mob tactics from press and palace alike.
Here are links to the full transcripts of the ITV and CBS interviews for reference.
How dare you! How dare you! Don't you ever, ever call me a bully!
I'm so much worse than that.
— Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It, ‘The Rise Of The Nutters’
One reasonable criticism of engaging with the British press and media’s response to Prince Harry’s memoir Spare and the attendant interviews is that there are far more important things happening in the world. That’s why I want to start today’s instalment of this mini-series by looking at a seemingly unrelated story from The Times.
On the newspaper’s homepage last night, the following headline and lede were nestled just below the eruption of ‘news’, comment, ‘analysis’, and spite about Harry’s ITV and CBS interviews:
Public face of junior doctors’ strike is the daughter of Corbyn-backing activists
Dr Emma Runswick has followed her parents into trade union activism
Strip that headline to its bare bones and what you’re left with is: Woman with politically engaged parents has grown up politically engaged. But it is not a ‘news’ story. It is a hit piece; a hit piece promoted on the day before the ballot on strike action by junior doctors in England opened.
And that’s clear to Times readers in the comments section:
Notice the date on those comments? 17 December 2022. That’s when the story was first published by The Times, the day the strike action ballot date was announced. It appears in today’s print edition of The Times as a “profile” boxout on page 11.
I used Diffchecker to compare the version published in December with the “updated” version (you can see here). The clumsy reuse of the copy means the current version refers to an appearance by Runswick on “Sky News on Sunday” which actually took place on December 11. That mistake is not replicated in the print edition.
The Times was once called “the paper of record” but you cannot rely on that record as it switches the copy under headlines months later, gives the same headline to stories published online and in print with entirely different copy, and ‘refreshes’ stories weeks or even months later with just a tiny “updated” label.
How does this connect to Spare and the TV interviews with Harry? Let’s take a look at who’s on the byline of that “profile” of Dr Runswick:
(Colleen Rooney voice) It’s… Times Social Affairs Editor, James Beal.
Beal’s previous role was a six-year stretch as the US Editor of The Sun. In that job he commissioned private investigator, Dan “Danno” Hanks, to dig up information on Meghan Markle and her family, including her father, mother, and half-siblings.
Hanks says he used illegal methods to produce his dossier for The Sun and claims the newspaper must have known that he did so. In 2016, Beal’s editor at The Sun was Tony Gallagher, now his editor at The Times.
The point here is that the techniques and tactics used against Harry and Meghan are applied to other far less famous figures. The response to Spare and the interviews is not simply about the traffic such stories produce but a defence of the culture and practices of the British media.
While one has huge sympathies for Harry, given the tragedy he has experienced and the media’s role in it, it is worth noting a few counter arguments:
His legal beefs against the press are historic and relate to practices like phone-hacking and blagging, which have already been dealt with.
He is wrong to tar the whole UK press with the same brush. There have been more than a few tabloid rogues, but most journalists do a difficult but vital job for not much money and Harry does honest journalists a disservice with his blanket attacks.
At least one of Harry’s “legal beefs” — his case against Associated Newspapers, the parent company of The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, and MailOnline — is one he shares with Baroness Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence. And the assertion that the complaints “are historic and relate to practices… which have already been dealt with” is an industry line that ignores questions about how private detectives are used.
The distinction between “tabloid rogues” and the rest of the press is false; it’s a product of marketing by papers like The Times and The Daily Telegraph and bears no relation to their actual behaviour. Similarly saying Harry has “[tarred] the whole UK press with the same brush” is a rhetorical pose — if anything, he doesn’t go far enough by confining his comments to “the tabloid media”. Honest journalists should not recognise themselves in the stories Harry tells. If they do, perhaps they’re not as “honest” as they like to think.
One of the most common attacks on Harry and Meghan is that they never think that anything is their fault. Whenever the British press takes that line, it could be staring in the mirror. The DARVO theory of abuse — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — can often be applied to the output of British newspapers. As an industry, British journalism has a pack mentality; it closes ranks against criticism and is even more selective in telling stories when it is threatened.
The Sun’s coverage of the ITV and CBS interviews makes no reference to Harry’s criticism of the appalling Jeremy Clarkson column and the non-apologies that followed. After performing a tactical retreat, the paper now pretends that incident never happened. And across the British media — radio, TV, print, and online — the content of Harry’s criticisms are diminished, mocked, distorted or simply omitted.
Even as 4 million people tuned in to watch the ITV interview, editors, columnists and reporters are confident they can make viewers doubt the evidence of their own eyes, in part because a good percentage of that audience has already been sold on the idea that Harry — the man they once caricatured as a heroic bantersaurus — is now a stupid villainous puppet for his wife.
Most of the reviews of the ITV interview were written in the writers’ heads before the broadcast began. For The Times, Quentin Letts, the most despised Hobbit in Hobbiton, a furry-toed bore disdained by even the most unbearable of the Sackville-Bagginses, writes under the headline I’ve never been happier, said miserable beardlet that:
For almost two verminous hours a designer-bearded princeling bewailed his lot and claimed he was going to have to change the world because no one else would do the job. His family had briefed against him. “At the moment I don’t recognise them.” Everything was Fleet Street’s fault, except when it was Camilla’s fault or William’s fault or the fault of his poor, loving father whose lone-parenting skills had been measured and found not up to Californian snuff.
Now he, Harry, was going to act as “spokesman for the world”. He had alighted upon his life’s “mission of changing the media landscape in the UK”. The 21st century had found its Cnut. The scummy tide of social media was going to ebb at his very feet, just you see!
Short-term Letts calling anyone else “verminous” is a bit like a sewer rat criticising the cleanliness of your bathroom. He and his cowardly snickering editors used what The Times’ Style Guide calls “the more historically authentic” version of the Anglo-Saxon king’s name rather than Canute — the paper’s preferred usage — because they wanted readers to snicker at calling Harry a “cunt” without the guts to actually do it.
Letts’s ‘review’ — published at 10.40 pm, just after the programme ended — does its best to avoid any quotes from Harry being set in context. In 647 words, he never uses a quote over 14 words in length. It allows Letts to pretend that the interview was inarticulate and put his own spin on every anecdote and assertion. It all leads up to him comparing William and Harry to his relationship with his own brother:
For all the rage against William, the person most damaged may be Harry himself. Those of us that have lost older brothers can still count themselves more fortunate than this ill-guided babbler. When my brother was dying I wrote him a letter to thank him for being my hero and protector. Our boyhood was full of laughter. My bro’ was glamorous, clever, sporty, made a fortune. I was, and remain, unswervingly proud of him.
The irony of using his own brother’s death as material in a national newspaper piece castigating Harry for talking about his family is not so much lost on Letts as shoved in his desk’s bottom drawer, along with his shame and the withered organ of his ‘talent’.
Carol Midgley was tasked with writing The Times’ ‘official’ review. It was also published at 10.40 pm — suggesting reviews were embargoed for that time — and comes with a headline that also feels like it was decided well in advance:
Prince Harry interview review — will the whingeing ever stop?
Along with the now de rigueur claim that Harry “boasted” about killing 25 Taliban — he didn’t — Midgely went straight for the D in DARVO (denial) on the press’ behalf:
[Tom] Bradby also highlighted the hypocrisy of Harry railing for years against invasions of his own privacy while relentlessly invading that of his “nearest and dearest”, ie his father and brother without their permission to sell a book.
There followed some waffle from Harry about his family having briefed the press against him, an accusation he made over and over again. But who? Which stories? Give us evidence. Who exactly is “in bed with the devil”?
There are piles of evidence of Royal Family briefings from… the past few days alone. It’s easier to dismiss what Harry said as “waffle” than to argue against the points he made, especially when you’re writing in The Times, sister paper of The Sun and Sunday Times where Jeremy Clarkson still has columns.
Readers of The Times who don’t watch the ITV interview will not encounter this quote:
… the Jeremy Clarkson article… what he said was horrific and is hurtful and cruel towards my wife, but it also encourages other people around the UK and around the world, men particularly, to go and think that it’s acceptable to treat women that way. Um, and you know, to use my stepmother’s words recently as well, there is a global pandemic of violent – violence against women.
Elsewhere in The Times today there’s a piece that can be sold as a counter to Letts, Midgley, and its own leader column; Caitlin Moran’s column is headlined Why I’m still Team Harry. But while she correctly says…
Harry’s revelations about his own life make up a minuscule percentage of all the thousands of stories other people have told about him. Including, he alleges, his own family.
… her angle is all excitable !!!!s and candy floss distraction. It is not in her interests to engage with criticisms of the British press because Rupert Murdoch pays her mortgage and has done for decades. Moran continues:
Harry has emptied his life onto the table for the world to boggle over. Sex! Killing the Taliban! Contacting his mother’s ghost in a seance! Fighting with William! Talking to a bin while off his face on drugs!
Harry has not just taken the money and released an anodyne 400-page trot, like most showbiz memoirs, and then murmured a few platitudes in interview; he’s absolutely blown the doors off the whole thing and thrown in a story about his frostbitten penis to boot. Frostbitten royal wedding penis. I mean, the Revelation Gold just does not stop flowing.
This serves the same editorial purpose as the brutal and bitchy takedowns: To make the stuff about how power and the press work in this country seem like the boring bits. Moran’s piece and others like Stuart Heritage’s Hey, Harry, you’ve got ‘beard people’ all wrong are like chaff dropped to interfere with radar.
[A man] incredulous that someone was challenging his narrative. Bradby ventured that William might view the breakdown in the sibling relationship differently - “I think he would say he found you emotional, defensive, he couldn’t get through to you…” Harry glared at Bradby. “It’s quite a list of assumptions you’re making,” he seethed.
The inclusion of that now familiar response to criticism of the press later in the piece possibly explains why:
So in terms of scoops, the interview had little to recommend it, because every bit of the book had been done to death. As a psychological study, though, it was grimly fascinating. Nothing is Harry’s fault, and almost everything can be blamed on the press. He mentioned the tabloids more times than I could count, with a relentlessness that bordered on the obsessive.
The British newspapers with their entire sections dedicated to Prince Harry stories are accusing him of “[bordering] on the obsessive”. Why would a man born to flash bulbs, who is haunted by the thought that flash bulbs were the final thing his mother saw, feel this way about an industry that has told stories about him for his whole life?
Elsewhere in the Telegraph, one of the British media’s most relentless Harry obsessives, Camilla Tominey writes:
Harry admits “very quickly it became Meghan versus Kate,” suggesting the press - and palace - put the two women in competition with each other.
While there may be some truth to that, what Harry appears unwilling to acknowledge is Meghan’s desire to be put on a level footing with a woman much higher up the royal hierarchy.
“… there may be some truth to that”? There is a whole library of proof for that. This kind of playing dumb relies on a belief that your readership has the working memory of a guppy with a head injury. In fairness, that’s not an unreasonable conclusion to reach when the Telegraph’s audience is an actuarial time bomb.
Delighted that the interview “confirmed” a row over a tiara, arguments over bridesmaids’ dresses, and the “baby brain” clash, Tominey crows:
Contrary to making everything up — the press was onto something.
Yes, it was onto briefings from “royal sources”. It’s a process Harry explained in this segment of the interview:
Bradby: One final question on the press quickly. You – you say they’re complicit, counter-argument; it’s more complicated than that. Journalists, you know, it’s like covering politics, journalists cover politics, they hang out with ministers, they gossip, sometimes people gossip too much, sometimes it’s a leak, sometimes it’s not a leak, are you in danger of viewing it in a very one dimensional way?
Harry: No. No, no, no. I think it encapsulates all of it. Some of it’s leaking, some of its planting, but I think again what people are starting to understand now is that a royal source is not an unknown person, it is the palace specifically briefing the press, but covering their tracks by being unnamed. And I think that’s pretty shocking to people.
That’s another quote that simply will not appear in British newspapers. It would be like the conjurers putting an in-depth explanation of where all those rabbits in the hats come from in their monthly newsletter; Harry is being drummed out of the Magic Circle for showing how the tricks are done.
It’s why Richard Kay assures readers of The Daily Mail that Harry’s dead mother would be “appalled” by him (and that’s without recourse to consulting psychics, which is The Daily Express’ usual trick). It’s what earned Petronella Wyatt — who has written often about her affair with Boris Johnson — a commission from The Sun to write about how “vulgar” Harry is. The Sun is famously not vulgar; in fact, it probably wrote as much above a 16-year-old’s tits in 1983.
Today’s best example of The Sun’s morally upstanding approach to journalism is paying a former addict to talk about a conversation he had with Harry at a rehab centre 21 years ago:
But The Sun can reveal he went further than was publicly known and told startled addicts he had taken the Class A drug cocaine and Class B ketamine, a tranquilliser.
Yes, I’m sure those addicts were as “startled” as the clean-living folks in The Sun’s newsroom who haven’t encountered any powders stronger than a Sherbet Dip1.
The media wagon-circling is not confined to the tabloids and Murdoch/Rothermere titles either. The Independent’s review shows the Rorschach effect at work again; where The Telegraph felt Tom Bradby would be back on the Palace Christmas list for being tough on Harry, the Indy’s Nick Hilton says the interviewer is “never one to leave a boot unlicked.” No doubt with an eye on future job prospects, he writes:
For all that the younger prince rails against press intrusion, he has created, here, little more than a press release.
Pretending that there is no difference between someone speaking about their own life and countless people speaking for them is very much the party line in the British press today. Yorkshire Post editor, James Mitchinson, erstwhile hero to FBPE types, tweeted…
Harry is an insufferable brat.
Oh, and if a wee lunge at your brother counts as assault then me and Mark Mitchinson would be in the nick 10 times over. Scrapping is part of growing up for brothers. At least it was for us. A broken necklace would be the least of our worries. It was our noses we protected.
Harry, whilst talking to the media: the only way me and my family can reconcile is by keeping the media out of it. He said that, without a scintilla of self-awareness.
I appreciate this isn’t palace parlance and perhaps not that becoming of an editor, but Harry is making a right old tit of himself, here. He’ll regret this, in time.
… while New European columnist and global editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalists, James Ball wrote:
Oddly it’s with the damage to himself that I think Harry is most effectively damaging the monarchy. The lack of introspection or perspective – and total inability to see parallels – is incredibly persuasive as to why no-one should be born into hereditary fame.
I believe he’s sincere with what he’s saying about privacy and reconciliation – but that doesn’t stop it being absolute and blatant nonsense. He’s either been convinced of it by people around it (itself a lapse of judgment in who to listen to) or he’s convinced himself of it.
Ball is right about hereditary fame but the ease with which someone whose brand is “rationality” dismisses criticism of the press demonstrates how pernicious media solidarity really is. I’ve seen similar opinions from other journalists I know on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. For an industry luxuriating in criticising Harry — a person by no means exempt from it — British journalism appears entirely incapable of self-criticism.
In The Spectator, Sam Leith writes that what "[makes Harry’s] situation so piercing is the complete lack of self-doubt”. If he does lack self-doubt, he should apply for a job as a columnist; it’s the greatest professional advantage.
Observing the media’s immune response to Harry’s criticisms keeps bringing the Malcolm Tucker quote I opened this edition with to mind.
If you tell British journalists they’re bullies, they become absolutely focused on the project of proving that they are so much worse than that. Harry’s story is an unusual one but the press’ behaviour is all too familiar.
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The way The Sun writes about drugs in the voice of a bemused parson from the 1950s is especially hilarious to me: “He says he would smoke a marijuana joint after dinner…”