LONDON – In their Oprah Winfrey interview, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, said they were driven away from their royal roles by a British press they decried not only as threatening, lying and intrusive but overtly racist.
The headline-making assertions have brought pushback, and pushback to the pushback, from British journalists – who are themselves debating: “How bad are we?”
Some reporters dismiss the charge of bigotry, saying the coverage of the royals can be scathing but is typical tabloid treatment when it comes to celebrities.
Other journalists, especially those of color, are not buying this rebuttal. They say the British media is deeply racist – not only against a biracial American actress who married a prince but also to Muslims, immigrants, Black Britons and South Asians.
Meghan told Winfrey that “from the beginning of our relationship,” the British tabloids “were so attacking and incited so much racism.” Harry said the couple decided to “step back” from royal life and move to California because of the “toxic” environment created by the British media.
“The U.K. is not bigoted, the U.K. press is bigoted, specifically the tabloids,” Harry told Winfrey. “If the source of information is inherently corrupt or racist or biased, then that filters out to the rest of society.”
The Society of Editors, the largest umbrella organization representing Britain’s local, regional and national publications, was not having it.
“The UK media is not bigoted,” the organization declared Tuesday. “And we will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account.”
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said on the group’s website, “It is a pity the couple did not mention in their interview the huge support the U.K. media has shown to the charitable works carried out by the Duke and Duchess.”
Murray said “it is strange indeed” that Harry and Meghan complain about “alleged intrusion into their private lives,” even as they granted Winfrey a two-hour interview to air their grievances to “a world-wide audience.”
Murray’s broad defense was described by some journalists as “laughable,” according to Guardian reporter Haroon Siddique.
In response, more than 240 reporters and editors self-identifying as “journalists of color” issued their own letter, asserting that Meghan’s revelations of discriminatory treatment “reflect the depressingly familiar reality of how people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are portrayed by the U.K. press on a daily basis.”
Those journalists said the Society of Editors’ claim that Meghan and Harry failed to provide “supporting evidence” shows a “willful ignorance of not just the discriminatory treatment of Meghan – some of which was highlighted during the interview – but that of other people from an ethnic minority background.”
By Wednesday evening, the growing criticism led Murray to resign. “While I do not agree that the Society’s statement was in any way intended to defend racism, I accept it could have been much clearer in its condemnation of bigotry and has clearly caused upset,” he said in a statement.
In print and online, British journalists went back and forth this week. Mehreen Khan, a Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times, tweeted, “I grew up in U.K. watching, reading and mostly despising the country’s press (tabloids, broadcasters & ‘serious’ progressive papers) for its drumbeat of racist narratives on gangs, refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims. Now I work in the industry. Doesn’t look better from the inside.”
Katharine Viner, editor of the left-leaning Guardian, said, “Every institution in the United Kingdom is currently examining its own position on vital issues of race and the treatment of people of color. . . . It must be much more representative and more self-aware.”
Roula Khalaf, editor of the Financial Times, which not only covers business affairs but also politics and society, told the Press Gazette, “There is work to be done across all sectors in the UK to call out and challenge racism. The media has a critical role to play, and editors must ensure that our newsrooms and coverage reflect the societies we live in.”
Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor and former media critic at The Guardian, told The Washington Post that self-reflection about race is an issue that most British publications tend to avoid.
“We know newsrooms are not anywhere near as diverse as they should be. They don’t really reflect the population of Britain. And they’re very nervous about that,” he said.
A 2016 study by City University in London reported that 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim, compared with almost 5% of the British population, and that 0.2% are Black, compared with 3% of the population.
Greenslade said, “If you asked me, is the British press racist? I would have to immediately ask, what do you mean by ‘the British press’?”
He stressed that the British media is not just one voice and includes talk show hosts such as BBC’s Andrew Marr and ITV’s Piers Morgan. The former is a tough but establishment voice, the other was pushed out of his slot on “Good Morning Britain” this week for his slagging off on Meghan.
There’s also the Economist and the Financial Times and The Times and The Telegraph, each with their political slant – and even among the tabloids, there are differences between The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. “So it’s impossible to ascribe to the British press a single point of view,” Greenslade said.
On a segment on BBC, a host pressed Murray by reading on air tabloid coverage about Meghan, including the Daily Star 2016 headline, “Harry to marry into gangster royalty? New love ‘from crime-ridden neighbourhood.’ ” The host added the Daily Mail headline, “EXCLUSIVE: Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed – so will he be dropping by for tea?”
Never mind that at the time Meghan was a successful actress living in a $1.4 million home in a posh neighborhood in Toronto while she filmed the TV series “Suits.”
Murray replied, “I’m not going to defend one headline.” He compared those stories to “needles in a haystack” and suggested that such pieces were relatively rare.
In the Winfrey interview, Harry said there was an “invisible contract” between the royal family and the tabloids.
There is a level of “control by fear,” he said.