In a documentary about their African tour, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are hunting big game: the British press.
Royal baiting isn’t new. Endlessly maligned American divorcee Wallis Simpson, blamed for the abdication of King Edward VIII, feared the British press. “It’s no exaggeration to say that my world went to pieces every morning on my breakfast tray,” she wrote. There are stories of British newsagents of her day cutting scurrilous royal gossip out of less-discreet foreign publications. Now there’s the internet and all bets are off.
So, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have decided enough is too much. ITV documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey is a PR exercise, but then every documentary made with royal co-operation is. There might have been a better setting than Africa, where most people’s problems don’t tend to involve image management, to stage an airing of grievances. But some of the tour involved Harry following in his mother’s footsteps and trying to continue her work on landmines and HIV/Aids.
It’s unsurprising if her troubled legacy was front of mind. He talked about wanting to protect his family from the toxic attention she attracted (and sometimes courted). “I think it’s probably a wound that festers,” he said, prompted by his mate, interviewer Tom Bradby. Every camera click reminded him of “the bad stuff”.
Bradby cornered Meghan and relentlessly empathised with her until she looked about to sob. “I have never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair,” she said. When no one seems much bothered about Prince Andrew’s connections with late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the hammering she takes seems, well, unfair.
As I write, the Daily Express’ royal reporter is remorselessly tweeting about such outrages as “Meghan’s decision to decline to confirm details of her outfits”. Bradby announced in the documentary that the Duchess is suing the Mail on Sunday for printing a letter she wrote to her father. You can’t judge the couple too harshly: Harry’s parents set a high bar for failing to keep shtum. There was Princess Diana and her defiant “She won’t go quietly”1995 BBC Panorama interview.
An African Journey is more like Prince Charles’ 1994 documentary, made with his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby. That was a lengthy trawl through Charles’ good works. His decision to also delve into his chilly childhood and to give a not entirely candid account of the breakdown of his marriage to Diana no doubt prompted her retaliatory tell-all.
Nothing so eyebrow-raising was revealed in An African Journey. Harry looked burdened. He and his brother had “good days and bad days”, he brooded, “but I’ll always be there for him and I know he’ll always be there for me”. That sounded an honest assessment of many an adult sibling relationship.
As for the actual tour, their presence clearly meant something to the people they met and the causes they support. Harry talked about his mental-health issues. His example had Bradby following suit and mentioning his own struggles. There are worse things a prince can use his privileged platform for. Meghan thanked Bradby for his concern about her. Many a new mum might wish someone would ask if she were okay.
Harry on the warpath: he’s apparently launching his own lawsuit, over phone hacking. He wants to take back some control from the media. You couldn’t help but think of Diana, who thought she could ride that tiger. “I won’t be bullied into playing the game that killed my mum,” said Harry. He’s playing his own tricky game. You can only hope it works out better for him.
HARRY & MEGHAN: AN AFRICAN JOURNEY, TVNZ OnDemand.
This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.