The highly problematic timing of Harry and Meghan’s PR war

So here’s a head scratcher: What do you give a woman for her birthday who seemingly has everything?
A Queen who has diamonds, race horses, a multi-million pound stamp collection and even her very own train?
It’s a conundrum, that’s for sure, but here’s one thing she would probably does not want on this her 94th birthday – a petty new PR headache courtesy of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
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After nearly six weeks off the radar, the Sussexes have plunged back into the spotlight in recent days.
Last week they were caught by Los Angeles’ marauding paparazzi working as volunteers to deliver food before being snapped out walking their beloved pooches.
On Monday, the contents of a letter they had sent to the editors of four UK newspapers (The Sun, The Mirror, The Express and the Daily Mail) were made public in which they spelled out in no uncertain terms they could expect “zero engagement” from them, which the UK’s Society of Editors denounced as “censorship”.
For Harry and Meghan, this letter was the latest salvo in a long-running war with sections of Fleet Street, with the couple having launched three separate lawsuits against various newspapers in 2019. On Friday, the first hearing will be conducted remotely in the matter of Meghan versus Associated Newspapers, the Daily Mail’s parent company over the publication of a letter the Duchess sent her now-estranged father Thomas Markle in 2018.
And so, in a matter of just 48 hours, the Sussexes were back smack bang in the eye of a media storm.
To start with, there is the highly problematic timing of all this. Harry and Meghan first flagged their intention to change their relationship with the press earlier in January year, writing on their surreptitiously created Sussex Royal website, that they would be “adopting a revised media approach to ensure diverse and open access to their work”.
The website, like their Instagram presence, will be “refreshed” at some stage in the coming months given they are no longer allowed to brand themselves as “royal”.
At issue here is not whether the couple is justified in taking this step, it is why the Dickens they chose this particular moment to lay down the law as it were.
More than 16,500 Brits have died of COVID-19 (including more than 100 nurses and doctors) while 6.5 million are suddenly unemployed. Even in their new home of the US, more than 45,000 have lost their lives.
As the world faces the greatest peacetime disaster in a century, is now really the best juncture to loudly square off against the fourth estate, no matter how righteously the Sussexes might feel?
The wider impression here is that the Sussexes’ are pursuing their own (many would argue legitimate) agenda rather than pulling together and helping Queen and country.
Then there is the bigger picture, which is just what the couple’s broadside will actually achieve or change.
Realistically, will these four papers suddenly dramatically cut back their coverage of the Sussexes or only run plodding stories about their charity outings? I’d wager on the lives of the Queen’s beloved corgis it absolutely will not.
If anything, the couple’s latest move may only serve to escalate the stand off between themselves and the UK’s tabloid editors, and this seems to have already begun.
The Sun’s front page on Tuesday read “Philip, 98, in rallying cry for unsung virus heroes … while some bloke called Harry, 35, has sent a different kind of message.” Ouch.
All of this comes at a time when the Sussexes’ public standing back home in Britain has taken a drubbing.
A poll done by Newsweek last week has found that the majority of Brits (54 per cent) think they should not return to royal duties, a possibility given the Sussexes’ current arrangement will be reviewed after 12 months per the agreement they came to with the Queen.
The poll found that 36 per cent of respondents said they had a more negative view of the former Suits actress since the COVID crisis began, while 20 per cent said they viewed her more positively.
For Harry, 33 per cent said they had a worse view of him and 19 per cent a more positive impression.
Contrast that with William and Kate (33 per cent and 29 per cent more positive and 11 and 14 per cent more negative respectively) and even Charles who saw a 24 per cent jump in his approval.
Interestingly, this poll was done prior to the most recent developments in the Sussex vs Fleet Street stoush.
Given that the Queen is (generally) fairly attuned to public approval, these numbers are not exactly a cheery birthday surprise.
The even bigger picture here is that his latest chapter in the saga of the Sussexes’ comes at a time when the rest of the royal family is pulling together and pluckily doing their bit.
We’ve had Prince Charles becoming the first royal to open a hospital remotely and William and Kate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge popping in and out of Zoom meetings with their various patronages and talking at length about mental health.
Earlier this month the Queen made only the fourth TV address of her 68-year reign, offering an anxious country a four and a half minute serving of her soothing, unflappable presence and cut glass vowels.
Even Prince Philip, who at 98 years old has long since officially retired from royal duties, saw fit to send out a letter praising the British health service overnight.
Essentially, they have been putting on a jolly good united front to try and keep the chins up of the Union Jack waving millions in desperate need of a glimmer of hope.
Yet all of this good, dependable work could be lost in all the noise and melee around Meghan and Harry.
On the weekend it was revealed that the Queen had requested that the customary gun salute which usually marks her birthday should be cancelled this year and there are no details on how she has marked the day.
Although, given he is self-isolating amongst a handful of staff including a chef, chances are she at least got some sort of cream and jam-filled sugary confection to get stuck into.
So, happy birthday Your Majesty as you mark another year, another candle on the cake, and another royal ruckus dominating the headlines.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.