When British newspapers first broke the news of Prince Harry’s relationship with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, one Mail Online headline declared that she was “(almost) straight outta Compton.” Around the same time, The Daily Star ran a headline asking whether Harry would “marry into gangster royalty?”
The first round of headlines back in 2016 played on harmful stereotypes and helped set the tone for how parts of the UK media, and especially its tabloid newspapers, would treat this newcomer to the royal family who stood out in one very obvious way: her race.
Over time, race would become a major factor in the relationship between Meghan and the tabloids, which devote huge resources to coverage of the royals and often deliver fawning reportage of the House of Windsor. Meghan and Harry have sued several papers, and singled out the tabloids for waging a “ruthless campaign” against them.
On Sunday, in a bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Duke of Sussex said that there had been no support from the royal family in the face of racist treatment of Meghan by the British press. “No one from my family said anything over those three years,” Harry said. The coverage “was bringing out a part of people that was racist,” Meghan added.
This is not the first time that the UK media has been accused of fueling prejudice. A 2016 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found that hate speech among traditional media, particularly tabloid newspapers, “continues to be a serious problem.”
Critics say that the media’s treatment of Meghan, which contrasts starkly with the often positive coverage given to her sister-in-law Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is at least partly explained by a lack of newsroom diversity. Too few of the editors and reporters at major UK publications come from diverse backgrounds, they say.
The “right-leaning media” are “leading the charge against Meghan for absolutely no reason other than because she’s Black,” said Marverine Duffy, director of undergraduate journalism at Birmingham City University and a member of the editorial board of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity.
In a society in which millions of people come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, the British press remains stubbornly White.
A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2016 found that just 6% of journalists across UK newsrooms don’t identify as White, compared with about 13% of the general population. The same study found that while Black Britons make up 3% of the population, they account for just 0.2% of journalists.
According to a report last July from the Reuters Institute, none of Britain’s top 10 print, digital or broadcast outlets have a Black editor in chief. And a study by Women in Journalism, a campaigning organization, found that during one week in July not a single story by a Black reporter appeared on the front pages of the 11 most widely read UK newspapers.
UK tabloids have faced repeated allegations from media commentators, their own readers and Harry that their negative coverage of Meghan has racist undertones.
But there is a refusal among the press to see this coverage as “racist bullying,” said Duffy.
“Racism is denied in general,” she told CNN Business. There is a tendency to deny it because Meghan is “rich and married into the royal family,” she added. “Racism happens no matter your age, class, money, status, job. It still affects you.”
The press coverage of Meghan eventually led 72 female members of the UK parliament to write a letter to the Duchess in 2019 expressing solidarity with her in the face of the “outdated, colonial undertones” of some media stories.
On Monday, the UK Society of Editors pushed back against Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism. Executive director Ian Murray said in a statement that it was “untrue” that sections of the UK press were bigoted.
“It is not acceptable for the Duke and Duchess to make such claims without providing any supporting evidence,” he added, pointing to “universal supporting coverage” in the media of their marriage. “That warmth could not and should not mean the press should be expected to refuse to report, investigate and comment on the couple’s lifestyle and actions,” Murray said.
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