With a royal wedding looming, Britain’s famously ferocious tabloid news media has turned from its ritual assessment of bride-to-be Meghan Markle to its favorite matrimonial tradition: Trashing the groom’s future in-laws.
Markle is many of the things that Fleet Street would typically scoff at — an American, an actress, divorced, biracial and older than her betrothed, Prince Harry. And scoff they did back in 2016 when the two first started dating. The coverage of the romance was so invasive — and the commentary on social media and elsewhere so ugly — that Harry took the unusual step of publicly confirming the relationship by issuing a statement denouncing “the racial undertones of comment pieces, and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.”
Since then, Meghan — or “Meg” as she is sometimes called in the less-posh precincts of the British media — has been accorded relatively respectful coverage, portrayed as a breath of fresh air for the royal family. In many respects, she’s enjoying a honeymoon even before she gets married.
“Meghan Puts Family First,” blares the cover of this week’s Hello! magazine, next to a glamour shot. The tabloid Sun went the extra kilometer for Meg, too, with a prominently played column this week by the tab’s royals photographer headlined, “People forget just how much Meghan Markle is sacrificing to join the Royal Family.”
Instead, the real action this week has come from the tabloid media’s gleefully aggressive coverage of the personal problems and peculiarities of the Markle family, which has been cast as rambunctious outsiders not quite up to snuff for their royal connection.
“A national tabloid sport is looking at the in-laws,” said Glenda Cooper, a journalism lecturer at City, University of London. “And to be fair, Markle’s extended family have given the press particularly rich pickings.”
The bride’s father, Thomas Markle Sr., had already been the subject of stories about his financial problems before he landed in the crosshairs again last week — this time for selling exclusive photos of himself to British paparazzi. The Daily Mail tried to turn the story into a scandal by reporting that the photos were “staged.” This week, Markle became the subject of another drama about his health and whether a supposedly pending heart operation would keep him from attending his daughter’s wedding. On Thursday morning, Meghan Markle confirmed that her father “sadly” would not be making the trip.
Meghan’s estranged half-siblings got in on the act, too, with an assist from gossip hounds on this side of the pond. British news outlets feasted on Tom Markle Jr.’s recent open letter to Harry, published by the American magazine InTouch Weekly, in which he called his half sister a “jaded, shallow, conceited woman that will make a joke of you and the royal family heritage.” The outburst prompted a revival of stories about his arrest last year for allegedly pointing a gun at his girlfriend while they were, as the Sun put it, “drunkenly rowing.” And half sister Samantha Markle’s defiant comments to TMZ about Meghan’s request that she not comment to the media (“She’s not going to tell me that I can’t speak about my own life or my father’s where it’s a matter of public self-defense”) were joyfully chewed over by the Mirror tabloid, with a typically understated headline: “ ‘She’s way out of her league!’: Meghan Markle’s sister Sam attacks Harry’s bride-to-be insisting she ‘won’t be censored’ ahead of Royal Wedding.”
When Samantha appeared on a British talk show, “Good Morning Britain,” earlier this week to defend her father against “media vultures,” host Piers Morgan threw it all back at her. “There’s no bigger media vulture than you, is there, Ms. Markle?” asked the trollish Morgan.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail celebrated Markle’s nephew Tyler Dooley, 25, in a story about his (legal) marijuana farm in Oregon and his intention to create a hybrid cannabis strain called “Markle’s Sparkle,” in honor of the royal wedding. And other journalists have been busily churning out stories about what some of Markle’s uninvited relatives are doing in London on the eve of the big day.
Cooper, the journalism professor, noted that similarly unflattering family coverage attended Sarah Ferguson’s marriage to Prince Andrew in 1986 and Kate Middleton’s to Prince William in 2011. The latter included stories about the Middleton family’s party-planning business and her mother’s background as a flight attendant, both shockingly bourgeois things in class-conscious Britain.
The princes “have shown a disdain for the media, bordering on outright hostility” ever since Diana’s death, and have minimized press access, he said. They have also been willing to take legal action to protect their privacy. Markle has reaped the benefit of this protective cone, but her relatives have not.
Still, Greenslade said, the in-law stories are temporary and were “surely factored in by the prince’s advisers prior to the wedding. Harry and Meghan knew they would just have to grin and bear it.”
Overall, he said, the palace’s handling of the relationships of William, Kate, Harry and Meghan with the press “signals the royal family’s victory over the popular press. After years of press intrusion, they have raised the castle drawbridge and managed to do so, thus far, without losing popular public support. It’s a risky strategy, of course, because there is no doubt that there is intense public interest in their private lives. For now though, they appear to have turned history around.”
On the other hand, some things don’t change. Cooper predicts that the tabloids will soon move on to the next phase of royals coverage. If history is any guide, she said, you can look forward to stories about Meghan missing her freedom and Meghan being envious of Kate.