The interview sparked media waves on both sides of the Atlantic, drawing an audience of over 17 million viewers in the US and 11 million in the UK. While the audience numbers across the Atlantic may have been similar, the tone of the press reception could not have been more different. While the US news media took on a protective tone and firmly welcomed Markle as their “American princess,” the reception in the UK was much colder. After the interview, much of the coverage questioned the couple’s connections with the royal family and Britain. Some news outlets even suggested robbing the couple not only of their royal titles, but in the case of Prince Harry. his British citizenship.
While particularly right-wing and conservative news outlets sought to emphasize the couple’s national irrelevance, other media outlets viewed the interview’s ramifications as a matter of international politics. The BBC asked John Kerry if the revelations in an interview with Oprah Winfrey would change the UK’s mind in the US. In response, highlighting Prince Charles’ work on environmental issues, he reiterated that “this is much bigger than an interview or a family moment – we are strongly linked by unbreakable bonds” and appealed to the family and the relationship between the two countries into perspective and affirms the bond between these two nations.
Similarly, U.S. President Joe Biden’s spokesman responded to the interview by highlighting the bravery required to speak about mental health struggles while also emphasizing the strength of the transatlantic relationship, as if through a celebrity interview seriously could have been examined. However, Biden’s more diplomatic avoidance of taking sides shows that the British royal family continues to be seen as a soft diplomatic currency in addition to their official role as head of state, especially at a time when Britain continues to grapple with the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and the EU leaves for good later this year after the end of the transition period.
Key moments in Markle’s journey through the Royal Family coincided with key moments in Britain’s political and cultural life. Reports of Harry and Meghan’s dating first surfaced immediately after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June 2016. Their wedding took place at the height of the Article 50 negotiations, and their exit from frontline royal duties came when the UK officially left the EU in January 2020 (and has therefore been aptly referred to as “Megxit”). As I have pointed out elsewhere, Meghan Markle’s entry into the royal family was often used during the height of the Brexit vote fall to create an image of the UK that was less racist than, say, the increase in reports of hate crimes and the Dominance of post-imperial discourses can indicate.
In addition, the royal wedding was celebrated in May 2018 for its domestic and foreign policy potential. domestically to unite a divided country and abroad to strengthen ties with the Commonwealth and the “special relationship”. At the same time, however, negative voices were getting louder even before the “megxit”, focusing on the ways it didn’t “fit”, often in subtle or not so subtle racist terms. As a multiracial American feminist, she became a hypervisible (involuntary) representative of the “metropolitan elite” who had no contact with ordinary people, especially in contrast to other white members of the royal family who were considered authentic representatives of the British.
According to the Oprah interview, both Markle and Prince Harry appear to accept this identity in falsifying their work as prominent humanists. In addition to the Oprah interview and her well-known Netflix deal, her best-known engagement to date is probably her appearance at the Global Citizen ‘Vax Live’ concert earlier this month, where she teamed up with politicians like Joe Biden and celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Selina Gomez. To some extent, of course, here they continue the work of the kings and support charitable causes.
There are some differences, however: when British royal work abroad, particularly in Commonwealth countries, is to strengthen settlers’ colonial ties and British interests, the royal couple’s work is less focused on British interests alone. Prince Harry’s speech to vaccinated LA health workers was filmed on Vax Live and soon found its way onto Twitter, where users noticed the semiotics of Prince Harry speaking in front of the Global Citizen logo. While some Twitter users saw this as a visualization of the new direction the couple was headed, UK outlets focused on the increasing unwanted solemnity of the former frontline royals: The mail online titled “Harry Plays the Rock Star” and the like The daily telegraph notes, “Duke gets a rock star in global vaccination extravaganza”. This is viewed as inconsistent with the rules and norms of the royal family and, in fact, viewed as patronizing preaching.
What crystallizes in both the reactions to the Oprah interview and the Vax Live concert is an increasing blurring of the lines between celebrities, kings and politics. The royal family continues to be seen by the news media as a key figure in soft diplomacy, but not all policies are welcomed. While the UK media and politicians continue to look inward, launching populist “culture war” narratives often steeped in nationalist rhetoric, Sussex politics and activism are viewed as the antithesis of patriotic pride. While Brexiters welcomed the post-imperial desire to bring back the spirit of the buccaneers in the form of international trade deals, the couple’s acceptance of trade and charity overseas are not seen as positive PR opportunities for the UK. Instead, Harry and Meghan’s international ventures (and increased focus on the American market) are viewed as betraying not only the royal family, but Britain itself.
Further reading on e-international relations