Opinion: How the royal family's image was destroyed in two hours

Katherine Chatfield
·Columnist
·7-min read

Opinion

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the last few days for the royal family are some of the worst they’ve known.

Harry and Meghan’s accusations of inherent racism within the firm, and callous disregard for Meghan’s mental health have been met with no denial – just a carefully worded statement about how the issues are “concerning” and “will be dealt with privately.”

The royal family attend the Trooping The Colour ceremony on June 13, 2015 in London, England.
The palace has spent years repairing the royal family's image. Photo: Getty Images

The public fallout from the interview has been immense; not only does Harry and Meghan’s interview exposé show the monarchy as out of touch – perhaps not a surprise to many - but it also reveals them as repressive and hard-hearted.

It’s not hard to surmise that behind gilded doors the royal family are concerned. But perhaps not for the reasons they should be. Regardless of how they feel about Harry and Meghan, they’ll also be looking at the bigger picture; that the image of the down-to-earth and inclusive monarchy they’ve spent the last 20 years trying to cultivate has been shattered in a two-hour interview with an American talk show host.

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It’s no accident the Firm has spent the last two decades pulling out all the stops to make themselves appear both relevant and receptive. You see, they’ve been here before.

Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on A CBS Primetime Special premiering on CBS on March 7, 2021.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down for an explosive two hour interview with Oprah Winfrey. Photo: Getty Images

Twenty-four years ago, the royal family were in a bad way. The public outpouring of grief over the death of Princess Diana had turned from sadness into a tidal wave of anger; from the Queen’s seemingly cold response to her daughter-in-law’s untimely death, to Charles’ extra-marital affair with Camilla, the overwhelming public sentiment was that the Firm were so high up in their ivory tower that they were simply unreachable. Back then, 72 per cent of Britons believed the Queen was “out of touch”, and only 38 per cent believed the monarchy would survive.

The Queen tries to be more accessible

Something had to be done to regain public support. On the advice of PR gurus and spin doctors, the royal family realised they needed to be seen as more accessible. The campaign couldn’t be lightweight or short-term; in order for them to survive, it had to be ongoing.

Like all good cultural change within an organisation, it came from the top. A year after Diana’s death, the Palace issued a statement saying: “The Queen has listened hard since the Princess died….The princess was . . . very good at keeping abreast of topics of public interest and concern. That was one of her strengths and a lesson that could be learned." The head of the monarchy followed up on her promises; for the first time ever, she went to a pub, and even visited a McDonalds. No doubt she was out of her comfort zone, but there appeared to be a willingness to listen to what people wanted.

British Queen Elizabeth II stands underneath the famous logo outside the McDonalds drive-thru restaurant, at the Chesire Oaks Designer Outlet Village in Ellesmere Port 31 July
The Queen is seen underneath the famous McDonalds logo outside a drive-thru restaurant. Photo: Getty Images

Charles and Camilla try to gain public support

Charles and Camilla’s relationship was given extra attention. Camilla was once called “the most hated woman in Britain” by a UK tabloid. Charles knew that if he wanted to marry her, and for her to become the future Queen Consort, they had to take things slowly in order to garner public support.

He hired a PR specialist to help improve their public image, and also understood that it was about playing the long game. The couple didn’t appear together in public for two years after Diana’s death. The following year, Camilla started to attend official engagements with Charles, and started to do regular charity work in order to earn public respect.

Two years after that she sat behind the Queen in the royal box for a Golden Jubilee concert, and it wasn’t until three years later, in 2005, that Charles and Camilla announced their engagement. By that stage, over 50 per cent of the British public said they approved of the marriage, although only seven per cent of Brits thought she should be crowned queen. By 2015, that figure had risen to 50 per cent.

Prince William and Prince Harry key to royal success

The piece de resistance of the royal rescue mission were Princes William and Harry. They’d held a place in the public’s heart since they’d walked behind their mother’s coffin, aged just 12 and 15. As they grew, so did the public warmth for them; whether or not it was a calculated PR move or simply good luck, the royal family ran with it.

They were the injection of youth the institution so desperately needed; young, good looking, warm, and down to earth. William studied at university alongside other students with no special treatment apart from security; Harry joined the army and served in two tours of Afghanistan. They made mistakes, but that only made them more human; from Harry's wild weekend in Vegas to William flirting with young women in nightclubs, they were relatable and likeable.

Queen Elizabeth II Laughs With Her Grandsons Prince William And Prince Harry On The Balcony Of Buckingham Palace After The Trooping The Colour Parade.
Prince Harry and Prince William were the injection of youth the institution so desperately needed. Photo: Getty Images

As they turned into young men, they were seen as a credit to the royal family. They spoke openly about their own mental health, the struggles they’d had since losing their mum, and the pressures of the job.

They did wide ranging interviews that gave an insight into how the royal family functioned. We learnt that William calls the Queen ‘gran’, and that as a child he called her 'Gary'. We heard how Harry teased William about going bald, and about how they took their mickey out of their dad for being obsessed with picking up litter and turning lights off.

Princes grow up

When William and Kate became parents, they became even more ‘normal.’ William talked about “sleepless nights” and we saw Kate deal with Princess Charlotte having a public tantrum.

When Harry met Meghan, the two couples joined forces. The "Fab Four" was everything the institution could have dreamed of. They were young, good-looking and dedicating themselves to worthy causes that provided plenty of beautiful photo opportunities. Royal approval was high. There were articles circulating around the PR world about How to learn from the Royal Household Press Office.

The 20-year campaign had worked; the royals were at the top of their game.

Then, this week, in the space of two hours, Harry and Meghan brought them to their knees.

Harry and Meghan's explosive Oprah interview

In a wide-ranging interview with Oprah, that commanded over 30 million viewers combined across Australia, the UK and the US, the couple pulled apart the institution that Harry had been so instrumental in repairing.

They talked about the racism ingrained in the upper echelons of the royal family, an unwillingness to veer from protocol, and a lack of empathy when a suicidal Meghan asked for help. They said they had felt unsupported and been silenced. Bit by bit, they dismantled all the truisms the royal family has worked so hard to dispel over the past 20 years.

Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex and Meghan Markle The Duchess of Sussex.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have given a tell-all interview to Oprah Winfrey. Photo: Getty Images

Not only must the palace be incensed with the Sussexes, they must be furious with themselves. The public goodwill they’ve spent over two decades cultivating has disintegrated overnight, and they only have themselves to blame.

The image of a caring, concerned organisation, willing to learn from their mistakes, can only continue to prevail if it’s true. And while the palace is at pains to point out that “some recollections may vary,” they haven’t denied what happened. Admitting they’re only just “learning the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been” doesn’t absolve them of guilt; it only highlights how out of touch they were.

It remains to be seen how the firm try and rescue the situation. As the Queen admitted 24 years ago after Diana’s death, there are “lessons that could be learned.”

Who knows whether the public will give them the good grace of taking these lessons on board once again. Meghan described life as a royal as “almost unsurvivable”, but perhaps it’s the monarchy itself which can’t survive this.

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