It’s not just the Royal Family who are upset about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's bombshell announcement this week. Royal correspondents found themselves in the middle of it, with the new Sussex Royal website stating that royal reporters’ long reputation as “credible sources” is a “misconception” and their work is edited to “present false impressions.”
Unsurprisingly, the British media aren’t thrilled with the Sussexes’ assessment, published alongside the couple’s “revised” press policy, which says they will “no longer participate in the Royal Rota system” and instead “engage with grassroots media organisations and young, up-and-coming journalists.”
So what does that mean for Britain’s royal correspondents, whose jobs depend on being able to rustle up an endless conveyor belt of juicy stories about members of the Royal Family? “I don’t think royal reporters are going to be out of work yet,” veteran royal correspondent Phil Dampier, who first broke the news about Meghan and Harry’s relationship back in 2016, tells Marie Claire. “In fact it’s when we get scandals and fallouts within the royal family that we are busiest!”
And a number of journalists argue that Meghan and Harry’s description of the system isn't entirely accurate. While the new site describes the Rota as giving “British media representatives the opportunity to exclusively cover an event,” its role is also to limit the number people who accompany royals into an engagement, similar to the White House press corps. Usually one print reporter and one video journalist from the press pack will take it in turns to shadow a royal inside (hence the “rota”) to prevent media scrums in tight spaces, especially since the royals are often meeting vulnerable people such as hospital patients or children. “There’s a valid criticism to be made of the royal rota system on the grounds that it leads to deferential reporting,” tweeted David Mapstone, head of specialist journalism at British network Sky News. “But [Harry and Meghan’s] criticism is the opposite - that it leads to unfair attacks. This is completely wrong & they may find that out the hard way.”
As Mapstone points out, royal reporters have often been criticized for being too respectful to the royals since they have to be careful about ensuring continued access at royal occasions, such as tours abroad. So when it comes to gossip and speculation—which, unfortunately, all members of the royal family fall victim to—it’s rarely written by royal reporters themselves, but often their colleagues on the news and gossip pages. Harry and Meghan have repeatedly battled the media over what they see as invasions of their privacy: from the publication of Meghan’s letter to her father in The Mail on Sunday (the Duchess of Sussex is suing the newspaper for breaches of copyright and privacy) to this week's announcement, which was reportedly made on Wednesday because the news had already been leaked to British tabloid The Sun, which published it on their front page that morning.
Although it isn't the royal correspondents behind these stories—Thomas Markle's letter, for example, came via The Mail on Sunday’s California correspondent and it was The Sun's executive editor and columnist who broke the “stepping back” news—it appears the Sussexes consider them one-and-the-same. Harry has long blamed the press for his mother's death and, after witnessing the tabloids' treatment of Meghan, he's worried about “history repeating itself.” Yet many of the reporters in the Rota system have relationships with the family going back to when Harry and William were boys and feel like they're the ones being punished. The Sussexes’ decision to call out royal reporters specifically has been met with anger and hurt.
Mapstone’s colleague, Rhiannon Mills, has spent five years as Sky News’ royal correspondent, a role which has seen her accompany Kate and William to Bhutan, Charles and Camilla to the South of France, and Harry and Meghan to Australia, Fiji, and Tonga. “As someone who has been on numerous tours and engagements with Prince Harry and sat down and chatted to him over the past five years, it is deeply sad that he's decided to take such drastic steps to alienate the U.K. press,” Mills wrote in her analysis of this week’s events on the Sky News website.
As for whether other members of the Royal Family will follow suit in ditching the traditional Royal Rota, that seems unlikely. “Senior courtiers have told me today that many in the royal household value the relationship with the British tabloids because of the reach that we have in furthering the causes that the Royals care about,” Emily Andrews, The Sun’s royal correspondent, told The Press Gazette. “Another palace staffer told me they were ‘saddened’ by the attack on the Royal Rota.”
Although the Sussexes hope that by barring members of the royal rota from future public engagements they will stem the tide of gossip, the reality is that’s unlikely to be the case—since that’s rarely where rumors and intrigue originate. “Good journalists have always had their own sources anyway, and should never be spoon-fed by the royals themselves,” Dampier explains.
If anything, instead of limiting coverage of the couple, it’s likely Harry and Meghan will find themselves subject to even more scrutiny. As Mills puts it: “I fear this new media policy will only make it open season against them.”
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