'Nobody wins': should palace fear Harry and Meghan's interview?

By Caroline Davies

As the world awaits Sunday’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex against a toxic canvas of bullying and smear claims, the key question must be: what should Buckingham Palace fear most?

Anticipating what will fall from the couple’s lips under Oprah Winfrey’s “no off-limits” questioning is clearly taxing those at the heart of the British monarchy.

Meghan’s trailed suggestion that “the firm” has been active in “perpetuating falsehoods” against her and Harry gives no comfort at the end of an extraordinary week of leaks and anonymous briefings as both sides wrest to control the narrative of this unedifying drama.

And “sides” is what it is now. “Whatever decisions are made on that side,” Harry told James Corden as the terms of his and Meghan’s exit were being thrashed out, “we’ll never walk away”. Despite the warm balm of the Queen’s words that they remained a “valued” part of her family, positions are entrenched.

Meghan’s words will surprise those at Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace. They will probably have no issues with the couple attacking – as they have often done – the UK media or racism on social media, but any hint of criticism of royals themselves or named palace staff would be shocking.

One interpretation of what Meghan said in the trailer is that she was referring to the palace machinery. Her friends have long believed this left her unprotected when she was attacked by the media in a string of stories and prohibited from defending herself by the palace’s “no comment” policy.

Meghan accuses palace of 'perpetuating falsehoods' in new Oprah clip – video
Meghan accuses palace of 'perpetuating falsehoods' in new Oprah clip – video

Her “perpetuating falsehoods” accusation was filmed before Buckingham Palace’s announcement this week of an unprecedented inquiry into claims in the Times that allegations Meghan bullied two palace personal assistants out of their jobs in 2018 were “not progressed”.

So the Winfrey interview will not address that directly – but the furore has poured fuel on the fire.

The Sussex’s lawyers have denied the bullying allegations, painting them as a smear campaign by staff. The claims relate to Kensington Palace, where William and Harry shared staff before the brothers went their separate ways, a split said to have been accelerated by the bullying allegations.

Who leaked it is not known.

Those close to the Sussexes say Meghan will be devastated that there were people who felt that in her orbit. She would not recognise the person portrayed in the reports, it is said, and would find the manner it was pushed out to the world “very distressing”.

Some put it down to a culture clash between a palace “old guard”, with their way of doing things, struggling to accommodate the directness of a driven duchess, self-made and successful, and up at 5am to seize the day. “It’s not my job to coddle people,” she is alleged to have said.

Emotive clips trailed by CBS, which will broadcast the interview on Sunday, include Winfrey asking: “Were you silent, or silenced?”; “You’ve said some pretty shocking things here”; “‘Almost unsurvivable’ sounds like there was a breaking point.”

Those who know the couple say there has never been an occasion when they have sought to target individual members of the family, and believe they are unlikely to do so. There was a difference between their “unvarnished” view of what they had been through, and targeting senior royals, said one.

A caricature of Meghan has been created and curated over many years, and this is their chance to hear directly from them, it is said.

In the past 12 months they have moved, bought a house in California, set up their Archewell Foundation, launched a production company and an audio podcast company, fought and won a high-profile newspaper privacy case in the courts, suffered a devastating miscarriage and now are, happily, expecting their second child.

With their future relationship with the royal family set in stone, Harry and Meghan feel it is the right moment to talk about all of this, and look at what will come next.

The royal biographer and historian Robert Lacey believes the palaces “have absolutely nothing to fear”.

“I can’t imagine anything of great substance that they have to say or would be willing to say. I can’t imagine anybody in Britain will give it any credence,” hesaid.

“The consequence of the last few weeks has been to swing British opinion solidly behind the Queen, Charles and William. I would say if anybody has suffered, it’s Harry and Meghan. That their role as scapegoats has now been absolutely fixed.

“The royal family provide us, in a way politicians don’t, with simple heroes and villains. It’s a melodrama. Those roles have now been semi-permanently assigned in the views of most British people – just as was the case in 1936 [the abdication crisis].”

Harry is close to the Queen, and those who know the couple insist they would do nothing to disrespect her.

Lacey agrees. “After Diana’s death, who became Harry’s stepmother? Well it wasn’t Camilla. The closest thing he had to a stepmother was the Queen. And actually the Queen was far closer to William and Harry, and far more of a maternal influence on them than to her own children. So he won’t want to do anything to upset her. No.”

It was suggested in the Times that Meghan “craved” rejection from the start, to enable her to persuade Harry there was no option but to flee Britain for the US, which the Sussexes, along with the other allegations, deny.

“I think that’s demeaning. That to me speaks to me of hostility and prejudice,” said Lacey. Some may have found her pushy, and over-demanding, he said. “I think Meghan wanted to succeed. And, if something went wrong, it was that she was trying too hard. As a result, maybe she did put pressure on other people. But the idea she didn’t take it seriously I think is unworthy.”

The manner of the Sussex’s departure, after less than two years, is a crisis for the monarchy. But members of the royal family have more pressing concerns such as the health of Prince Philip, 99, who has given more than seven decades to the institution, and remains ill in hospital having treatment for a pre-existing heart condition.

“Nobody wins on this one, do they?” said Dickie Arbiter, who was the Queen’s press secretary at the time of that other royal interview, Diana on Panorama.

There are some winners, though. CBS and Oprah’s company Harpo Productions will rake in millions, reportedly syndicating to more than 70 countries.

“It’s going to happen and there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” said Arbiter. “I doubt they [the palace] are going to react unless there is something outrageously nonsense, or if they start talking about individuals. Which I doubt they will do, because then you are on very dodgy ground.”