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Artillery Row

Harry, Meghan (and Jeremy) want to be alone

LA may not be the place for true socialist privacy

The Sussexes are suddenly camera-shy. In a letter sent at the height of a deadly pandemic, Harry and Meghan told four of Britain’s most popular newspapers that they would offer “no corroboration and zero engagement” from now on. The couple said in their dispatch to the Sun, Mail, Mirror and Express, “media have every right to report on and indeed have an opinion on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, good or bad. But it can’t be based on a lie.”

But inaccurate reporting is far from the sole cause of the beef. Watertight scoops – for example, on the rift between Harry and his brother, and on the erratic behaviour of the Markle family – seem to have annoyed them the most. A dedication to truth may not explain everything.

Some other reasons for the Duke and Duchess to shun celebrity seem clear. Prince Harry has spent his whole life tussling with the press, blaming media attention for the paparazzi chase which killed his mother, while Meghan has suffered a slew of racist abuse from idiots online, stirred up by professional screamers such as Katie Hopkins, and believes the snide tone of some newspaper coverage is partly to blame for this.

Time for a quiet life, then. Except it’s not quite that simple. If you want to flee the spotlight, is it wise to uproot from Berkshire and move to the famously low-key city of, um, Los Angeles? LA has more paps per square inch than anywhere else in the world (and weak privacy laws, thanks to the First Amendment). If you hate media attention, a career as professional celebrities through Instagram influencing and Hollywood gigs, starting with Meghan’s narration of a documentary on elephants, may not be the best way to go.

But Harry and Meghan’s performative hatred of the media – despite their reliance on media coverage to earn a living – is not unique. There is another unconventional member of the British establishment who recently stepped away from the front line with a loud blast in the direction of the press. Jeremy Corbyn, like the Sussexes, had spent years ignoring the hated mainstream media: he did not give a single interview to a Conservative-supporting paper until his very last week in post, and journalists from the Mail or Sun were allowed to ask a question at his press conferences perhaps once a year.

As with Harry and Meghan, Corbyn and his followers were convinced that the newspapers – particularly the tabloids – were irredeemably degraded, and believed that in an age of declining circulations they could simply sidestep them, both by setting up their own “alt-left” sites (The Canary, Skwawkbox, Novara Media and many more) and by granting more access to new digital media outlets such as Vice or Joe than to the dead-tree news. For four years Labour showed little interest in a constructive relationship with the “Tory press,” even when they could have collaborated effectively in showing up the shambles of the Theresa May years.

Are the papers an outdated relic, or a ferocious power base? Should they be ignored, or loudly condemned?

When it looked like their tactics were working, the Corbynites were exultant. Jezza himself strode on stage at the Momentum conference following the 2017 election, “Seven Nation Army” blaring from the speakers above him, and boasted that Labour had denied May a majority in the face of media hostility, adding, “Only the Morning Star was with us from the start.” Even the Guardian got a tongue-lashing for daring to admit doubts about his leadership.

It all changed when things went pear-shaped. Within days of the 2019 election, the Corbynista narrative had settled on that same redundant media as the culprit for Labour’s disaster: Corbyn’s best friend, John McDonnell said, “The establishment owns the media in this country … anyone who challenges the system, of course the system will throw the kitchen sink at you.” Richard Burgon put opposition to the tabloids at the heart of his (unsuccessful) campaign to become deputy leader. Far from moribund, the right-wing press was now treated as an all-powerful engine of false consciousness for the masses once more.

Team Corbyn and Team Sussex have shown the same muddled attitude to the media. Are the papers an outdated relic, or a ferocious power base? Should they be ignored, or loudly condemned? They can’t seem to decide.

It wasn’t always like this. Previous generations of royals, and of Labour chiefs, hugged the press tightly, even while knowing their ostentatious affection would not be entirely reciprocated. Tony Blair spent years cosying up to the tabloids, much to the annoyance of his wife Cherie; he won the backing of The Sun but never managed to break the pro-Tory lean of the media as a whole. Princess Diana was close to many royal correspondents, tipping off the paparazzi when she went out to lunch and sending favoured journalists the Buckingham Palace phone book. That, of course, did not save her from an unbearable onslaught of attention in the last years of her life.

But there is a middle way. Those in the public eye do not have to suck-up in order to get a fair hearing: Prince Charles has managed to suppress his dislike of most royal hacks, keeping them at a distance without boiling over into hostility, just as Labour figures such as Yvette Cooper and David Lammy earn the respect of the media by dealing with them coolly but professionally. And those who want nothing to do with the press are more likely to get their way if they simply ignore it, instead of kicking-up a fuss about how unfair everything is.

Hate the press if you want – but badmouthing the tabloids is no substitute for a grown-up media strategy when you have a message you want to deliver. Jeremy Corbyn learned that lesson eventually. Chances are, Harry and Meghan will soon have the same epiphany.

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