The maxim of “never complain, never explain” has been variously attributed to everyone from Kate Moss to the Queen Mother. (Fun fact: It was actually 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who coined the adage.)
Still, no matter who first uttered the pithy saying, those four simple words, to this day, sum up the royal family’s approach to dealing with the media.
Take Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, for example. For the better part of a decade, parts of the UK press mocked her middle-class background and ran story after story painting her as a pathetic limpet of sorts waiting for her Prince to propose. Throughout the onslaught of derisive stories, Kate remained tight-lipped, adhering valiantly if probably painfully to the ol’ “never complain” precept.
Or, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, who had the paparazzi hiding out in bushes, was vilified for years over the adulterous beginnings of her relationship with Prince Charles, and according to her biographer Penny Junor, was “a virtual prisoner alone for a lot of the time, in a big house in the country with no security. Life became horrendous, not just for Camilla herself but for all her immediate family”. Throughout this all Camilla has embraced a certain stoic muteness, despite what must have been the significant personal cost.
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When Meghan Markle entered the royal orbit, it was clear from word go that both she and Prince Harry had no intention of following the same model that required a certain modicum of entrenched suffering. In November 2016, his press secretary fired off an extraordinary broadside at the media, criticising the sexist and racist overtones to some of the coverage of the Prince’s new girlfriend.
Likewise, in October last year, Meghan, now Duchess of Sussex, said in a TV interview that she had “really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a ‘stiff upper lip’ … but I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.”
The picture that has emerged over the last year is that while Meghan is certainly the strong type, she is definitely not the silent type, a fact evidenced by her vigorous legal fight with a British paper over privacy. Last year, the duchess launched legal action against the Daily Mail’s parent company over an alleged breach of privacy after the newspaper published portions of a letter she had sent her estranged father Thomas. This week, new details about the case emerged when her lawyers filed a series of explosive documents with the London High Court.
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Some of the bombshell claims include that she felt “unprotected by the institution” during her pregnancy; that she had been “prohibited from defending herself” against press stories; and that Kensington Palace’s policy of “no comment” was put into play “without any discussion with or approval by” Meghan.
Thus Meghan (via her legal team), barely two years since joining the royal family is now noisily and unrepentantly both complaining and explaining.
There is certainly strong precedent for members of the royal family to take on the press via the courts. The Queen and the royal family have long worked with two prestigious, old London law firms, Harbottle & Lewis and Farrer & Co, and over the years has shown little reticence in calling them in to keep the tabloids in order.
Princess Diana took legal action against the Daily Mirror in 1993 after they published photos of her working out in a gym taken using a concealed camera. The paper later apologised, paid her $1.7 million legal costs and donated $350,000 to charity.
In 1995, Prince Charles sought an injunction against his former housekeeper after she penned a tell-all book.
On two occasions the Queen has sued The Sun (whose parent company News Corp also owns news.com.au) for breach of copyright, reaching out-of-court settlements in both instances. In 2003, she went to court to seek an injunction against the Daily Mirror after it was revealed that one of their reporters had gone undercover for several months working as a footman at Buckingham Palace.
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In 2010, (prior to her engagement to Prince William) Kate Middleton won an apology, $9000 in damages and her legal costs against a photo agency for pictures taken of her playing tennis with her family on Christmas Day. Two years later, in 2012, Kate and William sued French magazine Closer after it published topless images of the duchess taken while she was sunbathing on holiday. Ultimately, in 2017, a Paris court awarded the Cambridges $160,000.
However, Meghan’s case stands in contrast to these former courtroom outings given the manner and tenor of her legal team’s no-holds-barred approach, which could truly open Pandora’s box for the Queen and her family.
For one thing, all the previous instances have seen a member of House of Windsor directly squaring off against a publisher or photo agency; in one corner the tenacious publication and in the other a venerable royal house.
But, the lines of combat, so to speak, are far more blurred in this battle. These latest court documents demonstrate that while Meghan might be seeking to take a publisher to task, in her quest to win her case, she is willing to also air damaging claims against the royal family too.
Based on this week’s new claims, it would seem more and more like the duchess (or her legal team) are intent on painting her as a victim, not only of the press but a disinterested royal family. Basically, whether on purpose or not, the Firm is well and truly in the crossfire here.
This could also be read another way. Meghan isn’t just fighting the press here, she is also, by choosing to air certain allegations against the Queen and her family, facing off in a spectacularly public fashion against the House of Windsor in a sort-of proxy war.
More broadly, while other royal legal salvos have been focused on securing an apology or having private photos taken out of the public domain, Meghan’s case (whether by intent or coincidence) seems to be focused on controlling, if not rewriting, the narrative of her royal career.
While no court date has been set, according to a report in the (UK) Telegraph, the palace is “under no illusions that there will be more damaging revelations to come”.
The question that no one knows the answer to is, when the dust finally settles, what will the Sussexes’ already frayed relationship with the royal family look like? The same Telegraph report claims that “some in Royal circles have even started to wonder whether the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will ever see their one-year-old great-grandson Archie again amid the escalating row.”
Time and again during Meghan’s tenure as a member of the House of Windsor, the now 38-year-old has shown she was never going to adhere to precedent just for the sake of it; instead she was intent on forging her own path, from eschewing skin-coloured tights to pursuing a far more progressive philanthropic agenda. It would seem that autonomy and drive to do things her own way extends all the way to the Old Bailey.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
Originally published as Meghan’s very dangerous move