The coverage of the royal wedding, and in particular that of Meghan Markle, was notable in its toxicity and racist undertones.
In the wake of breathless coverage of the royal wedding, it can be easy to forget the acrimonious beginnings of how the British media approached the relationship.
A year before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s engagement, the sixth heir to the British throne took the "extraordinary" step of issuing a statement in 2016 in which he slammed the British press for the “racial undertone” of their coverage and for the “degree of pressure, scrutiny and harassment” from the media.
The letter sought to reign in the media frenzy around the relationship, and reflects the ongoing tension between the royal family and the press. Unabated, the tabloids pressed on with their coverage even after Harry’s statement, taking aim at anything Markle: from the successful American small-screen star’s hometown to her father's weight, all arguably deeply-rooted in the racial undertones Harry referenced.
Markle, who is bi-racial, is the first non-white person to marry into the British monarchy, symbolising an important evolution for the royal family, who face questions on their relevance and history.
This lends Markle a notable place in the modern media landscape, which first heralded Harry's mother Princess Diana as "Queen of people's hearts" before hounding her to death after her divorce from Prince Charles.
Markle’s marriage has lifted the lid on an uneasy acceptance of race and diversity in the UK, particularly amongst conservatives. Headlines that focused on racial stereotypes and dog-whistle racism became common.
The Daily Mail is an ongoing purveyor of such headlines. Its disapproval of Markle’s background has manifested in unrepentant racist coverage which hinges on her race, her humble background, her rise to fame in American television series “Suits” and literally all things African-American.
Unaffected by the evolution of Harry and Markle’s relationship, the tabloid continued with its onslaught.
"Now that's upwardly mobile! How in 150 years, Meghan Markle's family went from cotton slaves to royalty via freedom in the U.S. Civil War ... while her dad's ancestors included a maid at Windsor Castle" was the Mail spread in 2017. It was accompanied by a flowchart about her mother, titled: “MUM’S SIDE: DIRT POOR IN DEEP SOUTH.”
The headline of their Sarah Vine’s opinion piece: “Yes, they’re joyfully in love. So why do I have a niggling worry about his engagement picture?” was plastered above-the-fold in giant typeface. The headline and accompanying piece drew outrage on social media, particularly the use of the word “niggling.”
The Mail also published a pull-out supplement that asked “Why DID Meghan’s Marriage Implode?”, exploring in minute detail her divorce in 2013.
Journalist Rachel Johnson wrote for The Mail on Sunday that Markle could help bring "rich and exotic DNA" to the royal family. Rachel, the sister of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, goes on to describe Markle’s mother as “a dreadlocked African-American lady from the wrong side of the tracks."
Not to be left behind, BBC News Africa ran a piece in 2017: “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: The royal love affair with Africa.”
The Sun ran with “Harry Girl’s on Pornhub” after a clip of her from the television show "Suits" appeared on the adult website. The tabloid later issued an apology.
But that did not stop The Sun from running pieces focusing on Markle’s “VERY un-royal family” and comparisons between Markle and Kate Middleton, Prince William’s wife which revolved around Markle’s background, race and past relationships.
The Spectator was not far behind. In one piece, the conservative publication drew the public’s and J K Rowling’s ire for saying: “seventy years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the Prince would have had for a mistress, not a wife.”
These headlines and the accompanying pieces are all in some way intrinsically linked to Markle belonging to a interracial family.
From scathing reviews of her personality as a young woman, to making light of structural racism, to objectifying Markle’s ethnicity by reducing her identity to an ornament which would somehow accentuate the royal family, the British media has exposed how perhaps Britain – the former colonising empire – is still uneasy with matters of race.
Even as recently as the weeks leading up to Markle and Harry’s wedding, the media frenzy tore into more of the American actor’s family, playing more on stereotypes of mixed-race and African American communities.
Her 73-year-old father, who lives alone in Mexico, has been an ongoing target of the tabloids, having to weather incredibly intrusive paparazzi, that culminated in her father posing for paparazzi photos and having them falsely circulated as having been taken without his permission. The photos showed him working out and trying on a suit.
Her father did not attend the wedding as he had a heart operation just days before.
The British media spared no one. Digging into Meghan’s extended family surfaced stories about distant cousins and relatives incensed about not being invited. Her half-brother, Thomas Markle Jr published an open letter to Prince Harry, calling Meghan a “jaded, shallow, conceited woman”. Her half-sister, Samantha Grant, who recently changed her surname back to Markle, called Meghan “shallow,” “narcissistic” and addicted to “social climbing.”
Having found the salacious family details they craved, tabloids turned on the Markle clan. This carnivorous approach is best reflected in a piece published by The Mail Online by Piers Morgan, who called them “... the worst kind of vile, dysfunctional, money-grabbing misfits.”
The stereotypes of people of colour coming from broken homes and having “rough” backgrounds were weaponised by the British press, used to mock and reduce the Markles.
Such coverage came as no surprise after the relationship of the British press with Diana, who was later hounded by the paparazzi to death. What it does reveal, however, is the unease with which the press has accepted a non-white princess.
Interracial marriages in the UK are not uncommon, with there never having been any law actually prohibiting it. Yet, despite a growing number of mixed-race youth growing up in Britain, there still seems some discomfort in confronting the racial structures and institutions diversifying the former empire.
Think tank British Future noted an increase in mixed-race communities after the 2001 census. The report said on changing attitudes towards such unions:
”In the 1950s and 1960s, marrying across racial lines was rare, and people in such relationships often met with furious hostility. While some prejudices persist, mixed relationships are now an everyday fact of life in modern Britain, and the rapidly growing mixed heritage population is changing how British people see themselves.”
However, the monarchy did not step into modern Britain and is painfully slow to mirror these social changes. Their staunch traditionalism has resonated with conservatives in a post-brexit UK and is echoed in their media. The unchanging status of the royal family is a throwback to a homogenous population controlling heritage and privilege, historically afforded to whiteness.
The British media’s uneasy relationship with race was most deeply felt in the run-up to the referendum in 2016, with pro-leave media often playing on race-based fears of the public to emphasise the need to split from the European Union. Nationalistic and jingoistic headlines were underpinned by xenophobia and racism, with reports finding a fear of immigrants being the driving force behind the “leave” vote.
The Daily Mail was as expected in the thick of things. It regularly reminded readers to vote leave if they “believed in Britain,” and lamented the “lies” and “greedy elites” of a “broken, dying Europe.” The Mail was forced to issue a correction after running a photo on the front page claiming to show migrants coming from Europe, when they were in fact from Iraq and Kuwait.
Sensationalist headlines with racist underpinnings, as seen in the reporting on Meghan, were common during and after the Brexit referendum.
Headlines announcing that the Queen had supported Brexit added to the hysteria at one point. Although a disagreement emerged between the monarch and the press over the exact wording of her support, the newspaper that reported it, The Sun, stood by the story. It later emerged that BBC journalists were also told of the Queens support to leave the EU much earlier.
What emerged during Brexit was an image of a royal family painted by conservatives values, a core reflection of the conservative idea of what white Britain is supposed to look like – untainted by pre-Brexit immigration, multiculturalism and diversity.
When seen through the conservative lens – reflected by the press – the idea of a non-white, divorced American joining the royal family is considered a threat to the very fabric of British society. Targeting Meghan’s family, background, heritage, history, work and morality are in line with the idea that she poses a threat to a conservative interpretation of the royal family, and in turn, Britain itself.
The link between coverage of Brexit and the royal wedding unveils a narrow interpretation of modern Britain.
Meghan, who has come to symbolise both the consigner of old Britain to the history books, and the beckoner of new Britain, is a dose of reality to a conversation that forgets that British society has already permanently changed, and no amount of sensationalist headlines or conservative pundits can undo that.