When Buckingham Palace finally broke its silence on the allegations made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in their bombshell interview, royal observers paid particular attention to one line of the palace statement: “While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.”
Harry and Meghan are clearly very upset at how they’ve been treated. They would clearly like some kind of resolution. And they clearly felt that they had exhausted all formal options for getting that, and could only get their side of the story across by sitting down with the most famous interviewer on the planet.
However, the fact that the palace has said this matter will be dealt with privately raises some pretty serious questions about how individuals who believe they’ve been wronged by the royals can possibly hold them to account.
“It’s obvious that Harry and Meghan sincerely feel that they’ve been mistreated by members of the family and would like a resolution,” says Marcia Moody, a royal biographer and journalist. “Unfortunately, their ultra-open style has collided with an institution that lives by the rule of never complain, never explain. They will probably never get that resolution.”
Part of the problem is that the royal family is several things at once. It is a family business, a private family and a constitutional monarchy. It employs people, upholds parts of the UK’s constitution and tries to maintain support among the public to justify its existence. It does this while being fair game for the media and trying to maintain some kind of private life.
These conflicting realities create some strange precedents, especially when it comes to holding the family to account.
“If a royal aide complains that they have been bullied by the Duchess, then they can raise it with their boss and it goes up the chain of command. But how the Duchess might complain about a racist comment from a member of her own family is of course a far more complicated problem,” says Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government.
In other constitutional bodies, there are mechanisms and processes in place for grievances to be aired and played out in public. However, decades of protocol and precedent have left British politicians on the whole uncomfortable to comment on matters concerning the monarchy. Even as US President Joe Biden and presidential envoy John Kerry made public comments on the interview, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to get involved, saying that he had “spent a long time not commenting” and didn’t “intend to depart from that.” He did, however, feel the need to clarify the level of admiration he had for his boss, the Queen.
The respect for the crown is in itself part of the reason that the public knows so little of what actually goes on behind closed doors.
“Over the past few decades, many areas of government and civil service have come into the public domain and come under scrutiny. But with the royals, deference to the crown means things are generally done on their terms,” says Andrew Blick, a constitutional expert at King’s College London.
Blick explains that there is a “tendency for the monarchy to be exempt from things like freedom of information requests and the declassification of documents,” which don’t become public in the way that things like minutes from government cabinet meetings do. “We will probably never know how the Queen dealt with any of this saga, other than through the odd leaks to the press.”
The British media plays a big part in the royal pantomime. Prince Harry dedicated a significant chunk of the interview to the tabloid press. He described how “scared” members of his family are “of the tabloids turning on them,” and talked of an “invisible contract” where “if you as a family member are willing to wine, dine and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press.”
In saying this, the Duke perhaps admitted that he knew the best way to win justice with an institution unwilling to be held to account is to try them in the court of public opinion.
“When the mechanisms don’t exist to do it in any formal way and there is no political accountability, it is inevitable that the public perception of monarchy – including whether it should exist – becomes the only way to really get accountability,” says Haddon.
While it’s true that bad press has forced the monarchy to break cover and give the public what they want in the past – most notably in the immediate aftermath of Princess Diana’s tragic death – it’s not certain to work.
“The court of public opinion is an extremely odd thing. You can be panned on social media for something that is utterly scandalous but still go on to be successful. Look at Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood tape. Look at the banks who robbed people during the crisis,” says Mark Borkowski, a veteran public relations consultant who has worked with Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin.
Borkowski explains that even if a PR storm looks terminal, strong institutions usually have the ability to ride out nearly any crisis. This, very likely, includes the royals. “Don’t forget that the ‘third woman’ in the interview with Diana that scandalized the whole family was Camilla. Not only is she now very popular with the public, she is going to one day be the de-facto Queen of England. It turned out OK.”
The difference between that scandal and the Sussex crisis is that Harry is still the Queen’s grandson and, according to the Palace statement, “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members.”
This means that both sides should probably be braced for a very long, painful war of attrition. Loyalists to Prince William and Duchess Catherine will probably continue to brief the UK newspapers, while the Sussexes will continue to build their dynasty in America, where they are very popular.
It seems very unlikely that there will ever be a public reconciliation from Buckingham Palace that comes close to containing the fallout from the allegations that Prince Charles let down Harry, or that a family member made racist comments about the color of unborn Archie’s skin. And that applies to the British public also, who, it could be argued, have a right to know exactly what happened in an institution that it largely funds – and through open statements, rather than leaks to the media.
So, how do you hold a royal to account? The answer, it seems, is to give a blockbuster interview that ruins your relationship with the entire family, knowing they cannot really respond. Which must be tremendously sad if they happen to be your own family.