It’s no secret that the media likes people to talk. Entire genres of news would die were it not for the temptation or obligation people feel to reveal things that it might not, ultimately, be in their personal interest to share and that they might later come to regret.
I’m not saying that Prince Harry’s disclosure he had a frostbitten penis at his brother’s wedding is one of those things, but I’m also not saying it’s not.
Oddly, however, if you were to consume only the British media’s take on the publication of Harry’s memoir Spare, you would think the media hated nothing more than famous people spilling about absolutely everything that can be spilled, from the exact number of people killed in combat to a postcoital spanking in a field.
Par for the course was Friday’s edition of the Daily Mail, which effortlessly married the headline “Oh spare us!” with a 17-page special on the contents of Spare.
Sex, drugs, war, royalty: we explain at length why we’re not interested in any of these things.
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The Times, in its despairing review of the Duke of Sussex’s interview with ITV’s Tom Bradby, asked whether the “whingeing” would ever stop. Hopefully, not any time soon, right?
BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell’s disdain for the all-too-vocal spare, meanwhile, is now so efficient that his pronunciation of “Harry” comes with an inbuilt sigh.
This is a skill of sorts and unsurprising. The BBC has had a lot of practice lately telling people what to feel about the royal family. While the press is free to milk its hypocrisies, broadcasters are meant to be impartial, of course, which explains why it was suddenly very important to hear from the Taliban.
Even the Observer’s polite editorial offered the consensus concern that “Prince Harry’s stream of revelations will benefit no one.”
This is patently not true. Within the media itself, there are a string of beneficiaries. Some are just more obvious than others.
Take, for example, the Guardian’s US breaking news editor Martin Pengelly. Like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, he achieved what others before him failed to do: he got hold of the book. A scoop is a scoop, and when it involves alleged “red mist”, a ripped necklace, a shattered dog bowl and instant re-reporting by every royal correspondent on the planet, it’s fair to chalk that up as a good day at the office.
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It would be nice to think, also, that some bilingual freelances pocketed more than just a cheap “gracias” for translating En la Sombra, the prematurely released Spanish version, on the feverish request of news editors.
With Prince Harry’s legalistic approach to the press contributing to Penguin Random House’s decision not to serialise Spare, the official advance publicity love was spread between three broadcasters instead.
Two of these are based in the US, his most important market. Paramount-owned CBS, which ran an interview by Anderson Cooper on its Sunday evening 60 Minutes show, will also welcome the prince to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday, while Monday brought a fresh hit of Harry on Disney-owned ABC’s Good Morning America.
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In Britain, the happy victor was ITV, home of News at Ten presenter Bradby, who knows both brothers from an earlier stint as royal correspondent, and seemed thoroughly pleased to have won the first and, at 90 minutes, the longest of the interviews.
Audience ratings will have taken some of the gloss off, with ITV’s broadcast garnering a UK viewership of just 4.1 million, less than the 5.25 million people who watched distinctly unroyal drama Happy Valley on BBC One at the same time.
The figure is also considerably less than the 11.3 million who watched Oprah’s 2021 interview with Meghan and Harry in the UK – a programme that was also the fifth most-watched among Irish households that year.
But even if the law of diminishing returns is already in operation, a sit-down with Diana’s son is not something that can just be rejected.
The advance for the memoir alone is said to be $20 million, with a further three books from the Sussex stable apparently taking the couple’s deal to $35-$40 million. The economics of success here are opaque, but if any publisher can afford to take such a big bet it is Penguin Random House. The company, part of German-owned media conglomerate Bertelsmann, is the largest of publishing’s “big five”.
A clear individual winner is JR Moehringer, the acclaimed ghostwriter behind Spare, whose reputation as “half psychiatrist”, as Nike co-founder Phil Knight described him, has only been enhanced by this foray into royal territory.
Only last month, Netflix’s six-part Harry & Meghan documentary series seemed an unequivocal triumph – if an expensive one given the reported $100 million price tag – with each trailer forensically analysed on flagship bulletins and episodes dissected on live blogs as soon as they dropped.
Now the dirt yielded by Moehringer makes Netflix’s effort look tame and diplomatic by comparison.
The series did contain the salient point, made by the writer Afua Hirsch, that not enough attention has been paid to the idea that “you can be born into a contractual relationship” with the British press.
For a monarchist media, objections to the “we pay, you pose” arrangement must be stamped out, lest the whole edifice crumble. It has been consistent on this: as soon as Harry went to “war” with elements of Fleet Street, the UK media collectively agreed his stance was unwise and he would be better off shutting up. The status quo was presented as a fait accompli.
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The press will now play the “fair game” card on the basis that Harry has invaded his own privacy. Whether it is possible to invade your own privacy, any more than it is possible to invade your own home, will be a philosophical debate too far. In the regular reminders of his privilege, too, there will be little space for the argument that there is no privilege without freedom, especially not when your fellow prisoners in the gilded cage seem equally keen to jangle the keys.
But how does the media’s wholesale decrying of Harry square with younger generations’ acceptance of openness as catharsis and silence as damage? It doesn’t. And there’s one other small problem. “Never complain, never explain” doesn’t sell.
That’s why, when Prince Harry was all too quiet, former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire provided their own solution: they hacked his phone.