Will Big Ben bong Harry and Meghan out of Britain? – David Behrens

The Duke of Sussex meets children in the Buckingham Palace gardens, London, as he hosts the Rugby League World Cup draws.
The Duke of Sussex meets children in the Buckingham Palace gardens, London, as he hosts the Rugby League World Cup draws.
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It was clear that the news cycle had turned when the biggest Brexit story of the week hinged on whether or not Big Ben should bong us out of Europe.

And so it was to the perennial soap opera of the Royal family that we turned. The story so far: the Queen’s grandson, having made a unilateral declaration of independence in which he proposed moving the Dukedom of Sussex to somewhere in Canada, arrived at the Palace with his tail between his legs, to draw the teams for next year’s Rugby League World Cup.

Merchandise featuring Duke and Duchess of Sussex on sale in Windsor after the couple recently announced they will be taking a step back from their Royal roles

Merchandise featuring Duke and Duchess of Sussex on sale in Windsor after the couple recently announced they will be taking a step back from their Royal roles

It was hardly an engagement befitting his stature; he looked like a bingo caller on Blackpool prom. It was the sort of job they’d have given to Eddie Waring in the 1970s.

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But this, it seems, is to be Harry’s lot in life. Celebrity is a fickle beast: one year your wedding is stopping the nation in its tracks; the next, you’re pulling out raffle tickets.

At least the timing bought the World Cup organisers a level of exposure they could scarcely have imagined. When they made the draw for the last one, four years ago, you had to turn to the sports pages to find it.

This resolve of Harry and Meghan to take more control of their lives, though admirable on one level, is misguided on most others – and one has to question the wisdom of those who advised them to do it, if indeed anyone did.

Both are used to being in the public eye but the terms of engagement in their respective fields are profoundly different, and therein lie the roots of the present brouhaha.

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As an actress, the Duchess will have been used to conducting interviews and popping up at premieres more or less on her own terms. The entertainment media is compliant with such behaviour because it relies for big-name interviews on the co-operation of the public relations industry. Sometimes, it will go so far as to offer interviewees the right to see and approve what has been written.

The media circus that surrounds our Royals, in contrast, is a free-for-all. It appears to be Meghan’s wish to transfer her branch of the family on to the Hollywood system.

Yet, in opting out of the Palace protocols, she is loosening, not tightening, her grip on how she will be portrayed.

The Duchess has fallen into the trap, as have many millennials, of believing that they are uniquely placed to master the dubious art of social media; of communicating directly with their audiences without the need for those infernal, in-between layers of newspapers, magazines and TV programmes.

But it ought to be clear from the reaction in the first week alone that she is out of her depth.

There has never been an instrument as out of control as social media. It is a rumour mill; a distorted prism through which information is disfigured in ways unimaginable by conventional means. By using it as their channel of choice, the Sussexes are jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

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There is a cautionary tale here. Marion Crawford, “Crawfie” to all and sundry, was someone else who tried to subvert the Royal publicity machine. She had been governess to the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret before the war, and wrote about them in a book. The Queen Mother warned her against it. “People in positions of confidence with us must be utterly oyster,” was how she put it.

But Crawfie carried on regardless, and sold the serialisation writes to Woman’s Own. It caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, and she found herself ostracised. The grace and favour cottage granted her for life became untenable, and the Royals never spoke to her again.

So much for controlling the message.

That this happened 70 years before Twitter, Instagram and the rest, serves to demonstrate that technology does not change the fundamentals of communication. Each new generation creates a new lexicon for ideas and practices that are as old as the hills. Meghan has a secondary career as a “style blogger”, which is just another way of saying “unpublished author”.

How will the Sussex saga end? It never will. In stepping outside the ring of steel thrown around them by the Palace, Harry and Meghan will find the North American media has declared open season on them.

They will know when it has begun… someone will have arranged for Big Ben to bong them out of Britain.