From A False Story About The Queen's Death To Harry's Libel Lawsuit, The Royal Family Really Went Through It This Week
The Queen stays above the fray; Harry gets into it.
This is an edition of The Royal Tea, BuzzFeed News' newsletter about the royal family. You can sign up here.
What a week it has been, dear readers. I write this with the hope that all of you and your loved ones are safe and well.
In Monday’s newsletter, we discussed the Queen’s COVID-19 diagnosis, announced on Sunday in a Buckingham Palace statement that said the sovereign was experiencing “mild cold-like symptoms” and would “continue light duties at Windsor over the coming week.”
And thus people were alarmed when on Tuesday and Thursday, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen had postponed virtual engagements while an unsubstantiated report of the monarch's death went viral on the internet this week.
Here’s what happened: An American gossip blog called Hollywood Unlocked on Tuesday posted “exclusive” news that the Queen was dead on their website and Instagram… and it blew up. To be clear, the story was nonsense. Among many other errors and falsehoods, the author claimed to be awaiting confirmation of the Queen’s death from “the royal kingdom.” My intrepid colleagues investigated the blog and discovered the rumor’s most likely origin: "There may have been a misunderstanding related to the death of Queens of the Stone Age singer Mark Lanegan, who actually died unexpectedly Tuesday at the age of 57." You can read their story here.
Before we get into the other big royal news of the week, I want to talk about the way that Buckingham Palace handled this objectively farcical “Queen death” news cycle. Your faithful royal correspondent was one of many reporters to contact the Palace for comment (i.e., doing our due diligence to make sure that this random blog was wrong and the Queen wasn’t dead). The Queen’s press office declined to address the rumors in any way, shape, or form.
This is the royal family’s media strategy, and it’s been evident time and time again, especially when it comes to the Queen. It’s more than “Never complain, never explain.” It’s a decision that decidedly places the royal family above the media fray. They will not engage in regular tussles with the press and will only debunk something if they feel that not doing so would be damaging to the monarchy — because by addressing the story, they would give it credence, acknowledge that it could have been true, and add fuel to the fire. Obviously, depending on your thoughts on the royal family, you may disagree with their decisions about what to address and what to ignore. I wrote about this a bit last year in my analysis of the times the royal press teams went on the record for stories about Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. This on-the-record statement (note that it’s not a confirmation or denial) from one of the stories featured in my comparison is a good summary of the official royal family press strategy: “We will not provide a running commentary on every piece of conjecture and gossip.”
Instead, Buckingham Palace “responded” to the clearly untrue story about the Queen’s death without responding to it in a masterful public relations move. On Wednesday, as speculation about the Queen’s death was still rampant, they informed the press that the Queen had held her weekly meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson by phone. The No. 10 office confirmed the telephone call when asked by reporters. Thus it was conveyed to the public that the reports of the Queen’s death were fabricated.
As this was playing out, the Queen’s grandson on the other side of the Atlantic was applying a very different media strategy.
I’ve written in previous newsletters about Prince Harry’s legal challenge to the UK government requesting police protection for himself and his family when visiting the country, but as a refresher, on Jan. 16, the Mail on Sunday broke the news that he was pursuing a judicial review of the decision to deny him police security. Feb. 18 was the first court appearance for both sides in the matter, and it didn’t go too well for the Duke of Sussex. The Home Office lawyers challenged the version of events laid out in Harry’s initial press release about his battle for police security. For instance, the Home Office disputed Harry’s claim that he had initially offered to pay for police protection for himself and his family during negotiations about the Sussexes’ royal exit in January 2020 — and Harry’s statement that his offer to fund his security operation was dismissed by both the Palace and the government in that and subsequent meetings. During the preliminary hearing Feb. 18, lawyers for the Home Office alleged that the duke had not made such an offer until recently. They also said the offer came after Harry’s trip to the UK in July 2021, when he complained about being chased by paparazzi while leaving a charity event.
Two days after the preliminary hearing, the Mail on Sunday published a story by the same author who broke the news of Harry’s challenge pinpointing the many differences between what his initial statement claimed and what the Home Office said in court, effectively accusing him and his spokespersons of lying. The story’s title? “EXCLUSIVE: How Prince Harry tried to keep his legal fight with the government over police bodyguards a SECRET... then — just minutes after the story broke — his PR machine tried to put a positive spin on the dispute.”
Following the hearing and the public backlash, the Sussexes did not release any statements of clarification or explanation about the possible holes in their claims — a sharp difference from their fiery response to the news being made public.
Instead, on Thursday, Harry filed a lawsuit against the publisher of the Mail on Sunday for libel.
(Meghan recently won a multiyear lawsuit on appeal against the same publisher, Associated Newspapers Limited, for printing excerpts from a private letter she wrote to her estranged father.)
A source with knowledge of Harry’s lawsuit confirmed to me that the duke is suing because of the story linked above, which happens to have been written by the same reporter who broke the news of his legal challenge to the UK government. An ANL spokesperson declined to comment on the matter to me; it looks like both sides plan to stay silent until ANL files a response and the legal documents are made public.
And yet, I wouldn’t agree that this has been a silent week for the Sussexes. Obviously, a story claiming that you’re dead is very different from a story claiming that you have attempted to cover up information, but the contrast between the two royal responses to each story, I believe, give us a look at things to come as the Sussexes continue to carve out a path away from the workings of the royal family. Perhaps it’s a result of, as they said to Oprah, “being silenced” for so many years, but Harry and Meghan seem to want to defend themselves from the press, particularly the UK press, in what seems like a Sisyphean campaign. Their strategy appears to reject the royal dictum that responding to a story will give the piece and its claims even more attention.
My grandmother used to say something that I think is relevant to all of this: “Never wrestle with a pig. It only gets you dirty and amuses the pig.” In this metaphor, alas, I and other members of the press are the pigs. What do you think? Is it better to stay above the fray, even when a story that is either untrue or insulting (or both!) circulates worldwide? Or is it better to fight back, even though past experience (in this example, Meghan’s lawsuit against ANL) shows that it will not change the way these media outlets cover you?
I’m quite curious to hear your opinions, dear readers! Which approach do you think is best? Has the Sussexes’ litigiousness changed your opinion of them in any way? Do you think that Buckingham Palace was right to decline commenting on the Queen’s death story? Let me know by replying to this email, and your response might be featured in an upcoming edition of The Royal Tea.
Before I sign off, I want to highlight one final bit of royal news from this week that I know will be of interest to my loyal subscribers: Buckingham Palace on Thursday announced the Platinum Jubilee tour schedule! Senior members of the royal family will be traveling around the world to mark the Queen’s 70th year on the throne.
Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, will visit Ireland from March 23 to March 25; Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, will visit Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas from March 19 to March 26; Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, will visit Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines from April 22 to April 28; and Princess Anne will visit Papua New Guinea from April 11 to April 13.
(Speaking of trips, Kate traveled to Denmark for two days this week to learn more about the country's approach to early childhood development so as to bring those lessons back to the UK and the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, which she founded last year. Check out Kensington Palace's official Twitter and Instagram accounts for more details — and some great pictures.)
It will be interesting to see if a royal charm offensive will have any effect in the Commonwealth countries on the tour, especially those who may be mulling the idea of breaking from the monarchy. And, of course, I will be here to tell you about all of it (though, sadly, chances are slim that I’ll be reporting from the Caribbean).
I remain, as always, your faithful royal correspondent,