Meghan and Harry’s documentary has hit the raw nerve of tabloid prejudice

The howl of exasperation from tabloid commentators – who spoke almost in unison last week like a dismissive Greek chorus – was that Netflix’s Harry and Meghan documentary series contains no new revelations. The supposed dearth of suitably titillating details left Britain’s ever‑growing legions of royal commentators, and even some TV reviewers, pouting and foot-stamping like 12-year-olds told to do their homework, as if access to salacious royal gossip is our birthright and the Sussexes are contractually obliged to provide it.

What was quietly and purposefully revelatory about the documentary went largely uncommented upon. The more open-minded of the 2.4 million people who clicked through to the first episode experienced a simple but central revelation: they heard the voices of a young woman of colour and her husband, who have been subjected of an unprecedented campaign of abuse and vilification, telling us what that all felt like.

As the couple carefully explained on camera, the telling of their own story in their own words is the purpose of the documentary. “Shouldn’t people hear our story?” asked Meghan in the first episode.

As I appear as one of its talking-head interviewees, I have found the past few days revelatory in a different way. Being caught in the series’ blowback is to be shown – in bleak and granular detail – how a six-year campaign of tabloid abuse has left huge numbers of otherwise reasonable people both obsessed with and contemptuous towards a young couple they have never met.

My Twitter feed is rarely pretty, but recent days have been particularly unappealing; a primordial soup of defensiveness, racism, misogyny, jingoism and whataboutery, garnished yesterday with an antisemitic conspiracy theory, as the documentary’s producer comes from a Jewish family.

Race was only ever one element in the dismal catalogue of mistreatment Meghan has been subjected to, and it is only one element of this series. But what is said by the couple about race and racism in Britain is new and revelatory, in part because black people and their families so rarely choose to speak publicly about their personal experiences of racism. This reticence stems from the knowledge that there is always a price to be paid for doing so. That price is currently being extracted from Meghan and Harry by the British tabloids.

Having recovered from their disappointment over the absence of headline-grabbing details, the papers launched their inevitable counterattack, one that even by their standards was extraordinary in its scale and fury. The Daily Mail carried more than 20 pages on the documentary. The vindictiveness of the tabloids was last week dialled up to new levels, not simply because attacks on Meghan sell papers but because the tabloids themselves have been called out by the Sussexes.

Having lost touch with irony decades ago, the tabloids sought to refute the criticisms levelled against them by engaging in exactly the behaviours of which they stand accused – shameless exaggeration, wilful misinterpretation, misattribution and at times inchoate fury, all the while maintaining their absolute refusal to even countenance the idea that race has any influence over their attitudes.

But the series reminds us that, back in 2017, when news of her relationship with Harry became public, Meghan and her backstory represented an extraordinary opportunity for the royal family. An interracial couple within the palace was presented by some – even some within the tabloids – as the apotheosis of a modernising process, not just for that institution but for Britain as a whole. The narrative was that Britain, and even her most conservative institutions, could elegantly embrace the diversity of the 21st century while maintaining its traditions.

Ultimately the story of Meghan and Harry became instead an example of conditional Britishness. Calling out the racist aspects of Megan’s treatment was an unforgivable sin. And like the black and mixed-race players of the England football team – young men who choose to campaign against poverty or express their anti-racism rather than “sticking to football” – the couple were identified as transgressive. They had strayed from the narrow lane allotted to them.

Tabloid rule is rule by intimidation. It has long rested on the presumption that no one – not even the royals – would dare to stand up to the papers. The ongoing barrage of fury against the Sussexes is motivated therefore by more than the usual strategy of selling newspapers by monetising hate. It also reflects a creeping realisation that, for all their toxic and unwarranted power, the tabloids are ultimately incapable of destroying this couple.

Their escape across the Atlantic, along with this documentary and Meghan and Harry’s determination to keep talking about the racism of the British tabloid press, is a rejection of tabloid rule.

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