March 26, 2021   4 mins

For years, the Duke of Sussex was trapped in a stifling world of meaningless protocol, emotional illiteracy, artificial language and stale ritual gestures. Who can blame him for wanting to break free and create a new life for himself and his wife in America, where they’ll be valued for what they do rather than who they are?

But a noble aspiration is one thing. The emerging reality looks worryingly like one of those “How It Started/How It’s Going” memes. Take, for instance, his latest gig. He’s to be “Commissioner on Information Disorder” at the nonprofit Aspen Foundation, sitting on a panel holding a six-month inquiry into the spread of misinformation online.

And this is how he announced it:

“As I’ve said, the experience of today’s digital world has us inundated with an avalanche of misinformation, affecting our ability as individuals as well as societies to think clearly and truly understand the world we live in. It’s my belief that this is a humanitarian issue and as such, it demands a multi-stakeholder response from advocacy voices, members of the media, academic researchers, and both government and civil society leaders. I’m eager to join this new Aspen commission and look forward to working on a solution-oriented approach to the information disorder crisis.”

Just cherish every word of that: “multi-stakeholder response”, “advocacy voices”, “civil society leaders”, “solution-oriented approach”. Leaving aside the questionable metaphor in that clunking first sentence (can you be inundated by an avalanche?), here is a full card of Bullshit Bingo. These are expressions that no ordinary English-speaking human being has ever uttered spontaneously aloud or written without irony; they are the zombie catchphrases of a corporate PR department.

I have no way of knowing for sure that this is not how Prince Harry naturally expresses himself. But I hope it won’t be considered lĂšse-majestĂ© to say, I hae ma doots. And in a way it doesn’t matter. It is a sign of how far in the shit we are that many, if not most, people will assume it was written for him, and won’t think anything much of it.

Not only do we consume misinformation but we expect to, and correct for it, and blithely wave through what looks like misinformation even when it’s contained in the announcement of someone “eager” to embark on a new job waging war on misinformation.

Corporate, comms-style bullshit presented as personal from-the-heart statements is so normalised that it looks like nitpicking to even raise the question. Of course you’re not actually supposed to think that Prince Harry thinks anything of the sort, or that if he did, this is how he’d tell you about it. Don’t be so naive!

You could compare the idiom of Prince Harry’s statement, as quoted last week in the announcement of his last new gig — as Chief Impact Officer (whatever that is) for a billionaire wellbeing startup called BetterUp:

“As BetterUp’s first Chief Impact Officer, my goal is to lift up critical dialogues around mental health, build supportive and compassionate communities, and foster an environment for honest and vulnerable conversations. And my hope is to help people develop their inner strength, resilience, and confidence.”

Italics – my hope; my goal — thus. The statement goes on for ages, so I won’t quote it all, but in addition to “lift up critical dialogues around”, we can tick off “driving advocacy”, “peak performance”, “thought leadership”, “outreach and strategic planning”, “self-optimisation” and many more on the bingo card.

More buzzphrases — but tailored in this case to mental wellbeing corporate nonsense rather than tech-bro civil-society corporate nonsense. This statement was introduced, incidentally, by one from BetterUp’s CEO which ended: “I could go on, but I think he can say it better himself.” It seems to me quite possible that the same person drafted both those statements. But let’s suppose it was not, and that Prince Harry not only spoke from the heart about the Aspen Foundation, but that he spoke likewise from the heart about BetterUp, and that he deftly altered his style on each occasion. In some ways, that would be worse: it would suggest that, rather than just letting these organisations put words in his mouth, he has allowed their empty idioms to soak into his very soul.

Some years ago, I was hosting a series of book events sponsored by a hotel chain. When they were being announced, the very nice and amiable PR for the hotel let me have a look at the press release. It contained a substantial quote from me, which he had invented (and which sounded not unlike the sort of thing attributed here to the Prince). He was genuinely surprised, and seemed not a little put out, when I insisted that anything I was quoted as saying or writing should be stuff I myself said or wrote. It was, he said, standard practice to do things the way he did them.

Perhaps it is. But look: the Duke of Sussex is a person who has staked his career and the second half of his life on being his own man. He has made authenticity — “speaking your truth”, as Oprah puts it — his big thing. He and his wife have spoken eloquently of refusing to be part of a system where the image of the Firm trumps the authentic needs and feelings of individuals. And yet here he is, within months, meekly offering himself as a human meatpuppet: his name and image, his personal beliefs and feelings, are available to be presented to the world in the hackneyed corporate cliches of a press release.

Even if you haven’t made a performance of how important it is to you to be your own man, parroting the sort of balderdash that comms departments churn out isn’t a trivial thing. It sells the pass.

Of course Prince Harry would say — and no doubt truthfully — that he’s only taking jobs that align with his existing beliefs and support the causes he cares about. And perhaps he really does believe that he has a unique set of skills that make his executive role in these organisations worth every penny — that he’s a mental health professional and a shrewd analyst of the information ecosystem. Perhaps he believes that he can meaningfully do multiple senior executive jobs at once, and that his name on the masthead is no more than the cherry on the Bakewell tart.

But the application of Occam’s razor here suggests that it’s the right to have their language issue from Prince Harry’s mouth and have him glad-hand donors or shareholders that these companies are really paying for. They’re using him as… how would you put it? A figurehead. Imagine finding yourself in a job where your only role was to sprinkle celebrity fairy-dust on good causes and mouth strings of empty formal phrases. It sounds pretty soul-destroying to me. It sounds, in fact, a bit like being a member of the Royal Family.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator and the author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page