March 12, 2021

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey has, so far, claimed two scalps. One has been splashed across news websites and newspapers; the other has not.

The first belonged, to Piers Morgan, who was forced to quit Good Morning Britain after six successful if noisy years for daring to express disbelief at a number of the Duchess’s claims. The claiming of the second scalp, however, has attracted far less attention — even though it serves as an equally, if not more, damning parable for our times…

Do facts still matter? On the face of it, that question appears to have a straightforward answer: of course facts matter; fact-checking is a divine skill and the best defence we have against so-called “fake news”. But in today’s troubled climate, you’re increasingly likely to be given an altogether different response: “Facts? Why are you demanding facts. Don’t be racist.”

Just ask Ian Murray, who until this week was the executive director of the Society of Editors, but now finds himself jobless. The Society attempts, in its own words, to “fight for media freedom”. But as Mr Murray (no relation) has discovered, media freedom is just as elastic as almost every other freedom in this freedom-less age.

In this regard, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was something of a litmus test. In a free society, people would be able to watch it and draw a number different, but acceptable, conclusions. In an unfree society, however, only one permissible opinion would be allowed. If the past days have taught us anything, then surely it is clear that we have failed this test. The second reality has been borne out, and, as a result, Mr Murray has been forced to end his career.

One of the most disturbing accusations levelled by both Harry and Meghan during their interview concerned the toxicity of the British press, in particular the British tabloids. But a claim does not become true simply because a Duke or Duchess says it. Indeed, it is striking that while the comments made by the Sussexes on the Royal Family have been heavily scrutinised in recent days, their accusations against the British press have managed to slide by, accepted as though they were simply fact.

It didn’t matter that their claims — presented, it should be noted, more as assertions — were particularly egregious: that the reason why Meghan and Harry had come in for criticism from the British press was because Meghan identifies as black, thus implying that the British media is racist.

In the face of such damning charges, it is striking that much of the media has chosen to keep its head down; the Guardian proved a notable exception, predictably endorsing the Sussexes’s worldview. As for the others, I suspect their silence come from a simple and understandable desire not to get in the line of fire.

In the end, the only person brave enough to stand up for Britain’s newspapers turned out to be the since-departed executive director of the Society of Editors. In a statement issued after the Sussexes’s interview, he rightly pointed out that the British press “is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account”. It continued: “It is not acceptable for the Duke and Duchess to make such claims without providing any supporting evidence.”

In itself, such a statement should have been unremarkable. But as the fall-out from the past few days has shown, demanding “supporting evidence” can you turn you into a pariah.

In this instance, I suspect that’s probably because when the Sussexes and their supporters talk about racism towards Meghan, genuine examples are never forthcoming. For example, at one point during the interview, Oprah launched into a monologue detailing how Meghan “became the target of unrelenting, pervasive attacks” when she joined the royal family.

To illustrate her point, a selection of allegedly racist headlines from British newspapers appeared on screen. Pretty damning stuff, you might think. Except for the fact that a significant proportion of the headlines were taken completely out of context. More than a third of the articles shown during the interview were from American and Australian publications. And in the case one of the most egregious headlines — “Meghan’s seed will taint our Royal Family” — Oprah failed to mention that the purpose of the news story was actually to expose racist comments made by a model.

Point this out to the Sussexes, though, and no doubt they’ll respond that their treatment has still been particularly unpleasant. But such a claim wrongly assumes that other members of the Royal Family have managed to avoid intrusive or negative coverage from the media; or that, when they have, it hasn’t amounted to much. When Meghan, in her Oprah interview, acknowledged that the Duchess of Cambridge had been branded “Waity Katie” by the media for waiting so long for Prince William to propose to her, it was telling that she went on to conclude, with Oprah’s encouragement, that Kate’s unpleasant experience didn’t compare to her own.

As it happens, I find it rather telling that Meghan chose this particular example to illustrate media intrusion into Kate’s life. For when it comes to intrusion, is there anything more intrusive than the publication of photos, in the French press, of the Duchess of Cambridge topless? Unpleasant as it may be, it’s the simple truth that the world’s press is intensely interested in every aspect of the Royal family, and that they are interested in it because their readers — the public — want them to be.

That’s why Ian Murray was entirely right, as the head of a body representing editors, to push back against the unsubstantiated claims made by the Sussexes; to say that if high-profile figures such as Harry and Meghan are going to accuse the press of singling them out, let alone being racist in the process, then they should show proof.

In a reasonable age that would be a reasonable demand. And that was the only mistake Murray made: forgetting that this age is far from reasonable. The Society of Editors was soon targeted by the usual online activists and Murray was forced to resign, announcing that he had to “take the blame” for his initial statement. “While I do not agree the society’s statement was in any way intended to defend racism, I accept it could have been much clearer in its condemnation of bigotry and has clearly caused upset,” he said.

A new statement from the Murray-less board made the necessary confession, acknowledging that there is “a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion”. The society went on to promise that it “will reflect on the reaction our statement prompted and work towards being part of the solution.”

So another person finds themselves without a job and another institution bends towards the dogmatic orthodoxies of the time. There are ugly winds in the air. And with evidence and facts unable to save us, I fear Mr Murray’s scalp will not be the last.

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