A Royal Conflict: Buckingham Palace vs. Hollywood

It is an ironic twist of history that two American women should have been the cause of political crises in Britain and led to concern that they might affect the powers and even the very existence of the monarchy. In the 1930s, the Prince of Wales, to become Edward VIII, fell in love with Wallis Simpson while she was still married to someone else. In his chatty diaries, Henry “Chips” Channon wrote on December 5, 1936 that “the King, like the poor Tsar and Louis XVI will listen to no advice and is running straight to his doom.”

Eighty years later, another playful prince, Harry, fell in love with Meghan Markle, who is determined, as she sees it, to “keep striving to set an example for doing what is right and what is good.” Though her main complaint has been of lack of support from the Royal Family, lack of respect, and even of some “plotting” her downfall, the Duchess of Sussex has benefited from a lavish lifestyle and public funding including a wedding that cost $42 million in 2018.        

There is of course no exact comparison between the two women, one a socialite and the other a biracial, moderately successful actress. Both left Britain for different reason -- the Duchess of Windsor for Canada and Europe, and the Duchess of Sussex for Canada and California. Yet despite the differences, the fear is that Sussex may be as destructive as Windsor. 

Skirmishes and heated exchanges have been occurring during the last year, but a more pointed war is now escalating between the rival powers in London and Los Angeles, starting with an event expected to be explosive.  On Sunday, March 10, 2021 a highly anticipated two-hour program is to be broadcast on “CBS Primetime Special.” Oprah Winfrey will interview Prince Harry, still Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, still Duchess of Sussex, sitting in a garden in California in the sunlight, not in the London lockdown in winter. Winfrey is a recent but now close friend and neighbor of Sussex and had attended their wedding. Some fear the interview will be the latest version of the “American Horror Story.”  It certainly appears at an inopportune moment, since Philip, Duke of Edinburgh had a procedure for a pre-existing heart condition on March 3 and remains in hospital. 

Prince Harry is a complex man, seemingly with a strong sense of natural justice and capable of acts of compassion, but also prone to unpredictable behavior and actions that suggest self-destruction and self-pity. It is likely that he still blames the Palace and the media for the death of his mother Diana. Little except snippets has yet been revealed of the contents of the interview, but Harry has informed us that he is happy to be speaking with his wife by his side. Without precision, he asserted that “it’s been unbelievably tough for the two of us, but at least we have each other.” Equally puzzling is his explanation of why exactly he left his royal duties in the UK: “It was never walking away. It was stepping back, rather than stepping down.” 

Harry has acknowledged his mental health problems after the death of his mother, and the difficulty of growing up in the media spotlight. It may be false psychanalysis to suggest that Harry has been looking for a substitute for his mother, but he has compared his own problem with the fate of Diana all those years ago.  Indeed, the Winfrey interview can be seen as akin to the infamous bombshell program on November 20, 1995 when a journalist Martin Bashir interviewed the emotionally fragile Diana.

She spoke of her problems, eating disorders, media attention that led to a lot of jealousy and complicated situations, but above all of the hostility of the Palace toward her and the unhappiness of her marriage. Her frank words, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” led to Queen Elizabeth insisting on divorce. 

Will the Winfrey interview be as potent as Diana’s? For some, the story of Megan, Duchess of Sussex, is comparable to that of Diana, who was stripped of her title after the divorce in 1996, as has Meghan, who has also lost the two royal patronages she had  been given, though she is still a Duchess. Megan has accused the Royal Family of perpetrating falsehoods and held that the Times of London was being used by Buckingham Palace to peddle a wholly false narrative based on harmful misinformation. This being the case, “I don’t know how people would expect we would still just be silent if there is an active role that the Firm is playing in perpetrating falsehoods about us.” 

Whatever else might be said of Markle, no one can fault her for previous “silence” or believe she has been censored. On the contrary, she has been articulate in expressing her views and has mastered the art of backing into the limelight. Megan used the term “the Firm” in speaking of the Royal Family. This term was coined by Prince Philip, in jocular fashion, on his marriage to Elizabeth. But since then, it has had negative Mafia-like connotations. It is unclear whether Meghan’s use of the term  refers  to the monarchy, Buckingham Palace, what she calls the men and women in “gray suits,” or to particular individuals. 

The Sussex duo faces counter-allegations of improper behavior and criticism of her lavish lifestyle since marriage, which includes wearing at a dinner in Fiji diamond earrings which were a wedding gift from Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, MBS. 

The criticism of behavior is largely based on an email written in October 2018  by Jason Knauf, then communications secretary  to Sussex and now chief executive of the Royal Foundation, a charitable group,  to  Simon Case, then private secretary to Prince William, and now head of the British civil service. Knauf wrote, “I am very concerned that the Duchess was able to bully two PAs out of the household in the past year. The treatment of X (name redacted) was totally unacceptable.”

No investigation took place at that time, and Harry was pleased that Knauf was not pursuing the matter. But the situation changed as Knauf, like others, became aware that the Sussexes have accused almost  everyone with whom they have come in contact of leaking  false stories, and were bullying their staff. Knauf, an American from Texas who had worked as a crisis management expert for the Royal Bank of Scotland, commented that the Duchess seemed intent “on always  having someone in her sights.” Simon Case, at 41 the youngest head of the civil service, left the intrigues of Palace politics for the quiet bliss of cabinet discussions. The  Knauf memo was leaked to the Times, which published an article with the gist of the allegations. 

The Duchess retorted to the bombshell email by calling it “a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful information.” But the Palace was very concerned about the allegations and said it would look into the matter and would invite those who left the Sussex household to participate. The Royal Family has a Dignity of Work policy and does not and will not tolerate bullying or harassment in the workplace.

These allegations now require examination. The charge is that it is the former staff who are the victims, and at least ten of them are  preparing to testify.  Those former aides are members of the Sussex Survivors Club, all of whom worked for Sussex, and claim to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. A number of women have  been mentioned, including Sara Latham, who formerly worked for presidents Clinton and Obama and now advises the Queen on projects; Samantha Cohen, private secretary  to Sussex; Samantha Carruthers, who previously worked for De Beers and Lazard bank and now works for media executive Elizabeth Murdoch, and Melissa Touabti, a Frenchwoman who once worked for Madonna and had played an important role in the Sussex wedding in May 2018 but quit after six months. 

The question is open. Did the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who are not likely to return to UK as working royals, bully their staff?

Image: Sodacan