Meghan and Prince Harry’s Oprah Interview Will Shake U.K. to Its Core

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There are some things you just don’t do on British television, and slamming the Royal Family tops the list. But in the course of two momentous hours, an unwritten, invisible code of conduct that quietly permeates most Royal-centric programming in the U.K. came crashing down.

“Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A Primetime Special” aired on “Love Island” broadcaster ITV at 9 p.m. on Monday night, almost a full 24 hours after the CBS broadcast in the U.S. And though the bombshell interview had already detonated across the pond, you couldn’t not watch. It was the interview many in this country have been anticipating — maybe even dreading — for years.

The sit-down would never have been commissioned by a British broadcaster because the Royal Family would have never allowed it. It was always going to come from the U.S., and the shiny spectacle of it — Oprah! A back yard from ‘Cribs’! The chickens! “Hydrate”! — was an incredible sight, plonked squarely in ITV’s weekday primetime schedule, all to the tune of a reported £1 million ($1.4 million), according to our sources.

Markle’s simmering anger about her treatment in the U.K. was palpable — a key nuance that the clips released in advance by CBS didn’t necessarily convey — and added a dimension to the interview that will likely stay with many Britons for some time to come. “Behind the scenes, you couldn’t have known,” said correspondent Rebecca Barry of Markle’s anguish in an ITV news package that immediately followed the Monday night broadcast.

Couldn’t we, though? We all saw the same nefarious headlines and tabloid coverage, day in and day out. We all watched Markle’s eyes stinging with tears when journalist Tom Bradby asked if she was “okay” in the documentary about their South Africa tour. Masterfully interviewed by friend and neighbour Oprah Winfrey, Markle didn’t just spill the tea — she smashed the fine china.

A glance at the front pages of the papers on Tuesday tells you all you need to know about the U.K.’s response to one of the biggest national indignities in decades. A scandalized Daily Mail asks “What Have They Done?” billed as part of a “Royal Crisis Special” while the Daily Mirror spouts “Worst Royal Crisis in 85 Years,” reporting of a “palace in meltdown.” A column by Allison Pearson runs below the fold on the Daily Telegraph: “They may claim to respect her, but this is a devastating insult to the Queen,” reads the headline. Over at tabloid Daily Star, it’s sheer folly: “Our telly broke at 8:59pm last night. Did we miss anything?”

Then consider a snap poll conducted by British market research and data analytics firm YouGov, which revealed on Monday that 47% of the public felt the interview was “inappropriate” (21% felt it was appropriate and 31% were neutral). It’s worth noting, too, that of those who felt this way, 71% were Brexit supporters while 37% were remainers.

They’re not wrong: Winfrey’s interview was inappropriate — but spectacularly so. To see a British prince on an American network, confronting his privilege and airing his troubles, knowing full well that this primetime special will be sold far and wide across the Commonwealth nations his beloved grandmother, the Queen, holds so dear, is virtually unthinkable.

There’s also a sad precedent: Diana. For many, there’s an uncomfortable feeling of déja-vû. Diana’s explosive “three of us in the marriage” interview with Martin Bashir in 1995 remains one of the country’s most historic TV moments, and her self-branding as “the Queen of People’s Hearts” did exactly that. But Diana already had public opinion in her corner back then. And despite recent investigations into Bashir’s means of scoring the interview, the BBC was the country’s own turf. Similarly, Prince Andrew’s public image appeared to implode in real time in late 2019, but even then it was on the BBC’s Newsnight program.

This time around, the hurt could be a little deeper. It was hard for the U.K. to accept that one of their own fled to the U.S. And now, for American media to be controlling the narrative? Impossible.

But could it be that maybe Britain’s seen the light here? Twitter, from what I saw, was a surprisingly positive place when the interview was airing on ITV. Yes, jaws may have been on the floor as the mystique of the Royal Family was swiftly annihilated in one fell swoop from a sunny garden in California, but the empathy for Markle’s heartrending discussion of her mental health turmoil was something to be proud of.

On Tuesday, Good Morning Britain presenter Alex Beresford gave co-host Piers Morgan, who questioned Markle’s claims of having suicidal thoughts on Monday, a dressing down live on air, describing his behavior as “diabolical” and noting that Markle was “entitled” to cut Morgan off as a friend if she wanted to. The outspoken Morgan — who recently faced bullying allegations following an online spat with a popular mental health campaigner — actually fled the studio in response.

All eyes now are firmly on Buckingham Palace and exactly how the “Firm” will respond, or not, to Markle and Prince Harry’s allegations of racism. Whatever happens, the Royal Family will endure as it’s always endured — “Never complain, never explain,” is understood to be the Queen’s motto — but how Britons meet this particular moment will be watched the world over.