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‘Open hostility’: an extraordinary episode in the Sussexes’ royal drama

Archie Bland
·5-min read
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AP
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AP

In another age, it is likely claims of bullying within the royal household would never have emerged into public view.

On Wednesday, they were not just publicised, but were the subject of an extraordinary conflict between the royal family and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – with the early-evening intervention from Buckingham Palace on Wednesday likely to ensure maximum prominence in Thursday’s newspapers.

While the nature of the incidents that led to the bullying claims against Meghan that emerged on Wednesday is hotly contested – and described by her lawyers as a “a wholly false narrative” – the palace’s on-the-record statement made the seriousness of the issue indisputable, and suggested it would not go away.

Related: Buckingham Palace to investigate bullying allegations against Meghan

If anything, it has upped the ante.

“I’ve covered the royals for a decade and I can’t remember a time when we’ve seen such open hostility,” said Victoria Murphy, a longtime royal correspondent formerly of the Daily Mirror.

The genesis of the story is not in dispute: the division that dragged such a painful matter into the open began years ago.

Watch: Meghan Markle interview - Duchess of Sussex accuses palace of ’perpetuating falsehoods in new Oprah clip

After Meghan and Harry married in 2018, they and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had a shared staff, serving both of their interests – and, for a while, spoke with a unified voice.

But a culture clash was quickly in evidence, said Omid Scobie, co-author of Finding Freedom, a well-sourced and sympathetic biography of Harry and Meghan.

Scobie said: “She has this American work ethic. We heard about 5am emails rubbing people up the wrong way, and some of that was briefed at the time.

“I would say that where we are today is the crescendo of that – and of people who are frustrated that they haven’t been able to share their side of the story.”

Also central to understanding the fallout from the story is the changing role of Jason Knauf, who handled media relations for both couples but, the Times reported, handed in his notice in 2018, a month after he made a complaint about Meghan’s alleged behaviour, claiming it had driven two personal assistants out of the household and had undermined a third member of staff.

The Times’s story drew a stinging response from the Sussexes.

“Let’s just call this what it is: a calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful information,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying.

Knauf is now chief executive of the Cambridges’ Royal Foundation, their primary charitable vehicle – a change in role that echoed a broader division between the two camps as relations soured.

Watch: Prince Harry opens up about Princess Diana’s death in exclusive interview with Oprah

One source close to the Sussexes reflected on Wednesday that as well as the difficulty of the tensions between the two sides for the families and the monarchy as an institution, an upsetting professional divide had also been thrown into public view.

In the short term, it has been suggested one explanation for the story’s emergence now could be the summary judgment in Meghan’s favour in her privacy and copyright case against Associated Newspapers, a legal victory which prevented a trial in which courtiers would have given evidence. A recent Sunday Times story suggested senior royal sources were “shocked” by the outcome.

All of those tensions are reflected in the language used on behalf of the Sussexes in the original story, including a response from their lawyers that the Times was “being used by Buckingham Palace to peddle a wholly false narrative”.

It is understood that some in the Sussexes’ camp now view that language as clumsy without evidence the palace itself was responsible for the leak – but stand by the fundamental claim that the emergence of the news now is the result of a coordinated attempt to undermine Meghan before next week’s interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Either way, few expect that a strongly worded legal letter would have been sent without the couple’s express agreement to the language. On the other side, said the former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt, it is unlikely that those around the Duke of Cambridge would brief the media without his consent, tacit or otherwise. “William in particular has his people on a very tight leash,” he said. “You remain a friend of his as long as you don’t say that which he would find disagreeable. And so when you do read these comments now they feel very believable.”

The allegations themselves are difficult – and legally contentious – for outsiders to parse. A source in the Sussexes’ camp said that they did not challenge the veracity of the emails or the reality of the specific experiences related in the story, but suggested that they had been framed in a way that presented an unfair picture.

Against that is the recollection of sources quoted in the original story, one of whom said: “There were a lot of broken people. Young women were broken by their behaviour.”

A wider question is why the allegations have arisen now, shortly before the Oprah interview. “They would argue that it is their attempt to ensure that when we sit down and watch, and if the programme doesn’t contain self-reflection, we are minded of the fact that their account may not be the whole truth,” said Hunt.

After this week’s excavation of a matter which is rooted, as well as in a potentially legitimate HR complaint, in a painful familial division, the comments given by Meghan and Harry in their Oprah interview will be watched more closely than ever.

And the war of words is unlikely to abate. “This is an institution that is meant to live by the motto ‘never complain, never explain’,” said Scobie. “But it spends its whole time complaining and explaining, and doing even more damage in the process.”

Watch: Princess Eugenie says she hopes her son will see world as place that can be changed