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Why didn't Harry and Meghan's race claim go straight to HR?

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·8-min read

Watch: Duchess of Sussex tells Oprah there were 'concerns' about Archie's skin colour and she contemplated suicide

Buckingham Palace's response to Meghan Markle's claims there were "concerns" about the colour of Archie's skin before he was born have raised questions when compared to public statement that was made after she was accused of bullying palace staff.

The Duchess of Sussex claimed in her high-profile interview with Oprah Winfrey that a member of the Royal Family had a conversation with her husband, Prince Harry, which expressed "concerns... about how dark his [Archie's] skin might be when he’s born".

Meghan added: "That was relayed to me from Harry, those were conversations the family had with him, and I think it was really hard to be able to see those as compartmentalised conversations."

Harry said: "That conversation, I am never going to share. At the time it was awkward, I was a bit shocked."

Two days after the interview, Buckingham Palace released a statement explicitly on behalf of the Queen that said: "The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately."

By contrast, when the duchess was accused of bullying two former royal aides out of their jobs, the palace said there would be an investigation launched by the HR team.

The statement, which was not made on behalf of the Queen, said: "Accordingly our HR team will look into the circumstances outlined in the article. Members of staff involved at the time, including those who have left the Household, will be invited to participate to see if lessons can be learned.

"The Royal Household has had a Dignity at Work policy in place for a number of years and does not and will not tolerate bullying or harassment in the workplace."

Why is there a difference between the two statements?

Some have said the two different statements are unfair – on the face of it, a formal investigation on one hand seems a less comprehensive response than a desire to deal with the matter "privately". The reasons for an investigation in one instance and not another could be to do with the people involved in each situation.

Harpers Bazaar royal editor Omid Scobie tweeted of the second statement: "A statement that took two days to put together, lacking the vim and vigour showcased last week when the Palace announced to every media organisation in the world that they would be conducting an HR investigation into bullying claims."

Barrister Dr Charlotte Proudman said: "The race allegations will be 'taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately'. Yet the allegations that Meghan bullied staff are to be subject to an investigation rather than 'addressed privately'. Hypocrisy."

However, there are some crucial differences that highlight the opaque, complex way in which the palace functions internally and creates a public perception of blurred lines of responsibility.

Whereas Harry's conversation was with a member of family, the people who spoke to The Times about alleged bullying – which Meghan denies – were former members of staff.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 10: An arrangement of UK daily newspapers shows front page headlines reporting Queen Elizabeth's respond over the interview given by the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle and her husband Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, to media mogul Oprah Winfrey about their experiences with Buckingham Palace, in London, United Kingdom on March 10, 2021. (Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
How the UK papers reacted to the Queen's response to the Harry and Meghan interview. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Read more: 'History repeating itself': The striking similarities between Meghan and Diana

That means, according to the way the Palace is set up, the difference in reply is likely to come down to the suitability of departments that would look after each issue. A member of the HR team is unlikely to intervene in a personal conversation between two members of the family.

Reflecting on the statement, former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt told Radio 4 that senior people "knew they were in a hole" after the programme aired in the US, but it took them several hours to issue those words.

He said: "With each passing hour the expectation grew as to what might be in that statement and the risk of it being a failure grew.

"They wanted to do the bare minimum. In my judgment, it was too little, too late."

He added: "They have cast it all within the issue of a family, they've done that so they can deal with it privately, they have acknowledged that race was concerning but it doesn't contain any condemnation of racism.

"If a comparable allegation was made against the BBC the institution would say 'we abhor racism', they have avoided that by putting it in a family but they are not just a private family – this is the institution that provides the head of state for the multicultural UK, 15 other countries and the Commonwealth representing more than two billion people.

"Go back just one week to allegations of [bullying] against Meghan which she denies, and they said the 'Royal Household does not and will not tolerate bullying or harassment'."

Watch: How Are People Reacting to the Harry and Meghan Interview?

Read more: Friend of Meghan Markle claims texts will prove she's not a bully – and insists she didn't plan to 'nuke royals'

The warring palaces

Hunt, who now works in the NHS, said it was "crucial" to understand the differences in relation to the "warring palaces" which he says brief against one another.

There may be one overall Royal Family, but the Queen and her work is dealt with by Buckingham Palace, while Prince Charles and Camilla and their work is dealt with by Clarence House. Kensington Palace looks after Prince William and Kate, but cross-palace statements are often made by Buckingham Palace.

Hunt said: "A lot goes back to a couple years ago when they got rid of senior official Christopher Giedt, he made a key attempt to unify these warring palaces, he lost out in a palace coup.

"Since that time you have had these palaces briefing against each other.

"In the compiling of those 61 words, you will have had three dominant forces, two really, the people around the Queen and the people around prince Charles."

He said the Queen is kept in her "comfort zone" by her current advisers, but the best ones previously have taken her out of that.

Lord Geidt was the Queen's private secretary for 10 years but was reported to have been "forced out" in 2017.

He was said to have the ability to "knock heads together" and has been described as "straight talking".

His departure has been called the Queen's biggest mistake of recent years, though he did return as one of her permanent Lord-in-waitings in 2020.

The Duchess of Sussex is greeted by Lord Geidt, former Private Secretary to Queen Elizabeth II and The Queen's Commonwealth Trust chairman, as she arrives for a panel discussion convened by The Queen's Commonwealth Trust to mark International Women's Day at King's College in London. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Duchess of Sussex with Lord Geidt, former Private Secretary to the Queen. (PA Images)

Read more: Meghan Markle compares privacy to putting a family photo on work desk

Each royal household will have dozens of staff who work in various aspects of royal life, like managing diaries, responding to press queries and sending information to the press.

The senior aide is called the private secretary, and the Queen's is currently Sir Edward Young. He deals with requests which are for the Queen herself.

As well as him, there's a Lord Chamberlain, currently Earl Peel, who acts as a sort of chief of staff, managing the Royal Household and its departments.

There will be similar structures in all the royal households, and of course, plenty of butlers, cleaners and other staff.

The size of the organisation may also explain how long the statement took to put together and how many people are affected by it.

Will there be an investigation into the skin conversation?

It's unlikely there will be an inquiry into the conversation that Harry and Meghan spoke about. In the statement made by the palace, there was no denial that such a conversation took place, though it pointedly stated that "recollections may vary".

A source told The Times nearly all the issues raised were "about family matters" saying "therefore it is for the family to deal with them".

There have been reports the Queen is going to personally quiz other members of the family about the conversation.

The low likelihood of a formal inquiry won't stop calls for one.

Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy told Radio 4: "There should be a public condemnation of racism. They did it with bullying, why would they not do it with racism? The Queen’s response was the least that could happen.

"The Sussexes went to great lengths to make the point that the Queen was not the issue. There needs to be a response from the institution. The monarchy is a public institution that receives public money and any criticism of the institution should really be met with a forceful response from the institution about what they are going to do."

The results of the investigation which the palace called after Meghan was accused of bullying won't be known for some time, as they will appear in the annual sovereign grant report which comes out in September each year.