Since her elevation to and then abrupt departure from the royal family, the Duchess of Sussex has been busy by anyone's standards. She and her husband have signed up with a speaking agency, concluded a deal with Netflix and launched a production company, Archewell Audio, to supply Spotify with content. As a couple they have certainly leveraged their star power to attract blue-chip partnerships.
Rumbling alongside this arc of success has been a long-running legal dispute with Associated Newspapers. The case is relatively straightforward: the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline published a letter from the duchess to her father, Thomas Markle, and she claimed this was an infringement of copyright and an invasion of her privacy. The High Court found in her favour but in June the case was cleared to go to the Court of Appeal and is currently being heard.
Only the most slavish and starry-eyed devotee of the duchess would dispute that she seeks, understandably, to control her image very carefully. It is hardly a reasonable or unexpected desire: she is an actress, of limited range but considerable commercial success, and she is quite aware that such success has been built not merely on her dramatic skills but on her overall persona.
The duchess's suit against Associated Newspapers fell on sympathetic ears in many quarters. More than 70 female MPs wrote an open letter condemning her harsh treatment in the media, especially the undoubted and unpleasant racial undertones to some commentary, and even the Sun was compelled to say that one of its reporters had been carefully instructed to "act lawfully" in reporting on the Sussexes.
Now, however, the case has reflected a rather different duchess. The Sussexes' former communications secretary, Jason Knauf, has revealed that the letter the duchess wrote to her father was crafted painstakingly with a view to its probable leaking. She texted Knauf "Obviously everything I have drafted is with the understanding that it could be leaked, so I have been meticulous in my word choice."
That is no crime: the duchess knows her father, knows his desperate craving for attention and will have known that he was likely to divulge the contents of the letter to the media. But a queasiness remains at the idea of her wondering whether to open with "Daddy" and pondering the likely effect on the "heartstrings" of public opinion.
More troubling is the issue of the recent biography of the couple, a sickly and soapy affair entitled Finding Freedom . It was written by Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, regulars on the gossipy yet fawning royal circuit. Despite its intimate details, the Sussexes initially denied that they had had any involvement with the book. Now, the duchess has had her memory "jogged" by further courtroom revelations.
According to Jason Knauf, the book was "discussed on a routine basis" in the Sussex household, and the duchess prepared briefing points for the authors on delicate subjects like her childhood and her relationship with her half-siblings. When asked why she denied any contact with Scobie and Durand during the High Court case, the duchess blamed a lapse of memory and reminded the court that she had been pregnant and under considerable stress.
Does any of this matter? Constitutionally and politically, no. As far as the working members of the royal family are concerned, Meghan and Harry are a sideshow: annoying and embarrassing, perhaps, but of limited influence. But their activities do speak to the creeping commodification of public life. The couple withdrew from active royal duties because they disliked press intrusion and the glare of publicity. Yet since that withdrawal they have embarked on a number of very public (and often commercial) engagements.
One comes rather to the conclusion that the Sussexes objected to the nature of the public scrutiny to which they were subjected. They wanted—want—to control the narrative and portray themselves in the best possible light. This is hardly a capital crime. What unsettles some, however, is the sour whiff of sanctimony with which it is being done.
The evidence from the Court of Appeal has confirmed what many already believed to be true: that the Duchess of Sussex might be a shrewd and determined media operator who will take any available opportunity to spin events to her own advantage. Hard-nosed determination is not a vice, but in Britain, at least, many prefer it not to come illuminated by a do-it-yourself halo.
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