A royal correspondent gives her take on the ”vitriol” in the press about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex

Juliet Rieden describes recent press about the Duchess of Sussex as vicious and says the feud between Meghan and the Duchess of Cambridge is fabricated.
Meghan Markle in snow Duchess of Sussex

A few weeks back, the Duchess of Sussex, heavily pregnant and smiling from ear to ear, made a special stop with husband Prince Harry on their chilly day-trip to Bristol in England’s south-west.

With snowflakes falling around them, the royal duo visited one of the vans of charity One25, which drives around the city handing out food, blankets, condoms and comfort to women trapped in street sex-work.

The schedule released in advance to me and other royal correspondents had asked for this part of the day to be kept under embargo. The charity had wanted to protect the anonymity of the women and keep it secret. But what happened there hit headlines around the world.

Meghan lends a hand packing care packages at charity One25 Image: Getty Images

As Meghan watched charity workers assemble meal bags, she had a light-bulb moment. The young royal asked for a marker pen and started writing affirmations on the skins of bananas in the parcels.

“I am in charge of the banana messaging,” she announced, excited as she penned: “You are loved”, “You are brave”, “You are strong”, “You are special”, annotating her messages with love hearts.

It was impromptu, simple and straight from the heart, which I can attest – having followed Meghan around Australia, Fiji and Tonga – is the same instinctual response that has been her modus operandi to date in the bizarre royal arena she has been catapulted into.

Following the spontaneous gesture, which the charity’s staff and the women who use the service said was “amazing”, social media kicked in.

An overwhelming number of comments poured praise on the Duchess, finding her actions touching and inspirational, but then there was a small hard core of vitriol that cranked into action.

Meghan has come under fire recently for writing encouraging messages to sex workers on bananas, as well as serving avocado on toast to her make-up artist.

Meghan thankfully is strong and brave and loved, because if she ever paused to look at this cauldron of bile she would wonder what on earth she has let herself in for as the newest addition to the Royal Firm.

Earlier in the year, the Duchess was the subject of an unheralded outpouring of scorn when her friend, celebrity make-up artist Daniel Martin, revealed on his social media that Meghan had served him avocado toast.

Suddenly the environmental wrongs of the global avocado industry were all blamed on the unwitting royal. With smashed avocado on menus in every hipster breakfast bar around the nation, this felt like a kind of madness.

But since Prince Harry first announced his intention to marry the American actress in November 2017, such commentary has become a frustrating sideshow to their story.

Mostly it bubbles in the more unseemly corners of social media, but at times it has jumped into the mainstream, as happened some months ago when a supposed feud between Meghan and her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, became the created topic du jour in gossip magazines around the globe.

There were no facts, no on-the-record named commentators, just innuendo and supposition, based on unrelated happenings inside the royal court.

The departure of a long-term aide, who had actually announced her intention to leave months before and was staying on as a favour, was blown into an example of internal ructions, while Meghan’s strength of personality and strong work ethic – she was reportedly texting staff out of hours – was construed as a bad thing.

In the background, social media trolls grouped together in camps of Team Kate and Team Meghan, with hashtags like #Megxit and #CharlatanDuchess pitching the two women against each other. Apparently the two Windsor wives were at each other’s throats.

The very idea that Prince Harry would choose to move his new family into their own house – Frogmore Cottage in Windsor – away from Kensington Palace in London was interpreted as a rift between the duchesses.

It was all wild conjecture, desperately intrusive and threatening to overshadow the impressive work all four young royals were pursuing.

But the comments, which don’t deserve quoting here (or anywhere), make for very uncomfortable reading and beg the question: what on earth is going on?

Kate and Meghan’s fake feud mirrors that of Sarah Ferguson and Princess Diana.

In some ways, perennial royal followers may feel they’ve seen it all before in the 1980s with Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson. Back then, the tabloids loved to set the sisters-in-law against each other. But this feels different; it’s more callous and vicious.

“If it is more prevalent than it was in the days of the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York, it is only because there is a platform on which people can air their views – and get into rows with each other,” explains The Times newspaper’s royal correspondent, Valentine Low.

“In the old days people just had to keep their opinions to themselves or, if they did have to share, it was only their friends who got to hear about it. Now every nutcase has got an audience of millions.”

Kensington Palace is doing everything it can and recent reports have suggested they are a little rattled by this nasty turn of events.

The official royal social media sites are well used by fans; the Kensington Palace Instagram site alone has more than seven million followers. Here you can follow every cough and sniff of the official royal day with behind-the-scenes photos and commentary created by the Palace.

It’s on-message Palace propaganda but it also offers fans superior access and is very popular. While user comments are generally not deleted, meaning criticism is allowed, there is a line in the sand.

The Palace uses both manual and automatic tools for monitoring its social media accounts. Abusive, racist, sexist or violent comments or messages are reported and deleted, and users are encouraged to report any abusive comments or messages.

Royal staff monitor comments on a very regular basis and increasingly this is taking more time, and while I understand the vast majority of comments are thoughtful and positive, it only takes a couple of people to turn the tone of the conversation to a very negative place.

“There has always been an undercurrent of negative commentary about both women, but it became a lot more noticeable around the reports about their so-called feud,” muses Valentine Low.

“Both duchesses have their champions and their critics, but there is nothing that some people like more than setting up two women in opposition to each other, regardless of what their relationship is really like. It’s the catfight syndrome.”

The Fab Four will maintain their united front while nasty online comments continue against Meghan.

Carolyn Durand, an American journalist and royal reporter who’s been based in London since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, agrees.

“Sadly, I think that society loves to perpetuate the narrative of two women in a catfight whether there’s any merit to it or not. If

a man texted his staff out of hours, or was hardworking, he wouldn’t be deemed difficult. He’d be complimented for his work ethic and drive. There’s a real double standard.

“Meghan and Kate are being judged on their clothes, their hair, and sometimes their very important humanitarian work can be completely eclipsed. But has it surprised me that a Hollywood actress marrying into the royal family has provoked this type

of reaction? Not at all,” she adds.

Talking to the tight-knit group of correspondents who have all followed the monarchy for years, there is a consensus that much of the negative commentary – which comes from a tiny if vocal minority – is driven by unguarded envy.

Perhaps the fact that both women were commoners who managed to nail a prince is part of the problem, but I suspect there’s also

an element of tall poppy syndrome, pulling down those deemed to have risen above their station. But while it may feel like harmless schoolyard bitchiness, in Meghan’s case that envy has also opened the door to ugly racism.

Image: Getty Images

Over at the UK’s Hello! magazine, where royal stories are a key part of its weekly serving, royal editor Emily Nash decided enough was enough and together with the rest of the team came up with a kindness campaign, launched last month.

This, they hope, will inject some much-needed decency into what has escalated into a distasteful and shameful problem.

“We came up with the #hellotokindness campaign after noticing a 50 per cent increase in abusive comments being left on our social media channels under posts on Kate or Meghan,” she tells me.

“Users were leaving sexist, racist and other abusive messages directed at the Duchesses or at each other. Kate fans were targeting Meghan fans and vice versa.

“We pride ourselves on our positive coverage and we know from surveys that this is important for our readers. We make a point of not pitting women against each other and we wanted our social media channels to reflect that. So we decided to take a stand and urge people to think before they post: Is it helpful? Is it kind? Would you say it in real life?”

The campaign will certainly find support inside the walls of Kensington Palace, but the issue isn’t just based in social media, with many online sites also fuelling sexism and conflict.

“Clickbait stories along the lines of ‘Who wore it best…’ or stoking reports of an ongoing feud between the Duchesses are certainly feeding into the woman versus woman narrative,” says Emily.

“No one is writing this kind of thing about the two Dukes and generally men are not written about in the same way in the media. A lot of publications can do better when it comes to coverage of women in the public eye, but individuals should take responsibility for their own posts online, too.”

Online comments have been particularly cruel about Meghan cradling her growing baby bump. Image: Getty Images

One incredulous trend currently is to criticise Meghan for the way she lovingly cradles her pregnant belly in public.

“Everyone is talking about Meghan touching her bump,” says Emily.

Whenever the 37-year-old Duchess is photographed, her natural protective body language is callously attacked by this cackling minority.

Some tweet that the Duchess is “showing off” and others engage in nasty online bickering suggesting such behaviour – echoed by many pregnant women – is somehow “repellent”.

“When it comes to social media trolls, I think there is a degree of envy, a degree of classism and snobbery, and also racism, when it comes to Meghan in particular,” explains Emily.

The magazine’s kindness campaign, Emily stresses, isn’t about going soft on the royals or hiding the truth – it’s about refocusing on the real stories that have a genuine basis.

“People will have an opinion on anyone in the public eye and members of the royal family have always been held to account, when necessary, by the press. But the intense scrutiny on Kate and Meghan often relates to their looks and mannerisms, rather than just how they conduct themselves in their roles. And social media means everyone now has a voice. Any perceived slip-up by them is instantly made public and debated across the globe, and some websites are using this commentary as the basis of stories.”

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their wedding day, May 19, 2018. Image: Getty Images

Alan Jones, long-term royal correspondent with the Press Association, feels that while it’s easy to assume racism is at play here, jealousy is the overriding emotion driving the narrative.

“Meghan is something new, she is a mixed-race American, with strong views on issues like gender politics, and some people do not like that. A minority in the world of social media may be motivated by racism, I think, but most are not. They may simply be jealous and use the anonymity the internet gives them to attack her.

“Some columnists have used the supposed spat between the two Duchesses to speak out in favour of Meghan, saying a strong-willed woman who has ruffled a few feathers is a good thing for the royal family,” he explains.

“Really negative commentary is something to be found on social media, where people are fiercely wedded to what they think a royal should be, and how they should act, or loyal fans of Kate who feel it’s their duty to hit back.”

Image: Getty Images

But Carolyn Durand believes “there’s more veiled racism in the UK” and Meghan is feeling its heat.

“The then UK Foreign Secretary’s sister, Rachel Johnson, made snide comments about Meghan’s ‘rich and exotic DNA’. She went on to describe Meghan’s graceful mother Doria as ‘a dreadlocked African-American lady from the wrong side of the tracks’. That simply wouldn’t happen in the United States. It’s unacceptable, despicable and inappropriate. An editor would be fired. Why people feel it’s acceptable in the UK is astounding to me. It’s race baiting at its worst,” she says.

“But I don’t attribute all of it to race. I think Meghan’s humble background, everything she’s accomplished educationally and professionally, would be celebrated in the US, where in the UK, from some facets of the public, it’s been used as a means to attack her because she’s not from a more affluent background or the aristocracy…

Mrs Obama probably said it most eloquently describing the challenges she experienced: ‘What happens to black women is that we become a caricature. People will literally take our voices, they will take the things from us that they like, the size of our hips, our style, our swag, it becomes co-opted but then we are demonised. We are angry, we are too loud, we are too everything and I experienced that, just campaigning, just speaking truth to power, how dare I have a voice and use it?'”

In the end, Meghan’s voice will be the winner here and if it does not silence the trolls, it will certainly drown them out… because as she wrote on those bananas, she is brave and she is loved.

As for Kate, she will be Queen one day.

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