It was billed as a behind-the-scenes look at their recent royal tour in southern Africa. Instead the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s documentary confirmed what many had suspected for quite some time: a rift within the royal family.
The documentary, which aired last Sunday night in the UK, saw Harry and Meghan reveal how they have been handling their royal duties amid intense media scrutiny.
In one candid chat with ITV reporter Tom Bradby, the duchess revealed that her British friends had actually warned her against marrying the prince. Barely holding back tears, the new mom also admitted the year since she joined the royal family had been difficult to cope with.
But it was the duke’s remarks that started a chain reaction of royal family drama played out in tit-for-tat briefings from royal insiders and unseen in British newspapers since the Diana years.
“We are certainly on different paths at the moment, but I will always be there for him, and as I know he will always be there for me,” Harry said when asked about media speculation of an estrangement with his older brother, William.
The pair had spoken of untruths being published about them and in some ways their participation in the documentary could be seen as them cutting out the media middleman and speaking directly to the public. The unorthodox approach resonated with thousands who took to social media and praised them as genuine, honest and vulnerable. But the pair also faced criticism for their openness.
Peter Westmacott, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Prince Charles and Princess Diana in the early 90s, told CNN’s Max Foster of his surprise that clips from the program were released when the royals would have wanted the media’s attention to be focused on another royal tour.
“I thought it was a little surprising that the clips were broadcast while Harry’s older brother, the Duke of Cambridge, and his wife were doing an official visit very successfully to Pakistan,” Westmacott said before adding that the program itself as “very touching.”
“I thought it was very human. It was very touching to see just how they are affected by the strains and stresses of the royal role. As you know I experienced a bit of that during my own time when I had a supporting role with the royal family 20-odd years ago. It is very painful,” he continued.
“I thought what came through was a very genuine, very loving young couple, working hard to make the best of a pretty difficult road.”
Royal biographer Penny Junor said the duke needed to focus on his work.
“He’s got to stop feeling sorry for himself and look at the positives – shut out the criticism, just ignore it as his father has done, and get on with the work, get on with the job,” Junor told PA news agency.
“The royal family has always in the past very successfully pursued this policy of keeping their head down and saying nothing,” she added.
And that is usually where the coverage would have started to wind down. Traditionally the royal family prefer actions to speak louder than words – a move favored by the Queen – and so it was assumed that without a rebuttal from Prince William speculation would fizzle out and the news cycle would move on.
Except that wasn’t what happened.
By Monday night, word had leaked that the Duke of Cambridge was reportedly “worried” about his brother. Rather than suggest the future sovereign was angry at Harry, a palace insider told the BBC that “there was a view the couple were ‘in a fragile place.’”
Cue an explosion of coverage in the British media on Tuesday. “Palace fears for Harry and Meghan” read a headline in one newspaper while “William fears for ‘fragile’ Harry” was printed at the top of another.
The rhetoric continued to escalate on Wednesday when a source close to the Sussexes told CNN’s Max Foster that parts of the media were turning brotherly concern from Prince William for Prince Harry into hysteria.
The source added that the institution around the British royal family was full of people afraid of and inexperienced at how to best help harness and deploy the value of the royal couple whom, they said, have single-handedly modernized the monarchy.
These claims that Harry and Meghan – rather than the Queen – have modernized the monarchy were not received well. The royal row had moved from Harry versus William to Harry versus the rest of the institution.
Royal sources told the Sun Prince Charles was “furious” at the situation and how it had overshadowed his work in Japan this week and a separate documentary about his work in the UK.
BBC Royal Correspondent Jonny Dymond possibly best summed up the situation, writing: “Briefing wars are rarely won. They trudge humiliatingly on, each side dipping a little lower with every response. And the Monarchy dips with them. The echoes of the unhappy Diana-Charles years are loud, and getting louder.”
For now, the leaks from palace insiders appear to have abated – perhaps an indication that discussions are taking place internally, rather than being played out in the public sphere.
Amid the media furor, Meghan appeared unfazed as she continued engagements this week. On Tuesday she attended the One Young World Summit opening ceremony in London on Tuesday and closed out the week by chairing a gender equality discussion at Windsor Castle on Friday.
While Harry did make a surprise appearance at the second event, all eyes will undoubtedly be on the lookout for when the two couples next make an appearance together. Until then, speculation will continue to grow.
CNN’s Max Foster contributed to this report.