LONDON — For weeks, British newspapers speculated feverishly about who would be most damaged by the claims of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, in a much-anticipated six-part documentary series that premiered Thursday on Netflix.
Turns out to be the papers themselves.
At least in the first three available episodes of “Harry & Meghan,” the greatest villains are not members of the British royal family, as many expected, but London’s newspaper publishers, whom the couple accuse of hounding them, especially Meghan, out of remorseless greed and scarcely concealed racism.
“This has always been so much bigger than us,” Harry says of the poisonous tensions that led the couple to break with the House of Windsor in 2020 and move to Southern California. “We know the full truth. The institution knows the full truth and the media knows the full truth because they’ve been in on it.”
Not only in on it, Harry seemed to suggest, but also primarily responsible for it. Again and again, “Harry & Meghan” returns to the culpability of the news media, which he said stalked his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, to her death and then turned its gimlet-eyed gaze on his new wife, an American-born biracial actress.
There was vivid old footage of Diana’s pleading with photographers to leave her boys alone during a ski vacation. There was fresh video of Harry and Meghan being driven through Manhattan, peering nervously out the windows of their S.U.V. for paparazzi pursuing them as they had once pursued his mother.
There was also a sense of how carefully the couple choreographed their new lives, from the selfie videos they recorded just after the split with the family to the texts they exchanged in the early bloom of their romance.
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The newspapers reacted with predictable scorn. “Netfibs,” declared Rupert Murdoch’s Sun on its website, pointing out supposed inconsistencies in their story. The Times of London said, “William and Kate can breathe easy — for now, it’s all the media’s fault.”
“Palace Fury at Megflix,” The Daily Mail said, though just how choleric the royal family was is open to debate. The Daily Express claimed the family was breathing a “huge sigh of relief as Harry and Meghan’s Netflix show backfires.”
Buckingham Palace had no public response to the film; a palace official claimed that the filmmakers did not reach out to King Charles, Prince William or any other member of the royal family for comment. That contradicted an onscreen message at the start of the first episode, which said, “Members of the Royal Family declined to comment on the content within the series.”
An executive at Netflix said the filmmakers contacted communications representatives for Charles and William. The palace’s claim got shakier when officials there later acknowledged receiving emails from a someone with a production company. Unable to verify that person’s identity, they did not respond, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in keeping with palace protocol.
The sniping was a sideshow, given that the first episodes of “Harry & Meghan” touch only glancingly on the behavior of the royal family (the last three episodes will stream next Thursday and are likely to be more focused on the family since they will cover the couple’s rancorous split from the rest of the royals).
Meghan described her first meeting with William and Catherine as stiff and formal, something she initially chalked up to the British character. Harry said family members were unsympathetic to the unsparing attention Meghan got from the tabloids after she began dating him.
“The difference here is the race element,” he said.
For now, the series may widen the rift between the couple and parts of the country rather than between them and the royal family. “Harry & Meghan” offers an unsparing look at Britain’s colonial and slave-trading past. Two prominent Black British commentators who appear in the film, David Olusoga and Afua Hirsch, said that legacy inevitably colored the reception that Meghan got in the news media.
To some, that was a worthwhile and overdue discussion. But others complained that it caricatured recent developments like Brexit, unfairly implying that millions of Britons were motivated by racism. As it happens, ordinary Britons whose clips were used in the series almost uniformly praised Meghan’s entry into the royal family as a blow for racial diversity and a modernizing force for an ancient institution.
Still, there is no question the popularity of the couple, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, has withered in Britain since their bitter rupture with the royal family and departure from the country. Once the most popular members of the family after Queen Elizabeth II, they now routinely rank at the bottom in public opinion polls.
Much of that may be because of the drumbeat of negative coverage the couple receive in the news media. The broadcaster and former tabloid editor Piers Morgan has been particularly vitriolic, at one point accusing Meghan of dishonesty in saying that callous treatment at the hands of the royal family had driven her to thoughts of suicide — statements she made in a now-famous interview she and Harry gave to Oprah Winfrey last year.
Mr. Morgan was then forced to step down from his ITV show, “Good Morning Britain,” after he stormed off the set following a dispute with a co-host over his allegations of Meghan’s dishonesty. But Mr. Morgan is now back on television, and his gibes on Twitter against the couple’s Netflix appearance were widely picked up by the tabloids on Thursday.
In a column for The Daily Mail, he dismissed it as a “predictable, cliché-ridden, simperingly sycophantic snooze-fest that fueled their wearily familiar narrative of a cruelly oppressed couple driven out of Britain by a nasty racist media, nasty racist Royal Family and nasty racist public.”
While the right-wing news media has been unremittingly harsh, left-of-center papers like The Guardian have not pulled their punches, either. Its review of the film appeared under the headline “So sickening — I almost brought up my breakfast.”
Lucy Mangan, the reviewer, wrote: “In the end — what are we left with? Exactly the same story we always knew, told in the way we would expect to hear it from the people who are telling it. It is hard to see who, beyond the media, the villains of the piece, will really gain from this? A period of silence should be welcomed.”
Harry and Meghan have each sued newspaper publishers in Britain, and with some success. In February 2021, a High Court judge ruled that one of them, The Mail on Sunday, had invaded Meghan’s privacy by publishing a private letter she had sent to her estranged father.
But settling into a comfortable new life with children in Montecito, Calif., has not seemingly eased the bitterness the couple feel, nor their determination to re-litigate past examples of mistreatment.
At one point, Harry described, in granular detail, the workings of the royal rota, the rotating cadre of reporters who are assigned to cover the public events of family members. He derided the title “royal correspondent,” describing it as a way for the newspapers to print unsubstantiated information about the royals with a veneer of credibility.
It fell to Meghan to sum up their ordeal. “No matter what I did,” she said, “they were still going to find a way to destroy me.”