Palace hand-wringing sparks media soul-searching in UK

Jitendra JOSHI
·4-min read

For all the anguished talk of a reckoning on racism for Britain's royal family, so far it is the media bearing the brunt most noticeably, with two high-profile departures.

Many in the industry have called for reflection after Prince Harry and his mixed-race wife Meghan said media-driven prejudice and hostility had driven them out of the UK.

There was a furious backlash against the Society of Editors, which represents senior media figures and organises a glittering annual awards ceremony, after its executive director Ian Murray baldly retorted that the media are "most certainly not racist".

"The blanket refusal to accept there is any bigotry in the British press is laughable, does a disservice to journalists of colour and shows an institution and an industry in denial," said an open letter signed by more than 250, mostly minority, journalists.

After doubling down in a bad-tempered interview on BBC News, Murray resigned late Wednesday, a day after controversial presenter Piers Morgan also stepped down from his high-profile perch on the ITV network's flagship breakfast show.

"If people want to believe Meghan Markle, that is entirely their right," Morgan told reporters, after refusing to accept a demand from ITV bosses that he apologise for calling her a liar on his programme.

"I don't believe almost anything that comes out of her mouth."

- A few bad apples? -

Marcus Ryder, a visiting professor in media diversity at Birmingham City University, said the departures of Morgan and Murray were not enough.

"I don't think it is about one or two people falling on their swords. This is just a slight variation of the 'few bad apples' narrative in which racism is explained away," he told AFP.

"It is widely recognised that racism is a systemic problem, and therefore needs a systemic solution."

Anti-Meghan tabloids have, however, remained unrepentant in their headlines and editorials since the royal couple's incendiary interview with Oprah Winfrey at the weekend.

The Daily Mail, The Sun and Daily Express newspapers have largely portrayed Harry and particularly Meghan as disloyal to Queen Elizabeth II, and as money-grabbing and hypocritical.

"The world is a dangerous place when only one version of events is allowed," The Sun's editorial said on Wednesday, defending Morgan and complaining that the couple faced no "meaningful scrutiny" from interviewer Oprah Winfrey.

But for critics, the tabloids themselves fomented a racially charged atmosphere in their hostile coverage of Meghan before and after her 2018 wedding to Harry.

In a later communication, the Society of Editors board distanced itself from Murray and said it would "reflect on the reaction our statement prompted and work towards being part of the solution".

- Look at my ratings -

For diversity campaigners and journalists of colour, the "solution" for more balanced media lies in addressing the fact that 94 percent of staff in British media are white, compared with 87 percent of the UK population as a whole, and largely male.

According to a 2016 study by City University London, 0.4 percent of journalists are Muslim -- compared to about five percent in the wider population -- and 0.2 percent are black, compared to 3.0 percent more generally.

The result is negative coverage of black, Muslim and other people of colour, even as the Black Lives Matter movement and Covid-19 pandemic have shone a new light on how endemic prejudice has led to deadly consequences for minorities.

"Every institution in the United Kingdom is currently examining its own position on vital issues of race and the treatment of people of colour," Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, said in response to the Society of Editors controversy.

"As I have said before, the media must do the same. It must be much more representative and more self-aware," she said.

But former CNN host Morgan, who says he is not short of job offers, reckons he had the last laugh in terms of the public's response.

"BREAKING NEWS: Good Morning Britain beat BBC Breakfast in the ratings yesterday for the first time. My work is done," he tweeted to his 7.8 million followers on Tuesday, after resigning from ITV.