What an explosive past week has done to Harry and Meghan's popularity

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·Royal Correspondent
·11-min read
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Watch: Meghan Markle interview: Duchess of Sussex accuses palace of 'perpetuating falsehoods'

More Britons appear to be sympathetic to the Queen and the Royal Family than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle amid the airing of tensions between the two camps days before a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Nearly a fifth (18%) of respondents to a poll by YouGov said they were sympathetic to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but 38% have sympathy for the Queen and the rest of the royals left in Britain.

The poll of more than 4,600 Britons came a day after shock revelations that a staff member at Kensington Palace had written to human resources with concerns that Meghan had bullied two former PAs in the palace.

She said she was "saddened" by the allegations, which were branded a "smear campaign" by her lawyers. Buckingham Palace said it would be investigating.

Tensions between the Sussexes and the palace appear to be ramping up as the interview gets closer, with no sign that the programme will clear the air.

The interview is another landmark moment in what has already been a remarkable year for the Sussexes.

Yahoo News UK looks what the couple has packed into the first nine weeks of 2021.

More people have sympathy with the Queen than Prince Harry and Meghan. (YouGov)
More people have sympathy with the Queen than Prince Harry and Meghan. (YouGov)

Why the Sussexes need some fans

The couple might not be overly concerned by their own levels of popularity – Meghan once said criticism and flattery “go down the same drain” for her.

But as they seek to launch entertainment projects like Spotify podcasts and Netflix shows, it’s beyond doubt that their public personas remain hugely valuable to the Sussex brand.

While one YouGov poll shows the British public has more sympathy with the remaining Royal Family, a popularity tracker released by YouGov on Thursday showed that Harry and Meghan's popularity levels have gone up in the UK – though they are still much lower than at their peak in 2018.

Ahead of their interview with Oprah Winfrey airing in the US on Sunday night and the UK the next day, a poll showed the couple's favorability rates were up, with Harry's score jumping by nine points and Meghan's up by five points.

News of their bolstered ratings will be a boost to them ahead of the interview, which will give them an opportunity to lay out their side of the story of their step back from senior royal life.

For some, there is a perception that, regardless of what she does, Meghan will always bear the brunt of vitriolic condemnation – both for social media trolls and from some quarters in the press.

Historian Professor Kate Williams tweeted her exasperation at the stories about Meghan saying: “Barely 2021 & so far Meghan attacked for leaving social (when she left years/months ago), maybe not flying in June (it’s a pandemic) & name changed on Archie’s birth cert 2 yrs ago, not at her instigation.

“Clearly she needs to do a charity zoom so she can truly get torn apart.”

Harry and Meghan's popularity scores are going up. (YouGov)
Harry and Meghan's popularity scores are going up. (YouGov)

That feeling might be why Meghan has turned to friend Winfrey to offer an "intimate" chat about life as a royal and her marriage.

Former journalist turned PR expert Anthony Burr told Yahoo UK: "Big interviews with a longer style and format have always been a favourite of Royals or ex Royals to get their point of view across. 

"It worked well for Harry’s mother, the late Princess Diana on Panorama and perhaps Meghan and Harry are hoping to make a similar impact with Oprah on the CBS network.

"But for me, it is not only predictable, but contradictory to what the couple have stated before. Oprah Winfrey was at their wedding, lives near the couple’s current home and has promoted Meghan’s new range vegan coffee. So this ‘interview’ will be orchestrated and be pandered to the Sussexes motives."

He added: "They made a huge statement that they would prioritise young, upcoming journalists and grass roots media platforms to get their messages out there [when they stepped back].

"Oprah and CBS are none of these."

On potential reaction to the interview, Burr said: "If it goes wrong and the public don’t get onside, this may impact their popularity and subsequent earning power as they strive to be financially independent."

People also think the coverage of Meghan is overly critical. (YouGov)
People also think the coverage of Meghan is overly critical. (YouGov)

The interview's timing is already against them

Before they can worry about reaction to the interview they are dealing with criticism over the timing of it airing - as Harry's grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, is in hospital where he's been treated for two different conditions over a period of more than two weeks.

Public relations and crisis consultant Mark Borkowski said the timing meant there was a risk of "real reputational mess".

He told PA: "Anybody who looks at this through the optics of a caring family, even a family who are estranged from one another, it’s very uncomfortable as you edge towards Sunday."

He added: "Harry and Meghan are supposed to be a sensitive, caring and empathetic brand.

“Surely the disruption, particularly to the Queen… but they’re going ahead with this juggernaut.”

Watch: Duchess of Sussex accused of bullying by royal aides

Read more: Why Meghan's use of 'The Firm' is causing such controversy

Nick Ede, popular culture and brand expert, told Yahoo UK the interview will be"polarising".

He said: "In the US they are seen as escaping and finding freedom in a new land from the clutches of the Royal Family. In the UK they are seen as fleeing for no reason and not doing their duty: so this interview will set the record straight about many things and is once and for all the opportunity for them to inform everyone about their life in the royal family and their reasons behind their departure.

"I think they will of course be vilified by the media but in the popularity stakes in the rest of the world they will remain a huge force for good and change and for speaking out.

"In the UK we are generally much more sensitive and patriotic so with a sick Prince Philip, a pandemic and elderly Queen our opinion may be shadowed and they will lose popularity in the UK.

"Meghan and Harry have always done it their way and it’s commendable and inspiring to see them flourish in such a high profile way. Some may say their use of the media is contradictory or manipulating. I would say they are using the media just the way they want to and how it should be used to leverage them and their brand for the greater good."

Another hurdle in a rocky year?

While it is CBS and ITV who will benefit from high ratings in the short term from the interview, ultimately Harry and Meghan need to be popular so that people continue to follow their work as they produce podcasts and documentaries for Spotify and Netflix.

They had a rocky start to the year, with several headline grabbing moments, in courtrooms and in rows with the palace.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 10: Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the Royal family attend events to mark the Centenary of the RAF on July 10, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
The Queen, Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in July 2018. (Getty Images)

Read more: Buckingham Palace to investigate claim Meghan bullied royal staff - 'We are very concerned'

Meghan found herself in a bizarre battle with the palace over Archie’s birth certificate. After someone spotted that it had been edited to remove her first names, the Duchess of Sussex said the change had been “dictated” to them by royal aides.

But royal sources said there was no official protocol for the document, and that it had been changed to match other official papers, like Meghan’s passport.

In success stories, Harry won a payout from Associated Newspapers Ltd over their claim he was not in touch with the Royal Marines, and Meghan’s privacy bid against the same group successful.

Meghan’s statement after she won her case against ANL claimed a comprehensive victory, not just for her but for everyone.

And they followed the news by announcing they are expecting their second child, following it with confirmation of the two-hour sit down interview with Winfrey.

Harry also won praise for his relaxed interview with James Corden, filmed for The Late Late Show, where he was "the Harry of old" according to commentators.

But Harry's court win was tainted when he was reprimanded in court after a judge ordered him to tone down comments he called “unduly tendentious”.

It came as his lawyers settled the dispute with ANL over the Marines story, and the judge said Harry’s planned statement about the matter included “attacks” on ANL, which were not appropriate.

He didn’t allow Harry to make the original statement but asked for changes.

Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (R), and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, pose for a photo with their newborn baby son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, in St George's Hall at Windsor Castle in Windsor, west of London on May 8, 2019. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski / POOL / AFP)        (Photo credit should read DOMINIC LIPINSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Harry and Meghan with newborn Archie in May 2019. A birth ceritifcate row reared its head in 2021. (AFP)

Camilla Tominey, associate editor of The Daily Telegraph, said of Harry’s case: “I fear this use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut is starting to cause them serious damage.”

While the couple is climbing an uphill battle in the UK, brand expert Eric Schiffer warned that the picture in the US is not much better.

The chief executive officer of Reputation Management Consultants told Yahoo UK the couple are on a “path toward American brand suicide”.

He added: “The recent action of Prince Harry against the Mail, only to be slapped down hard by Justice Nicklin for trying to get the court to approve sky-high legal costs, was like trying to fix acne with a blowtorch.”

Rising popularity should be handled with care

The latest favorability tracker puts Harry on a net rating of 12, and Meghan on a net rating of -14.

More than half (53%) of people view Harry favourably, up from 47% on 18 February, while 39% view Meghan favourably.

However Meghan is viewed negatively by 53% of respondents, while 44% view Harry negatively.

The latest data was recorded before bullying allegations made against Meghan by former palace staff emerged in The Times on Wednesday.

Meghan referred to 'The Firm' as she sat down to talk to Oprah about life in the royal family. (CBS)
Meghan referred to 'The Firm' as she sat down to talk to Oprah about life in the royal family. (CBS)

Read more: Harry and Meghan's interview with Oprah Winfrey won't be delayed while Prince Philip is in hospital

YouGov released the statistics as part of a favorability tracker of members of the Royal Family, which looks at their popularity over time.

The couple have faced a rocky polling over the years, but did see a slight rise in their figures around January 2020, which would have been around the time they announced they wanted to step back from the roles as senior royals.

YouGov also looked at whether people feel the press has been "unfairly critical" of Meghan. Half of respondents said the press was "unfairly critical in their coverage Meghan compared with other Royal Family members".

A quarter of people said the coverage was balanced, and 9% said it was too favourable.

Nearly half, 44% of people, said the press was too harsh on Prince Harry, and 30% think it has been balanced. In the same score as his wife, 9% of people said it was favourable.

A snap poll by YouGov after the Winfrey interview was announced suggested 46% of Britons think the programme is "inappropriate" - though that doesn't mean they won't watch it of course.

The UK reaction to their financial deals has not been positive, as polls show as many as 64% of people won't watch their Netflix programmes.

Some accused the couple of invading their own privacy when the news of the Winfrey interview emerged, confused by its timing after the duchess won her privacy claim against Associated Newspapers Ltd.

Burr added: “Some elements of the media and their commentators have been nothing short of vitriolic in their coverage of the couple since the negatively coined ‘Megxit’.”

He added: “Sometimes, there are some events which are so trivial that it just needs to be left alone.

“Media platforms that don’t get access will always be negative towards them, especially if the couple continue to prioritise their cronies for exclusive interviews.

“This only makes the wider media and their commentators more resentful and that leads to further negative headlines. Their detest for the tabloids is well documented across the high courts of England.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex meets children as she attends the Commonwealth Day Service 2020 on March 09, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Harry and Meghan's interview comes about one year after their last royal engagement - Commonwealth Day 2020. (Getty Images)

Some have viewed the couple’s moves as overall successful, despite the setbacks.

Jonathan Shalit, chairman and founder of InterTalent, a UK talent agency previously told Vanity Fair: “What they’ve achieved is to be lauded. They’re doing well at building their brand.

“They’re building a professional team and the people they’ve hired seem very impressive and qualified. They’ve got a billion-dollar brand and I can see them going on to make hundreds of millions of dollars for their charities.”

Royal author Clive Irving, who wrote The Last Queen: Elizabeth II's Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor, told Geo TV the couple had made the right decision.

He said: “They represent the 21st century. They couldn't be themselves inside the cage.”

Oprah with Meghan and Harry airs on ITV at 9pm on 8 March.

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