Photo: Queen Elizabeth II arrives for the state banquet in her honour at Schloss Bellevue palace on the second of the royal couple's four-day visit to Germany on June 24, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images); Insets, clockwise left to right: The Palace Papers; Kate, Duchess of Cambridge (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images); Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images); Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Eddie Mulholland/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
The Palace Papers
In a Q&A with veteran U.S.-U.K. journalist Tina Brown, she brings us into the heart of the British royal media circus, and explains how Toronto was the making of Meghan Markle / BY Leanne Delap / April 26th, 2022
The Palace Papers, the painstakingly researched and richly contextualized history of the last 25 years of the monarchy, picks up where Tina Brown’s 2007 royal biographical jewel, The Diana Chronicles, leaves off. She divides the book into notable (read: mostly traumatic) episodes that have turned the House of Windsor into the greatest soap opera of our time, with many “nuggets,” as she calls them, of new info woven into the narrative.
Brown, 68, hails from Berkshire, where Kate Middleton grew up. She has been a media superstar since the tender age of 25, when she took the helm of a then-moribund British society journal, Tatler, where she duly wrestled it into relevancy for the modern age. Long-running gigs at the top of the masthead of industry bibles Vanity Fair and The New Yorker swiftly followed, before she founded U.S. news website, The Daily Beast. One-half of another a major media power couple, Brown lost her beloved husband Harold Evans, the legendary former editor of The Sunday Times newspaper, in the fall of 2020.
She sat down with Zoomer earlier this month to chat via Zoom about the imminent launch of The Palace Papers. That the book is so deeply researched is no surprise, given her bona fides. But royal reporting tends to the partisan, and Brown rises above that cliché elegantly. The book is so fair to its roster of key senior royals (Andrew excepted, for obvious reasons), it is a testament to her journalistic, two-sided approach. She pulls no punches at boneheaded royal moves, but she also gives generous credit where it is due. Indeed, after the interview, I discovered a teensy footnote with my name on it among the wadges of references at the back of the book. This is particularly edifying, as I had interviewed Meghan Markle, days before her royal romance was revealed, about her capsule fashion collection for the Canadian clothing store, Reitmans. The quotes from that story were immediately purloined and repurposed and tortured by tabloid writers churning out copy, attributions be damned. That Brown took the time to find the original source for Meghan’s early remarks speaks to her dedication to old-fashioned reporting, the kind that wears out shoe leather.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication. A full feature on the book, with more of Brown’s insights about the Queen’s successors, will appear in the June-July 2022 issue of Zoomer magazine, on newsstands May 30.
Leanne Delap: The media is a big character in the book. Can you explain, from your perspective, having had success on both side of the Atlantic, whether you think Americans (and by extension, Canadians) really understand the royal media circus and what you call their “demonic creativity”?
Tina Brown: One of the reasons why I dwelt on it at such length was that I was trying to explain to a new audience the sort of strange … power and seduction, and the dangers, of the British media. Yes, they are very creative, but yes, they are demonic at the same time. I did feel by the time I’d finished reporting that whole chapter, called Snoopers, where I talk about the phone hacking, that really was new to me, even though I knew about it and had read about it closely at the time. It still shocked me really. It is really quite disgraceful what they endured. It really did make me far more understanding of Harry’s bitterness towards the media, because he was tormented by them from the time he was scarcely out of childhood. First of all, you have the primal sin of them pursing his mother on the last night of her life. But then you go to him as a teenager, when every single, small, adolescent misstep was caricatured and traduced and sort of negatively headlined. It was so unfair, and it drove away two of his girlfriends, two girls he loved – the first one, Chelsy Davy, and the second one, Cressida Bonas. They simply couldn’t stand it. It made him very jumpy about what girl could possibly take it. A lot of people might think, ‘oh everybody would want to marry a prince,’ but once they get close up and realize the constraints in that royal system, which are so difficult, frankly, there are plenty of nice girls who wouldn’t want to be a part of it.
LD: There is an extensive section on the phone-hacking scandals. What did you learn from that reporting?
TB: I was able to really track it in detail. It had been known that the entrapment of Harry and William had been reported and the palace was aware. What was interesting was to go into the blow by blow of it, to see both sides. It was so interesting to me to kind of delve into the newsroom and understand what was going on there, which is that these journalists were under so much pressure to deliver click bait in this new digital disruption. The pressure on them to produce, produce, produce, [to] be more and more and more sensational, essentially put the pressure on them to try to go about things in a more nefarious way. I’m not saying it is an excuse for what they did, but they were under enormous pressure to keep their jobs. So you have that one side, and on the other side you have these two young princes who are just trying to live a normal life with their girlfriends, and are being absolutely spied on all the time. When I said [Harry] felt like all his life he’d been living in The Truman Show, he was just the latest to walk onto the set. It had begun with his mother. I do feel that is very, very harsh for them. And that is something that the Queen did not have to put up with, because she came to power and most of her reign – at least half of it – was lived out at a time when the media was so much more deferential. And there was no digital media until quite recently … I’m not sure anybody can have the mystique of the royal in the way the Queen has, because we just know too much about them now.”
LD: As the book has started rolling out, with excerpts and interviews with you being published, are you surprised by what gets picked up in headlines?
TB: You are always surprised as a writer when you write anything. You think, oh golly, this is going to make big news, and then, silence. Then something else completely different gets picked up. I’m happy for anybody to read it out of interest. It is gratifying to me as a writer. This book is full of nuggets, there is no doubt about it. It is a question of whether the press hunts them out, and understands which ones are news and which ones are not.
LD: A couple of years ago in Toronto, you were asked who the most interesting person in the world. You swiftly answered Meghan Markle. Did you learn about her in reporting this book?
TB: I really understood her frustrations with England. Now that I’m American, I understand why she found herself sort of coming up against the rejections of British culture and found that very difficult. What I found very interesting about Meghan was her inability to adjust to, or learn about, the very different attitudes in England to America. The English are very skeptical, iconoclastic, anti-earnest. They’re not into the smiley-face, more gushing way of Golden Globes acceptance speeches. They are a very sort of tart nation really. You have to recognize that. When I’m in England, if I talk to the Brits, I know I’m in a different language and there are things I wouldn’t say in England that I would say in America, and vice versa. So she didn’t realize what a foreign country she was going to, and really her major problem was impatience. I think that if she had just simply chilled out for a couple of years and sort of learned the lie of the ground – made her alliances, made her allies, figured out a more careful strategy – I think she would have been a knockout success. Frankly, I think she was a knockout success in the beginning, but it was really her impatience: she just didn’t like it. I understand how tough she found the press and how negative and how isolated she felt as a woman of colour. All of those things are true. But she also had a great platform for change, which is something she was very committed to. Diana gave it 16 years; she gave it 20 months. I think at the same time, she is also overly blamed for being the sole kind of architect of that exit. I think Harry was very, very eager to get out of there. He could not take it anymore. I think he’d been boiling up for a long time, as I describe it in that chapter about just how much he was suffering. And I think no one really understood how much Harry was suffering until he married Meghan Markle. She sort of rescued him from his misery in that situation. It is a more complicated situation than is currently the stereotype and the received wisdom in the story, and that was the thing I was interested in challenging, because I think it was far more complicated than it had been described.”
LD: You write at the beginning this is a book you wished Meghan could have read, to give context to all these foreign things.
TB: Absolutely. I didn’t understand why an actress who had spent a lot of work in her career sort of mastering her part – she was known to be a big absorber of notes – actually freely said on Oprah, “I didn’t’ know what I was getting into.” I don’t quite understand that. Maybe she was just crazy about Harry and hoped for the best? But it was the biggest role in her life and she dove in feet first, without at all understanding. William has been painted as this stuffy brother who said, you know, “Why don’t you wait.” Well he said that because he knew how hard it was going to be. He made Kate wait for 10 years before she was sure that she could take it. He knows it is very difficult to live in that bubble and be endlessly scrutinized. William’s attitude was, let [Meghan] just make sure she can handle it. And in a way he was right, because she couldn’t. Harry couldn’t. That’s the interesting part, but I did have empathy with her. I hope they both find happiness, they’ve given up a lot for it, including both their families.
LD: Will the Sussex brand continue, will their world domination plan in Montecito succeed?
TB: It was harder than they understood to be a celebrity without the palace machine. Basically, you are just out there with John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and you know you are one of the gang. You have to keep on producing things to keep that celebrity alive, which Harry didn’t have to do before. He could just show up and be a member of the House of Windsor and was always going to have photographers trailing.
LD: Let’s talk about your Canadian reporting. When Harry and Meghan were here in the early days of their courtship, they felt protected by the locals. Did you have trouble getting Canadian friends to talk?
TB: I know lot of Canadian friends. As I say in the book, I felt like Toronto was absolutely critical to her rise because it allowed her to become a cosmopolitan figure. If Suits had been shot in Los Angeles, I very much doubt she would have ever come Harry’s way. But it was the fact that she was in Toronto that introduced her to the much more sophisticated mix of people. SoHo house in Toronto opened and became, for her, a great hub of networking. The marvelous cross-section of different worlds that revolve in Toronto and the strong international immigration aspect made it really the perfect melting pot for a young, beautiful woman to sort of cross out of being a cable TV star and mix in a much more socially sophisticated world.”
LD: I like the way you describe her lifestyle blog, The Tig, which she closed down in 2017.
TB: The Tig was very good. I was surprised at how good Tig was. She could have been a magazine editor. She could have been the editor of Vogue. She’s a good writer and has a very good visual sense. She has talents. A million followers is quite hard to get when you start something from scratch like that and she did.”
LD: Did you get confirmation she had written that blog in LA., The Working Actress?
TB: People I speak to seem to really believe that was her. And it’s a nice idea to think of her writing that blog at night and feeling like Cinderella, you know. And you understand her drive, and she wanted to get away from that. She was actually a good actress; she was very good in Suits. I would think she misses it frankly. Because now she doesn’t really have an identity beyond the situation she is in, and she is going to have to forge a new one. And one senses a certain amount of grasping at straws right now. She needs to find something that feels authentic and nothing really does. I think the earnestness is authentic, whereas Harry really has his nurturing base as the thing you believe in him. Actually, the Invictus Games was kind of inspired, really, and probably one of the most successful royal initiatives from scratch that we have seen since Prince Philip’s Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. It didn’t feel like a manufactured, poll-tested, PR-palace created thing. It actually felt real. Because he was a soldier and a good one. He was actually moved by plight of the soldiers he knew who had become disabled. Meghan needed something of her own to re-establish authenticity.