LONDON – Buckingham Palace’s response to Prince Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism and mistreatment has failed to quiet the controversy, with some observers criticizing the royal family for not forcefully condemning racism and suggesting the couple’s version of events may not be accurate.
“Too little, too late” was the verdict of royal commentator Peter Hunt, who also criticized the palace’s 61-word statement for saying the issue would be dealt with privately as a family matter.
“This delayed, tame statement went for predictability when unpredictability — stepping out of the Windsor comfort zone — was what was needed,” Hunt wrote on the website of the influential British magazine The Spectator.
The statement, issued on behalf the queen, was released 36 hours after the interview of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by Oprah Winfrey was broadcast in the United States.
“The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan,” the palace said. “The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.’’
The comments were the palace’s first word since the interview rocked the royal family — and touched off conversations around the world about racism, mental health and even the relationship between Britain and its former colonies.
Those tensions only built as the public waited to see how the royal family would respond.
The statement should lower the temperature of the debate, but media interest in the story isn’t going away and there will be pressure for the palace to publicly address Harry and Meghan’s concerns, said Ed Owens, a historian of British monarchy and author of “The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53.”
“There are big questions here that need to be answered, and I think the press, both in the U.K., Europe and in the USA, are going to continue to ask questions about the family relationship that exists between Harry and Meghan and the Windsors in the U.K.,” Owens said.
Meghan, who is biracial, said in the interview she was so isolated and miserable as a working member of the royal family that she had suicidal thoughts, yet when she asked for mental health assistance from the palace’s human resources staff, she was told they couldn’t help because she wasn’t a paid employee. She also said Harry told her there were “concerns and conversations” about the color of her baby’s skin when she was pregnant with their son, Archie.
The interview, seen by almost 50 million viewers worldwide, has divided opinions.
Many people have backed Meghan, saying the allegations demonstrate the need for change in an institution that hasn’t kept pace with the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Others stand behind the royal family, criticizing the couple for making their damning allegations at a time when Harry’s 99-year-old grandfather, Prince Philip, remains hospitalized in London after a heart procedure.
Anna Whitelock, director of the Centre for the Study of Modern Monarchy at Royal Holloway, University of London, said the palace’s brief message had “hardened the lines” between people who believe the monarchy is an outdated bastion of inherited white privilege and those who see it as cherished national institution.
Fallout from the interview is likely to fuel the debate over the future of the monarchy and its role both in Britain and the other countries for which the queen serves as head of state, Whitelock said. Besides the U.K., the queen remains the head of state for 15 countries, most of which were once part of the British Empire, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and island nations in the Caribbean.
“That’s a debate that’s been held in check, in large part, given the length of the queen’s reign and in respect to her and the role that she’s played,” Whitelock said. “But it’s going to happen, and it’s just a question of when, not if.”
The ongoing controversy has already cost a prominent British TV personality his job. Piers Morgan left ITV’s morning news chat show amid a row over his on-air criticism of Meghan. More than 41,000 people complained to Britain's communications regulator about Monday's edition of the show, during which Morgan said he didn’t believe anything Meghan had said. The duchess complained to the British TV channel about the comments, focusing on their impact on people dealing with mental health issues, ITV News reported.
The revelations by Harry and Meghan were a stark contrast to the image forged after their May 2018 wedding at Windsor Castle. At that time, the royal family seemed to welcome Meghan, a glamorous former TV star, and the couple were seen as providing a fresh young face for the monarchy of an increasingly multicultural nation.
It didn’t take long for the fairy tale to unravel. The couple stepped away from royal duties last year and eventually settled in California, saying they wanted to escape racist coverage and unwanted intrusions on their privacy by the British media.
Many Black people have said Meghan’s comments highlighted the reality of racism in Britain, where the issue is too often characterized as an American problem.
Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a Black member of Parliament from the opposition Labour Party, said she was disappointed the royal family planned to deal with Meghan’s allegations privately.
She also criticized the Buckingham Palace statement because it didn’t directly condemn racism. The failure to do so contrasts with the palace’s reaction just last week when newspapers printed allegations that Meghan had bullied staff during her time as a working royal, Ribeiro-Addy said. In response to those charges, the palace quickly issued a statement saying it “does not and will not tolerate bullying or harassment.”
“The monarchy is a public institution that receives public money and any criticism of the institution should really be met with a forceful response from the institution about what they are going to do,’’ Ribeiro-Addy told the BBC. “We expect (that) of any institution. Why not the monarchy, why not the palace?”