Priyamvada Gopal is professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge and author of “Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent” (Verso, 2020).  

CAMBRIDGE, England — For all the storm and drama prompted by the revelations made by Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, in their interview with Oprah Winfrey, too little attention has been paid to the one that is arguably of most consequence for the United Kingdom at large: allegations of racism in a large and influential section of the British press. 

In their interview from self-exile, the couple claimed an “invisible” contract exists between “the Firm” — the extensive machinery of the royal family — and the British tabloid press, with the latter exercising “a level of control by fear” that resulted in the failure to provide institutional protection to Meghan. 

While Harry insisted somewhat blithely that he did not believe the U.K. was itself racist, he said that racism fomented by “bigoted” tabloids was a “large part” of why the couple ultimately decided to leave the country. 

He suggested, correctly, that the tabloid culture plays a large role in stoking racism in Britain, given its outsized political and social power, saying: “If the source of information is inherently corrupt or racist, then that thought is out to the rest of society.” 

Three media organs manifestly shape racial discourse in Britain: the high-circulation Daily Mail (and its sister publications, the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online), the Sun and the Daily Express. At least one broadsheet could be added to this triumvirate: the Telegraph.  

The Duke and Duchess’ claims about the power of this section of the British media to foment racism clearly struck a nerve. The Society of Editors, the industry body, issued an astonishingly defensive initial statement following the interview, denying that bigotry had played any part in the media’s treatment of Meghan.  

Additionally, and with no little irony, the Daily Mail’s and Mail on Sunday’s parent company, Associated Newspapers, complained bitterly to the American broadcaster CBS, which had carried the Oprah interview, of “the deliberate distortion and doctoring of newspaper headlines” in its montage of news coverage of Meghan. (CBS rejected the complaint.) 

The Society of Editors has been in turmoil since, with several prominent journalists and some editors dissenting from the statement. The resignation of Ian Murray, the Society’s executive director, drew a predictable response from the Daily Mail, which claimed that Fleet Street’s “woke wing” had thrown its boss “under the bus for daring to defend the British press against Meghan’s accusations of racism.” Perish the thought that a little self-reflection might be in order. 

To be sure, racism in Britain is not restricted to the tabloids. But these newspapers — and a couple of broadsheets — are deeply complicit in the fomenting of racist and xenophobic attitudes in wider British society.  

As the liberal blogger Tim Fenton notes, the “evidence” of this role is easy to source in a myriad misleading, even outright false stories and opinion pieces: “One incendiary, bigoted, racist, hyperbolic, paranoid, negative, hateful, prejudice generating pack of lies after another. Day in, day out.”  

From the relentless demonization of migrants and refugees to scare stories about “no-go areas” in London (a falsehood reprised by former U.S. President Donald Trump) to lies about Muslims supporting Christianity under attack and banned Christian festivals, British tabloid culture is easily one of the top peddlers of bigotry across the nation.  

Perhaps even more disturbing is the extent to which major British institutions, including the monarchy, operate in fear of the power of the tabloids and cut their cloth to the measure of this fear.  

Whatever we might think of the Sussexes or of the royal family, it is troubling that the Palace did not speak up against the racist treatment of Meghan by influential papers. If an institution as powerful as the monarchy holds its tongue so that the demigods of Fleet Street may be placated, in which other institutions does the power of the tabloids manifest and in what ways? Who else is willing to wine, dine and give full access to these reporters in order to get better press? What other compromises are made, what other information withheld or fabricated?  

Surely, the real problem in “holding the rich and powerful to account,” as the Society of Editors insists these papers do, stems not solely from charges of racism but the “invisible contract,” a protection racket in which institutions tailor their behavior to tabloid approval. 

At the University of Cambridge, where I teach, attempts to diversify our curriculum or admissions practices are accompanied by a fearful glance in the direction of the red tops — not out of concern that the institution will be held accountable, but that it will become the subject of fabricated culture wars. In 2017, for example, black women students at Cambridge were falsely charged with wanting to remove white authors from the curriculum.

As one colleague put it, across higher education in Britain, reforms are often accompanied by the wry remark: “Let’s hope we don’t end up on the front page of the Mail.”  

Recently, efforts to engage in a “critical reassessment” of Winston Churchill, the founder of Cambridge’s Churchill College, in relation to race and empire was condemned twice in the Daily Mail before it even got off the ground, eliciting vicious hate mail in the direction of the speakers lined up for the series, including me. In a separate incident, the paper printed an apology and paid damages to me after I experienced horrific racist bullying following false claims made about me in its pages.

In the wake of the bombshell Oprah interview, the tabloids are now vehemently crying foul at charges of racism, which they always treat as worse than racism itself. But like the rich and the famous who they claim to hold accountable, these media outlets — and the rich and the famous who own them — also need to be held accountable for their huge role in stoking British racism.  

The problem is not incidental. There are huge political stakes in dividing and ruling the country on race lines. It is high time we address this grim reality. 

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