“Never complain, never explain” is the infamous motto of the British royal family. And it’s this strategy they have clung to in the aftermath of explosive allegations in Prince Harry’s new memoir Spare—published on Tuesday—and candid television interviews aired this past Sunday.
Harry has lobbed a host of accusations against his family. That includes allegations of Prince William’s physical violence against him, Queen Consort Camilla pushing negative stories about Meghan Markle to the press, and even that Kate Middleton was reluctant to share lip gloss with Meghan.
But as the media storm continues to gain traction, the royal institution and its members have still not uttered a word—a deliberate attempt to remedy their public image.
The history of the royal family keeping quiet
“Dignified silence is a tried and tested format,” says Katie Nicholl, Vanity Fair’s royals correspondent and author of The New Royals. “The palace is reluctant to engage at any level because once they do, it just fuels the narrative and Harry has made so many allegations it’s almost impossible to address every one,” adds Nicholl.
Nicholl, who has covered the royal family for almost two decades, described the institution’s silence as “a sensible strategy” that is causing Harry to damage his public reputation. In a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, Harry said that the royal family does “a lot of complaining and a lot of explaining” by leaking stories to the press to paint themselves in a better light or to paint others in a negative one. He claimed these stories often conceal their sources and say they reached out to Buckingham Palace for comment when the palace is often the direct source.
Nicholl says the late Queen Elizabeth was a master of only speaking publicly when necessary. “The Queen only responded when she absolutely had to and it was often short and succinct,” Nicholl says. In the wake of Harry and Meghan’s 2021 Oprah interview, Buckingham Palace issued a brief statement on behalf of the Queen saying she was “saddened” to hear of the couple’s struggles and they were particularly concerned by allegations of racism.
“While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately,” Buckingham Palace said at the time. Nicholl says that by saying that recollections vary, the Queen publicly acknowledged the couple’s hurt while also casting doubt on the finer details.
What happened when the royal family has spoken out?
In response to the 2021 Oprah interview, Prince William broke his silence to respond to a reporter at a public engagement who asked him, “Is the royal family a racist family?” Nicholl says William’s response that the royal family is “very much not a racist family” broke that code of silence, given the nature of the allegations. But those comments were criticized on social media.
According to Tim Jotischky, a director at the public relations firm PHA Group, the royal family has maintained the moral high ground with their silence. “Sometimes the hardest thing in PR is to tell a client that the right course of action is to say nothing when your reputation is under attack. The understandable reaction is to hit back, but it can often be the best advice,” says Jotischky.
The reputation expert says the “toe-curling detail” in Prince Harry’s book has been more damaging to himself than the royal family as “an act of self-sabotage.”
The discrepancy in approaches used by Prince Harry and the royal family be explained by their stake in the fight; Harry has a book to promote, explains Jotischky, while the royal brand is in self-preservation mode.
According to a YouGov poll that surveyed over 1,600 Britons from Jan. 5-6, both William and Harry’s reputations have taken a hit in the lead up to Spare’s release and since its contents were made public. Only 26% of Britons now hold a positive view about Harry. William’s popularity has also slid, but a majority 69% of respondents still view William favorably. Attitudes toward Charles, Kate, and Meghan have remained consistent since a prior poll in December.
In light of these figures, Nicholl doesn’t believe the monarchy will incur lasting damage despite taking a “battering,” but she thinks Harry and Meghan will remain divisive figures. Harry is now a peripheral member, she says, who has invited his own criticism from both enemies and allies alike over revelations he killed 25 Afghans while on military duty.
How should the royal family respond to Spare?
While Jotischky and Nicholl agree the royal family shouldn’t say anything, neither believe they shouldn’t do anything.
Jotischky says that King Charles should invite Harry and Meghan to his coronation in May: “It will be a distraction but it will avoid the Royal Family looking vindictive and, for an institution that measures itself in centuries of history and tradition rather than sound bites and instant headlines, that is important,” he says.
Meanwhile, Nicholl says the family must show a willingness to reconcile and learn some lessons because the family needs to present itself as a symbol of unity. At present, the House of Windsor is being rivaled and overshadowed by what Nicholl describes as a “rival court in California” during one of the most monumental transitions in royal history following the Queen’s death. “Reconciliation is probably the greatest act of progression,” she says.
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