Dealing with the publicity of a family feud - a modern way of thinking when it comes to the media

9 July 2021 | Applicable law: England and Wales

Whether it is a tiff with Granny, or with Aunty, Harry and Meghan’s approach to the media shows a modern way of thinking when it comes to the media.

Blood may be thicker than water, but when it comes to a family dispute blood can boil far more readily than in a colder more clinical fight with an independent third party. The apparent fallout in the royal family leading to spats, and reports of spats, between “the young pretenders” in the United States, Harry and Meghan and the “old guard” back home in Blighty exhibits both – and a different approach across the generations as to how to deal with the publicity that a family feud may generate.

A recent example concerns another member of the family for we Brits, Aunty, also known as The Beeb, AKA the BBC. Aunty reported that Granny – that is Harry’s grandmother, also known as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – was miffed at him about naming the newest member of the Windsor / Sussex clan Lilibet without her prior approval, leading Harry to send a legal letter to the BBC to complain over its reporting.

In the “olden days”, the mantra of “never complain, never explain” might have been run up the royal flag pole in the face of offensive or allegedly defamatory accusations – here, perhaps, a concern that the reporting suggested an insensitivity or disrespect for one’s elders on Harry’s part, towards his Queen, his “commander in chief” and his granny.

But while the “turn the other cheek” refrain was good enough for the Queen Mum, who bequeathed it down the Royal family line like a precious heirloom, and thus it was often good enough for her family, it was .

Perhaps treasured more by the older generations than their younger beneficiaries, as this credo seems to have got lost down the back of the royal sofa, less cared for than once it was.

The preferred route for Meghan and Harry in the face of negative or unwanted media attention seems to be to reach for the writ – or to lose the alliteration, but to be more accurate, the claim form. “Lilibet-gate”, as we might choice to name it, is just one of a recent string of very public legal activities by the young couple: phone hacking litigation for Harry; a high profile privacy claim by Meghan; complaints about paparazzi, drones, baby Archie’s privacy … When it comes to dealing with the media, their first choice appears not to take its unfortunate slings and arrows lying down. Rather, in place of “never complain, never explain” is a new set of rules – loudly complain, and proudly explain. And thereby seek to take control.

On this occasion, they reached for their solicitors who wasted no time – or ink as it happens – in penning what might be the shortest letter of complaint ever composed by the oft fulsome fingers of a lawyer. The diminutive dispatch asserted that the article – “Harry and Meghan did not ask Queen to use Lilibet name – Palace source” – was false and defamatory and the (unspecified) allegations contained in it should not be repeated.

Legal action was not overtly threatened, and – perhaps as a result – the article remains online. But “going legal” is clearly part of the arsenal of this creative couple – alongside sensational chat-show interviews and explosive podcasts – seeking to exert control over their own image.

We are rarely winners in the reputation protection competition – if we dance with the media devil it will largely sing to its own tune of commerciality. So, to a generation familiar with Tik-Tok and World Dance, perhaps taking control and choreographing their own reputation-enhancing dance comes more naturally and appears more likely to achieve results.

But doing so in itself generates criticism. In Meghan’s privacy case against Associated Newspapers over her letter to her Dad, the defence argued she “was seeking or willing to manipulate her public image, to obtain the most favourable coverage” and that being “ready and willing to publicise details of her own private life and those of others… [while] she does not object to publicity about her, so long as it is favourable” was somehow not cricket. The bald corollary being that a “person who actively seeks the limelight” is a rum one. As we now know, the judge didn’t buy that “broad-brush” argument – Meghan exited the court victorious — at least for now, as the case is under appeal.

But if Harry and Meghan choose to control their images – through the vehicles of PR, lawyer, or Oprah for that matter – they are acting in a very different manner from their forebears. This is not just down to a loosening of the British stiff upper lip — a combination of the omnipresent Internet, accessible smart phones, easy-access apps to correct images (so any of us can achieve a flat tummy, white teeth, clear skin where before there were none), and powerful and popular social media sites mean that we have the tools of control at our fingertips to rival those of the printing presses.

Harry and Meghan’s short, “non-threatening threatening” letter may have been a deliberate ploy, a clear example of their desire to exert control, a PR approach in itself by which to let the world know that they condemn the accusations that Harry disrespected his granny, but without having to issue legal proceedings to achieve that end. The two lines of legalese, and the many more lines of excitable reporting of even the whiff of potential litigation against the BBC certainly moved the story on, and seemingly left them with the last word.

Quietly turning the other cheek can be the clever response to a reputational attack; spreading a veneer of positivity over negative news with the guidance of expert PR advisers can also work a treat. But this small example shows that while litigation or the public threat thereof may not have been the “go to” for the never complain never explain brigade, a privileged whisper in the ear of your trusted legal adviser, and an ensuing legal letter – whether honeyed-words for negotiation or rapier-sharp for litigation – is certainly part of the modern reputation protection pack.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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