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How the U.K. royals and British tabloids came to rely on each other for relevance

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Prince Harry's memoir, "Spare," comes out next week. And the British tabloids are all over it. In the Daily Mirror...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Prince Harry's brutal, one-man mission to destroy the family he left behind sees no one spared.

RASCOE: The Sun has this.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: I did coke and weed and had a bad trip of mushrooms where a bin started talking to me, says Prince Harry.

RASCOE: These tabloids play a huge role in Britain's complex media landscape. And as Prince Harry promotes his book, we're expecting to hear more about his accusations that members of the royal family placed and leaked stories about him and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. We're joined now by Adrian Bingham. He's a professor of history at the University of Sheffield and co-author of "Tabloid Century."

Welcome to the program.

ADRIAN BINGHAM: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So Prince Harry claims that his own family has been briefing the tabloids against him and his wife for years. What do you make of that allegation?

BINGHAM: Well, we never know the full story of who's briefing whom behind closed doors. But it's very clear that for decades, the palace and different members of the royal family have had press operations, words in the ear of editors to not run stories, to close certain things down. But absolutely, there has been a detailed press management operation, you know, right throughout recent decades. The royal family is the national soap opera in Britain.

RASCOE: Yes.

BINGHAM: You know, the cast of characters slowly change, but there is an insatiable appetite for this material in the public realm. That's why we get this drip feed of stories and endless front pages.

RASCOE: How reliable are the stories in, you know, these tabloids? Are they the truth?

BINGHAM: Well, it's interesting. I mean, one of the revelations that we've got from Harry in the new book is that the press had a story that he was taking cocaine, which he at the time denied but which he has now admitted. So some stories that were discredited back in the day, you know, sometimes later on turn out to be the truth. I mean, I think there's clearly things that are fabricated. But what the press knows is that we as readers and consumers and viewers - we're hypocrites because, sometimes, we might castigate the press for its intrusion, and they know that we will buy the newspapers, whether it's true or not.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, so Harry and Meghan have also talked about racism and misogyny in the British press. Do they have a point? I mean, it has been a huge issue, especially with Meghan.

BINGHAM: Yeah, I think gender and race have played a part. The British press does not have a good track record on issues of race, of gender, either, and has long had a sort of pinup culture. But I think it's important to say that when Harry and Meghan got married, there was a whole host of, you know, gushing coverage and celebratory coverage. So it's not always been negative, and it's not always been on a war footing.

RASCOE: Have the strategies of tabloids evolved over time the way that they handle stories? Do they hold back more or less now?

BINGHAM: I think in terms of sort of reporting and finding stories, they're probably actually more restrained now than they were, say, in the late '80s, early '90s, where it was pretty much a Wild West. So some of the bugging and hacking of phones, which we know went on in the '90s and early '00s - some of the long-lens photography - that happens less. On the other hand, there's also a whole host of commentators now who are offering their own opinion and deliberately trying to generate controversy and talking points around Harry and Meghan.

RASCOE: Yeah, the hot take industry, which does seem to be booming. And we should say that Meghan did successfully sue the publisher of the Daily Mail for violating her privacy when it printed her personal letters to her father.

BINGHAM: That's right. I think what's remarkable about this, though, is - this particular episode is that Harry is revealing all this himself. And this is where we are sort of in new territory. This level of revelation from one of the senior royals is very, very unusual. And this is where it could complicate matters because the press will now say, well, Harry is intruding into his own privacy. Therefore, we can pursue him. He can't, you know, claim that he has an entitlement to privacy if he's breaking it himself. So we might see Harry being pursued more aggressively in the coming sort of months, I would expect.

RASCOE: Adrian Bingham co-wrote the book "Tabloid Century" and is a professor of history at the University of Sheffield. Thank you for being with us.

BINGHAM: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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