On Thursday, as Britain descended into a constitutional crisis triggered by a rogue prime minister’s reluctance to obey the law, the front pages of the country’s national newspapers were schizophrenic—the words told of men shouting at each other in Parliament, but few picture editors could resist the opportunity to devote prime front-page real estate to images of a 4-month-old baby.
It wasn’t just any baby, of course, but Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the son of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry who, heretofore, had only been seen in what could more accurately be described as un-pictures which, rather than showing him off, did their utmost to obscure him.
We have seen Archie swaddled in blankets, we have seen Archie’s black-and-white foot, we have seen Archie reproduced in a composite collage posted on Instagram, deliberately rendered in too small a resolution to allow anyone to zoom in on the kid with clarity.
But here he was, with perhaps a tinge of red hair, sitting up on the knee of his besotted parents (who are on tour in South Africa) at the home of the veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who couldn’t resist bestowing a kiss on the gurgling youngster.
His daughter called Archie a ‘ladies’ man’ and Harry and Meghan beamed with pride as Archie did what good babies do: smiled and clapped for the camera.
Meanwhile, social media was exploding as a minute-long clip of the family walking into Tutu’s house with Archie, posted on Harry and Meghan’s Instagram, whipped around the world.
Reporters added to the sense of urgency by sharing their own footage on Twitter.
It wasn’t all just camera phones, however; an official pool photographer was in the room with the Sussexes and Tutu, and also a video camera, capturing every smile and giggle from the 4-month-old tot in perfect clarity.
These images could be blown up as big as anyone pleased.
For the 80 journalists from the U.K. who had successfully persuaded their news desks to shell out for the long and expensive trip to South Africa for this royal tour, there were sighs of relief; it was all going to be worthwhile.
Later that day and on Thursday, despite the febrile political situation back home, the pictures and joyous reports of the unveiling of baby Archie were everywhere.
And the heroes of the hour?
Why, Meghan and Harry of course.
There was not even the slightest sign that this was the same couple who had spent the past few months being excoriated for, among other things, taking too many private jets while simultaneously being concerned about the environment, spending lots of money refurbishing their house, and editing magazines.
The religiously minded might have been reminded of the parable of the prodigal son, or the one about there being more rejoicing about one lost sheep that makes it back to the stable than 99 that were never lost in the first place.
The media are enjoying allowing themselves to believe that Harry and Meghan have come to their senses and come home. All is forgiven.
Meghan and Harry’s decision to deny the media and the public the customary photographs of their new baby is completely understandable on a personal level (more than a few parents, especially first-timers trying to do everything right, hate the idea of their children’s pictures ending up on social media).
But on a strategic level, given their public profile, it was a big mistake and deeply counter-productive, setting up months of negative coverage.
Don’t imagine for a moment that the British press would have been hating on Meghan and Harry to the extent they have been had the goodies been handed out the way they expected: real-time announcement of the birth, the opportunity to build a media event around the place of birth, a photo on the hospital steps, slightly preferential treatment of domestic media, the drip-drip of a few unremarkable details about the choice of Bonpoint booties in the days after the birth and a steady and predictable series of lovely photos of the baby as it passed certain developmental and social waymarkers.
Instead, the Sussexes asserted their human right to privacy and turned the media against them, who wasted no time and energy in trying to turn the people against them as well.
Meghan and Harry are undoubtedly morally right; no parent should be bullied into sharing their children’s lives in ways they consider inappropriate.
However it is also true that Harry and Meghan receive vast amounts of public funding. Their argument that their child is far down in the line of succession and that they have refused for him an HRH title (for now at least) cuts little ice with a media who see the situation in starker terms: we pay, you play nice.
Harry and Meghan have always held most of the cards in this power struggle with the media; their social media channels have in part been about showing the established, mainstream press just how easy it is for them to be bypassed.
But Harry and Meghan were naïve if they didn’t expect a cornered media to fight back. And the vitriol that has been poured out against them in recent months has been the papers’ impotent revenge.
Harry and Meghan decided, for entirely noble reasons, to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
This week’s photocall with baby Archie may not have been intended as an admission that the battle has been lost, but the media are now hopeful that the glowing headlines and warm words that will now follow Harry and Meghan on this tour will persuade them to let people see a little more of baby Archie.
And if they don’t? Well—hell hath no fury like the British tabloids scorned.