Meghan and Harry’s Twitter win spells bad news for Kate
You might not know Tim O’Donovan’s name but every year, at the end of December he makes a big splash in the UK press. That’s because since 1979 he has assiduously and meticulously totted up the number of official engagements carried out by the Queen and her family. His annual report always makes for fascinating reading.
(Fun fact: The redoubtable Princess Anne has topped the list for years though Charles pipped her to the hardworking post and took out the top spot in 2019.)
This year, which has seen royal shoe leather perfectly preserved as the family have waited out the pandemic stuffed away in their country estates, all we could really tally is Zoom calls, which is somehow far less interesting.
But still, here’s one statistic that palace mandarins should be taking big notice of.
According to figures provided by Twitter to royal biographer Omid Scobie, Meghan Duchess of Sussex was the most tweeted about member of the royal family in 2020 by a “landslide” with Prince Harry coming in at number two.
William and Kate Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came in slightly dismal seventh and eighth place respectively.
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At first glance this makes perfect sense: 2020 gave us Megxit; Meghan and Harry moving to LA and developing an unfortunate habit of getting papped far more often than when they were in London; signing not one but two mega business deals; rubbing shoulders with Silicon Valley, Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood elites (digitally anyway).
And the duchess still found the time to sit down with Gloria Steinem for a chic, shot in black-and-white video tete-a-tete during which she gifted the world the particular irony-free deployment of the phrase ‘linked not ranked’.
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And the rest of the HRHs? Well, they, or at least their troops of dependable staff, managed to set up Zoom accounts and rustle up some virtual engagements for a spot of national-spirit-raising.
(Though, may I be frank? While anyone would be well chuffed if a member of the royal family chose you for a quick video confab, does that moment contribute substantially to a mass, national buoying of morale? I have my doubts.)
Still, if there is one lesson we can take away from this year, is that when it comes to the house of Windsor versus the house of Sussex, there is one clear-cut, sure-fire, put-your-money-on-it winner time after time.
I mean, of course, Harry and Meghan.
In the three years since the former actress officially entered royal life (at least since she got some royal diamonds on her left hand) the couple has been a captivating, enthralling presence.
Sure, they are often deeply polarising with their eagerness to chart their own course, earning them, in equal parts I’d guess, passionate fans and vociferous critics. Depending on your view of things they were either a much-needed breath of fresh air or they trounced tradition and disrespected the Queen and deserved to be carted off to the Tower of London post haste.
But what is unassailable is that the Sussexes have totally and utterly consumed the media oxygen around the royal family this year, a state of play that is highly unlikely to change any time soon.
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And that is a whopping problem for the royal family – Kate, Duchess of Cambridge especially.
Next year marks ten years since she wed Prince William while billions of people around the world watched, time difference be damned. As the next Queen (poor Camilla will have to make do with being titled Princess Consort when Charles ascends to the throne) this impending storm will be one that could cloud her royal future for decades to come.
The institution of the monarchy, in this century anyway, is a beast that needs vast troves of public and media interest to survive. But what happens if people are suddenly far less interested in listening or watching?
What happens if the world’s eyes are continually being drawn to the ritzy seaside enclave of Montecito and its two most famous new inhabitants?
The royal family needs people to care about what they do and to offer them at least a smidgen of respect. They need to be seen to be valuable investments given the Sovereign Grant (which pays for their official work and the upkeep of Crown Estate-owned palaces) is worth about $145 million annually, that is cash that would otherwise be directed towards the government’s coffers.
Essentially, the royal family has to prove their worth, over and over again, to the public and it is a far sight harder to achieve that goal when there is a far more enthralling and beguiling competing show going on elsewhere.
Kate’s Early Years initiative, which was ramped up this year with a landmark national survey about parenting, will be her legacy, and could help profoundly shift government thinking and spending. The potential of her work to have a truly significant impact on British society is very real and to her immense credit. Let us now, momentarily, pause and give the woman her due.
But … it’s hardly riveting stuff to watch from afar.
And, in the next few decades, “royal family” and the crown will come to mean William and Kate and their family. When we talk about this situation it is with the knowledge that all of this is a growing predicament that the Cambridges will inherit and it will fall on them to solve.
What will it mean for William and Kate in the future if they are undertaking truly useful, good work (his big focus is on climate change) and the world’s attention is elsewhere?
Like the thought experiment about a tree falling in the woods, does a royal engagement really matter if there is no one from Fleet Street there to witness it or the world is busy tweeting, posting and commenting elsewhere?
Not that this messy situation is Harry and Meghan’s fault, mind you. They just want to have their lovely house and lovely charity (Archewell: Coming in 2021!) and lovely $183 million (thanks Netflix and Spotify) and their lovely celebrity friends (hey Oprah! Turmeric latte at mine?).
They might not have set out to be a thorn in the sides of the Queen (and one day, King William and Queen Catherine) but they are looking more and more like they might be anyway.
There are other issues here, namely, the royal family has never had to contend with a competing alternative. Had Diana, Princess of Wales’ life not be cut so heartbreakingly short in a Paris tunnel, we might have seen a version of this scenario play out then, the dazzling royal dashing about the globe as a humanitarian ambassador, the world’s press following, enthralled, in her wake and leaving the tedious Windsors and their plaque-unveiling schtick in her fabulous wake.
The growing problem which we may well see far more of in the coming year, as life (fingers and toes crossed chaps!) inches back towards normality, is that with everything Harry and Meghan do and say, they are throwing the royal family’s actions and words into stark relief. The monarchy has never really had an alternative to be judged against. Now they do.
Let’s get our crystal ball out for say, Mother’s Day 2021.
Each year the Kensington Palace posts some nice new pictures and a few heart emojis and they are done and dusted.
Will the Sussexes debut a global initiative aimed at addressing the deplorable state of maternal mortality in developing nations? Would they make a surprise visit to Sierra Leone (which has the world’s highest and most horrific rate of maternal mortality) to announce a global initiative to address the issue?
You see my point here: One side will keep following the same playbook and doing things by rote while the other side no doubt has a whiteboard out at this very moment and are enjoying a blue sky-thinking session with a gaggle of Tesla-driving, Tik Tok-loving strategists.
Under this new paradigm, will the royal family and their dependable – if not boring – ways measure up? What if Harry and Meghan just happen to show, by dint of their own hard work, that there might be a better and more effective way to do good?
And that is the sad irony here: They are all just trying to do good work. For the Cambridges and the Sussexes, they might be separated by a continent, an ocean and the ability to use their HRHs but they are united by all being people committed to making the world a better place.
With Meghan and Harry’s Twitter ‘win’ this year, they have proven that they are the Windsor noise makers par excellence. And those Cambridges? They are going have their work cut out for them if they ever want to make themselves heard above the Sussex din.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.