The Sun journalist who broke the news that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were looking to leave the British monarchy and live abroad has labelled the royal couple “professional victims”.
“They have wanted to feel like they are under attack from the British press and a lot of the time they actually haven’t been,” Sun executive editor Dan Wootton told Press Gazette.
It comes as the Sun defended its coverage of the duchess against claims of racism, saying in a leader column today that it is “sick” of “woke morons crying racism over press criticism”.
Wootton, former showbiz editor at the Sun, said Harry and Meghan were given ten days’ notice about the paper’s royal split scoop, having first gone to the couple’s spokesperson on 28 December.
He said he was met with pressure from royal officials handling their press not to run the piece. The Sun splashed the story on Wednesday (pictured below) without an official comment.
“I would say the fact we had given them ten days’ notice is actually a very lengthy time – people are lucky to get ten hours these days with how quickly news breaks,” said Wootton.
It prompted the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to issue a full announcement confirming the story hours later, making front page headlines the following day.
The couple revealed they would step down as “senior” royals and carve out a “progressive new role” for themselves as they divide their time between the UK and North America, a move that was reportedly met with disappointment by the Queen.
Wootton, who broke the story while on holiday, took issue with a report in the New York Times yesterday that quoted sources saying Harry and Meghan “felt forced to disclose their plans prematurely” after learning that the Sun was “preparing a story”.
NYT's @marklandler: Harry and Meghan "felt forced to disclose their plans prematurely after they learned that the Sun, a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, got wind of the internal discussions about their status and was preparing a story…" https://t.co/VJzNWfdJOD
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 10, 2020
He told Press Gazette: “The New York Times is trying to turn this into a terrible British newspaper forcing Harry and Meghan to release a statement – and it’s just not true at all. They released the statement after we had published the story and had so much notice.”
Wootton said palace insiders had told him the Sun’s scoop had, however, prompted the couple’s rushed announcement later the same day in a bid to “own the narrative” around their changing roles.
He added that he had been working on the story for a number of weeks before it was published.
“I was getting more information as it as it went on and there was more information that we didn’t publish in the original story because we were taking a big risk publishing without a statement from the palace,” he said.
“I was put under enormous pressure not to publish the story, but I just felt the story was too big.”
The former British Journalism Awards winner revealed that certain palaces refused to speak to him for the story because he is not a royal correspondent accredited under the rota system.
“My view, and the Sun’s view, is the royal family should be covered in the same way as any other public institution… as long as we are being fair and accurate,” he said.
“Often the Royal Rota system will see royal reporters put under intense pressure not to run stories and obviously I have had the freedom, because I’m not a royal reporter, to come in and cover it like any other area.”
He added: “I’m not saying there’s any issue with the Royal Rota, what I’m saying is there’s a lot of snobbery within the palaces about the reporting of royal stories and I think they expect to get special treatment.”
Wootton said he had been “really nervous” about securing the splash because he was on holiday with his parents in New Zealand at the time – and won’t be back in the office official until next week.
“The time difference was an absolute nightmare,” said Wootton. He said he also faced a palace that “didn’t want the story out there”.
Although he said he had been reassured by palace officials that they would not “put the Sun in a difficult position” by issuing a statement before the story had come out, he said he knew the Sussexes “don’t often listen to their advisors”.
He added: “In the end I was talking directly to the editor [of the Sun, Tony Gallagher] and luckily he was happy with my sourcing and information and was prepared to splash it and that was a really brave decision.”
He said the Sun had “behaved in the most careful, respectful, journalistically safe way” in handling the story, adding: “That’s how we do all of our royal reporting. This idea that all the stories the press have been running are skewed or untrue is not right – and that stacks up.”
Wootton pointed to the Sun’s reports last year on a rift between Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan that he said was the “beginning of this breakdown in the relationship between the Cambridges and the Sussexes” that led to the bombshell announcement.
Harry and Meghan have also attempted to redefine their relationship with the media – including pulling out of the Royal Rota system, which gives journalists access to royal events, and taking a swipe at royal correspondents – in their new roles.
Said Wootton: “I think Harry and Meghan don’t want to be covered critically by the media, but to say we have been running untrue stories, that’s the thing that upsets me most.
“They want to be covered by the people who adore them… but obviously that’s not the role of the British papers.”
He said of the couple’s new plans for working with the media, which appears to be an attempt to shake off the influence of the national newspapers in coverage about their lives, that it was “naive”.
“I don’t think it will work,” he said. “I think it’s very much focused on Americans and their belief that Americans love what they are doing and celebrities love what they are doing.
“But at the end of the day it’s the British royal family and I would say that you cut off the British press at your peril, especially if they are still receiving a degree of public funding and they keep their titles.
“I would argue they have a responsibility to engage and work with the British press.”
Wootton said people who claim reports about the royals in the press are not true should take his scoop as an example that “very often the stories are true, but the royal family is attempting to keep the information out of the public domain”.
He added: “There is a massive war going on right now [within the royal family] and for a long time they have been very successful at keeping a lid on it – and I think with this story it has exploded.”
In October last year he issued a rare statement saying his wife had “become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences…”.