Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, has broken sales records as buyers in the U.K., U.S., and around the world clamor for juicy anecdotes about the Duchess of Sussex’s rocky royal tenure, Prince William’s alleged violence against his brother, and Harry’s frostbitten penis. The book is catnip for those close to the palace, too — who have the perspective to know what this unprecedented disclosure into the royal family’s life means for the institution going forward.
In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, Kara speaks with two people who know their monarchical stuff. Patrick Harverson is a PR executive and former journalist who once served as the communications secretary for the then–Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (now King Charles III and Camilla, queen consort) and as the spokesman for the then-Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (now William, Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales). Catherine Mayer is a longtime journalist who co-founded the Women’s Equality Party and wrote Charles: The Heart of a King in 2015. The three discuss the reception of Spare, and why Prince Harry may not have gotten quite what he bargained for.
On With Kara Swisher
Kara Swisher: Patty, he’s trying to reclaim his narrative. That’s his story. Do you think it will succeed?
Patrick Harverson: Well, it depends on what you mean by success. I don’t know what he regards as success. I wouldn’t want to guess, really. The coverage has been phenomenal. The sales have been phenomenal. The interest is huge. Of course it is, because as I said, there’s always been this desire to know what’s really going on inside the household, and he’s shared a lot of that.
I think this will pass. The one thing the royal family can do is play the long game. I don’t know what Prince Harry has next — hopefully a period of quiet reflection. But what the royal family can do is show what it does and why it does what it does, and continue to sustain confidence and trust in the institution. And that cannot be overlooked.
This is for a British audience. I recognize in America it’s very different. To use the wrong phrase, there’s no votes for us in America, right? What matters are the United Kingdom and the realms, and to a certain extension, the Commonwealth. That’s where the work of the monarchy and the institution is really aimed at.
Catherine Mayer: You asked whether the book was a success. The coverage is not acknowledging something that Patty has sort of implicitly said there, which is that it’s a historical document. It’s an astonishing thing for somebody like me who is a biographer, who has trawled every single available source and had to work very hard to get to sources that were not strictly available to have that much laid out like that. And it means that in the fullness of time, irrespective of whether Harry manages to reclaim his narrative — and I’m very skeptical that anyone in the public eye ever really fully reclaims their narrative — it will be there as a source for historians in the future.
Patrick Harverson: I think there’s a question whether it can be a trusted source, because this idea of one person’s truth and another person’s truth obviously is debatable. There is the truth, right? So I think that’s an important point.
Kara Swisher: Facts aren’t feelings. That’s a U.S. thing.
Catherine Mayer: Indeed. But you know from reading it that there are details in there that are true that have never been in the public domain.
Patrick Harverson: And some that aren’t.
Catherine Mayer: No, I know. But that will be a job of future historians as well.
Kara Swisher: Patty, in an interview with ABC, you said the queen’s funeral would quote, “probably be the start of a healing period,” although you cautioned it might be slow going. It certainly seems to be glacial at this moment. You’re still optimistic. You think the long game is the way to go with this?
Patrick Marverson: I want to be, because I worked for and with Prince Harry and Prince William for almost ten years, and their father, and we did a lot together. They were very close. And the story of the two brothers was a very powerful one, the loving father and his two sons. So to see that fractured is generally heartbreaking for me. But I am hopeful, yes. I think it’ll take time, but I don’t want to give up on that.
Kara Swisher: There is a beautiful story, even if it’s unpleasant.
Patrick Marverson: Yeah, gosh, what the boys went through — and I call them the boys because that’s what they were when I started, because they were boys at the time of the loss of their mother. Completely understandably, the two princes believed that the media drove their mother to her death. So it’s a tragic story in that sense. It’s a family story. One of the reasons it’s so powerful is that many people can relate to loss and grief, or to brotherly love turning into something else, or the difficulty of the relationship with your father who works very hard. There’s so much there that we can relate to, which is why it’s so powerful.
Kara Swisher: Do you think the monarchy is getting any feedback? After Diana’s death, the queen shifted dramatically. Do you think there’s, there’s any of that happening here, or “just let’s be quiet until it goes away?”
Patrick Marverson: They will be seeking feedback and they do listen to outside voices. But one of the things I think members of the royal family, the senior ones do, is, rightly follow a lot of instinct, what feels right for them. They’re resilient. They’re a very resilient family. It’s a very resilient institution. It has been around a long time. As I said, no one wants to be complacent or take this lightly, but I’m confident that it will be here for, for many, many decades and probably centuries to come.
Catherine Mayer: It has been around a long time. And of course, on the point of feedback, that can also complicate things because these are courts. I referred to them as sort of medieval structures, and one of the problems is that they don’t always hear what they need to hear because there are courtiers vying for popularity.
Kara Swisher: It reminds me of Elon Musk or all these tech moguls.
Patrick Marverson: They all have them. Oligarchs have them. Prime ministers have them.
Catherine Mayer: People get told what people think they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. And there’s also competition between the different courts, though that is a constantly shifting picture. You had several different power bases. After the queen, there are really only two.
Patrick Marverson: Having worked there when there were three royal households, people talk about competition and there is for airtime, for front pages. And that’s only natural — if you’re doing something, you want to get the best press out of it. There’s also a huge amount of collaboration and I think it doesn’t get reported on.
Kara Swisher: Catherine, you’ve been characterized as a rare defender of Meghan in the U.K., which is funny because your work hardly defends her. You simply shared reporting intimating that her curtsy-off was accurate. Why is it rare to be a Meghan supporter?
Catherine Mayer: I don’t think it’s my job to be a supporter or a defender. I’m here to analyze. The difference between me and a lot of the people writing about this is I don’t know her, but I know all the other principles involved to a greater or lesser extent. And it makes you see things differently. But then again, it’s a very odd thing. I agree with Patty about never forgetting that there’s a family at the center of this, that there are human beings at the center of this. And I think a lot of the polarized coverage is also dehumanizing coverage.
Kara Swisher: So everyone becomes a cartoon.
Catherine Mayer: The idea that I would go out and defend Meghan is something that, in a funny way, would not serve Meghan any better than any of the rest of them, because it takes away the nuance. It takes away a sense of what this is, this very peculiar institution that is built around a family permanently on display.
Kara Swisher: Harry told Anderson Cooper that tabloids were laid out for the roast to read over breakfast. Like, how do you avoid it?
Patrick Marverson: That is difficult.
Kara Swisher: Is that true? They read it over breakfast?
Patrick Marverson: Not all of them — the senior ones don’t, generally. William and Harry used to, and I remember thinking that wasn’t possibly wise, but if you said they didn’t, you’d say they’re out of touch. So they kind of can’t win, can they? And generally, like me, they start on the back pages with the sports and the football results. So they’re not just poring over the royal coverage.
The relationship is a very difficult one. And I think you mentioned at the beginning: Fundamentally, the royal family sells. It sells everything because there’s so much interest in it and we just have to understand and accommodate and live with that. And sometimes that interest, that commercial drive, goes down the wrong path and becomes something quite serious.
Kara Swisher: Catherine, you’ve written that Harry’s obsession with tabloids meant he missed the tabloidization of the broadsheet, which was interesting. Talk about what you mean by that, because one of the things Brooke just mentioned before you got here was that he hates the tabloids, and yet this book was made for tabloids, right? It’s got little bits you can pull out.
Catherine Mayer: On the book itself and the way it gets pulled out — that’s precisely what I think that the publisher and he were trying to avoid.
Patrick Marverson: It’s very naïve.
Catherine Mayer: It’s terribly naïve. And one of the things that is kind of heartbreaking about watching all of this is it’s a moth against a flame, isn’t it?
Kara Swisher:He’s the moth, I presume. They’ll just consume him no matter what he does.
Catherine Mayer: Yes. I mean, this was bound to happen, however it happened, that sections would be taken out of context and weaponized. And it doesn’t work like that, reclaiming a narrative. It takes a lot more work than one book. However, in terms of it being just a problem of tabloids, it isn’t. One of the things that’s happened, as you know, is that the loss of income to other forms of mainstream media has meant an awful lot of cutting of staff.
There is no longer the same level of fact-checking or anything else, but there is also a tabloidization in terms of being driven by the online world, being driven by clickbait. Opinion has tended to replace reported pieces.
Kara Swisher: Mainstream media has become like social media.
Catherine Mayer: If you look at the pages of the Telegraph, if you look at the pages, even of the Times, these newspapers are not covering this in a serious way at all. They’re covering it in a way that starts from a moralizing position almost always. One that is supposed to be pro-monarchy, but ironically, I don’t think is doing the monarchy much good either.
Kara Swisher: You’re talking about the British Times, not the New York Times.
Catherine Mayer: I am indeed.
Kara Swisher: Patty, how has social media changed the coverage, especially the royals? That was the period you were in there, right? It got really crazy after 2013.
Patrick Marverson: Yeah, it was early days when I was there. The one thing social media has done in digital media generally is give everyone, including institutions like the royal Family, a platform themselves to tell their own story very powerfully. I remember we did some early work on social platforms that was hugely successful.
I remember having a conversation with William and Harry years ago where they said, look, why don’t we just publish our own newspaper and put the truth out there? And I suppose Harry’s book is a good example of that. So social media’s not all negative. It does give you the opportunity to control the narrative and tell the story on your terms, but it also has given voice, rightly so, to millions, if not billions of people. I think one of the worst things is that it has given the media a source it never had. Occasionally, journalists would go out and stop someone in the street for the old-fashioned vox pop. Now they don’t have to leave their desk. They know what everyone is thinking.
And so they can just pick and choose what they want to fit the narrative, to fit their agenda. So the hostility, for example, against any individual member of the royal family — they can just go and find what they want online and say “people are furious.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.