I’m interested in following the British royals. I like to at least vaguely keep up with William and Harry and their families, with a decided preference for Harry if I’m asked to pick. Since Harry’s exit from “working royal” status, though, I’ve been particularly interested in the storm of tabloid misinformation that surrounds him and Meghan no matter what they do.
It’s difficult as an American to comprehend how tabloids have so much power in the UK. When I think of tabloids, I think of the National Enquirer, a publication no sane person would take seriously. But The Sun is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and The Daily Mail just took on Boris Johnson as a columnist. The tabloids are part of the royal rota in the UK. They are given access to the Palace and to events that involve members of the Royal family. That doesn’t mean that they are any more committed to truth than any other Murdoch publication or any other tabloid. They are in the business of making money off creating their own narrative without regard for whether there is any real truth in it. They take nuggets of real information and spin them to make certain people look worse and others look better. They involve themselves in politics to the point that they have influenced huge public decisions like Brexit. They are the Fox News of gossip rags.
I’ve been reminded of this again in the past few days after the announcement that Meghan’s Archetypes podcast would not have a second season on Spotify.
I saw this first from American media. Deadline wrote that a joint statement from Spotify and Archewell Audio said “Spotify and Archewell Audio have mutually agreed to part ways and are proud of the series we made together.” The Wall Street Journal, the first to report, offered a little context: “The cancellation is a sign of the continuing correction in the podcast market, a format popular among listeners, but one that has proved hard to make profitable for Spotify and many of its rivals.” They also quoted Meghan’s agency WME as saying “Meghan is continuing to develop more content for the Archetypes audience on another platform.” And, “Spotify last week laid off 200 people, including many audio engineers.” The WSJ also points out that Archetypes did well in the charts.
What they don’t mention is that other celebrities, including the Obamas, have recently parted ways with Spotify. Podcasting at Spotify is going through some stuff right now, and Meghan’s podcast is just part of that story. I expect to see her show launch on another platform at some point in the next year, perhaps in another format. WME is a powerful agency. If they say there is already a new plan in the works, I believe them. Plus, there’s a Newsweek article titled “Meghan Markle and Harry Leave Spotify with ‘Stronger Position’ in Holywood.” The article does acknowledge that the lack of long-term staying power on Spotify might make big dollar deals harder to come by for Meghan’s show but also points out that she won several awards for the podcast that she will be taking with her, along with her global audience.
That’s the general tone of the American media’s first reporting on the news of the split between the Sussexes and Spotify. The British tabloid media was another matter.
The BBC went with a pretty measured “Harry and Meghan: Spotify podcast deal with couple ends.” Sky News led with a slightly more negative connotation in their headline, “Meghan’s Archetypes podcast dropped by Spotify,” though they do note that both parties reported that it was a mutual decision. But then we get to the Daily Mail, and suddenly we see words like “axed” and implications that the Sussexes failed to satisfy Spotify’s expectations for the podcast. The Daily Express goes one further than “axed” and brings in a “media expert” (who has no actual inside information on this case) to explain why the Sussexes failed to please Spotify enough to merit a second season. The Mirror also uses the word “axed.” It’s a popular word in the anti-Sussex set it seems. The Mirror claims Spotify execs were unhappy because the podcast failed to bring in enough listeners, this despite often topping the charts. All of the British tabloids have taken a little bit of information and created a larger story out of it based on supposition rather than on factual context of the sort we saw from The Wall Street Journal on the same story.
Then there is Maire Claire, an international publication with outlets in France, The UK, The US, and other countries. They published an entire article cobbling together quotes mostly from British tabloids, but managed to pull off a tone of appeasing Meghan’s fans with reassurances despite delivering bad news from these suspect sources.
By the end of the day we have multiple news outlets all around the world publishing articles claiming that Archetypes has been cancelled due some variation on a theme of disappointing results, all extrapolated from one statement that says the Sussexes and Spotify have “mutually agreed to part ways.” Some take it even further to imply that this is a career disaster; others recognize the strengths and marketability of the program in other markets. But all in all we have a fury of chaos surrounding a story that is, as of yet, incomplete. We won’t know the future of Archetypes until WME makes an official announcement on Meghan’s behalf. There was no worldwide whirlwind of misinformation like this when Michelle Obama went through the same process of backing out of her deal with Spotify to move over to Audible. There wouldn’t be in this case either if not for the British tabloids.
This particular incident has been on my mind because it happened this week, but the same process plays out again and again. Even in times when there is no news to report on the Sussexes, they are often front page tabloid fodder. This is one reason I’m on their side. I hate to see anyone being bullied like this. But, as a former journalism major, and a person who has spent a lifetime teaching information literacy as part of teaching writing, I just find it disturbing that news outlets can operate like this and still wield so much power. That power doesn’t begin and end with the fates of a couple British royals turned California celebrities. It seeps into every aspect of society. They do the same thing with every serious political issue. They divide the world and do so deliberately for the sake of power and profit.
Harry and Meghan are real people with real lives that the rest of us know very little about, but they are also metaphors for what happens when all information is a construct, and what we get depends on whose version of reality we have chosen to trust. There’s very little reality in any media reporting that has committed to a single world view — see Fox News. The British Tabloids are indeed the Fox News of gossip rags, and as such they are part of the larger narrative of how our world is being torn apart by misinformation. Whether you care about the fates of princes or not, you should care about that.