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The British media narrative of Prince Philip’s death is about Meghan Markle

Social media’s view of the 99-year-old man’s death is much different.

British newspaper headlines about Meghan Markle in March.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Ordinarily, the death of a 99-year-old man wouldn’t raise much suspicion. But because Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, isn’t your typical long-lived man, his death on April 9 provides a window into the recent woes of the British royal family — and the media’s fixation on its contentious relationship with Meghan Markle.

Prince Philip was hospitalized for a full month in February, reportedly for treatment of a preexisting heart condition. As he was nearing his 100th birthday, his death is hardly a surprise. According to the royal family’s official statement, His Highness “passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle.”

It didn’t take long, however, for anticipation to spread throughout social media that the press would find a more disruptive cause for Prince Philip’s death than illness or old age. Amid the many memes that began circulating online once the news broke, a prominent theme emerged: British media placing the blame on Meghan Markle.

Markle has spent the last year mired in controversy, first for formally resigning her royal duties along with her husband Prince Harry and second for a March 7 interview with Oprah Winfrey in which the couple spoke out against the family’s treatment of her. Among the most shocking revelations to come out of that interview were the couple’s statements that the family had professed “concerns” over the color of their unborn child’s skin, had refused to provide the couple with a security detail in violation of protocol, and had refused to help Markle seek treatment after she became suicidal — in part due to a barrage of racist harassment from the press.

It’s no secret that the British media, particularly tabloid journalism, has lost little love for Markle since she became the latest member of the royal family. From the moment she began dating Prince Harry in 2016, Markle has faced racist and sexist backlash, criticizing everything from her perceived unlikability to her “exotic DNA.”

And in the aftermath of the Oprah interview, Piers Morgan, in particular, has led the charge of many British journalists in accusing Markle of, essentially, lying about everything — pushing an unsubstantiated idea of “fakery” that led to him walking off and ultimately quitting his news show Good Morning Britain. Hence the nearly immediate assumption that the British press would find a way to shift the focus off Prince Philip and onto Markle.

Sometimes the predictions that a narrative around “Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview contributing to Prince Philip’s untimely death” were uncanny in how they bore out.

It didn’t take long, for example, for the Daily Mail to trot out a piece that emphasized Prince Philip’s “tough final year” and the way the end of his life was marred, in part, by “bitter fallout from ‘his favourite’ grandchild Harry and Meghan’s decision to quit ‘the firm.’”

Notably, however, it was American outlet Fox News that seemed to get there first.

The predictability of this response by certain media outlets, particularly conservative ones, cannot be overstated. It suggests that, at least where the royal family is concerned, a uniformly monotone kind of coverage has been established: Foment outrage and fear, attack, repeat. The fact that memes anticipating precisely this kind of news coverage preceded the coverage itself suggests that racist press coverage of Markle has been both transparently flimsy and largely ineffective as a form of persuasion to the average media consumer — whether they’re thoroughly informed or only half-paying attention on social media.

Markle and Prince Harry, by giving such a momentous interview to Oprah Winfrey, explicitly engaged the American public in the broader debate over the family’s treatment of them. One result is a clear assumption on the part of many observers worldwide, and Black observers in particular, that any and all coverage of struggle or tragedy within the royal family will somehow involve a return to implicit racism toward and perpetual attacks against Markle.

The “Meghan is to blame” memes — and the overall tone of the other snarky, cynical, and critical memes that have emerged — also suggest a distinct breakdown between media coverage of Prince Philip’s death and the popular impression of it.

While plenty of news outlets have struck a more typical tone of somber respect, social media has largely been full of irreverence, with users across various platforms employing memes and general insouciance to remind us that Prince Philip came from a family with Nazis in it (though he opposed Hitler), to imagine Princess Diana greeting him in heaven with animosity (in fact they were very close), and to recall his long history of alleged racist remarks — with the kind of bluntness the press has largely eschewed.

For example, one BBC obituary glossed over the issue of Prince Philip allegedly making racist comments by framing them as part of his “tendency to be forthright” and offering other euphemistic spins — which led to criticism of both Philip and the outlet.

Along with mournful “RIP” threads, Twitter has been rife with people celebrating Philip’s death on behalf of Black citizens presumably offended by his treatment of Markle.

The levity isn’t all related to politics: On TikTok, memes about Philip’s death have been circulating for the past few weeks, with the jokes largely centering on the prince’s suspected immortality — or suspicions that he actually already died weeks ago. But that more typical flavor of online humor has been vastly overshadowed by the recent royal family brouhaha. It’s a reminder that the family is no closer to figuring out how to handle strong, independent women in its midst today than it was during Diana’s ascendance.

TikTok’s take on the topic seems closer to the truth than that of the tabloids: The Duke of Edinburgh was 99 years old. Any efforts to place blame for his death reveal far more about the state of the media than about Meghan Markle.