Meghan Markle and the Colonial Roots of Tabloid Media

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex sitting down with Oprah Winfrey on her prime time special.

Lori Lee Oates
Memorial University of Newfoundland

The tabloid press in the United Kingdom was on the receiving end of serious allegations of racism from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on 7 March 2021. This occurred after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down with Oprah Winfrey to discuss the exit from their royal roles in January 2020. Women Members of Parliament had previously signed an open letter condemning the “colonial undertones” of the media coverage of Markle in October of 2019.

And yet many remain unaware of the extent to which today’s tabloid media was forged by the British political class to control and distribute colonial narratives, particularly during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. This has, of course, been well documented by scholars such as Simon Potter in News and the British World: The Emergence of an Imperial Press System (2003) and Chandrika Kaul in Reporting the Raj (2004). Gauri Viswanathan has also demonstrated how the education system and English literature was used as a tool of imperial control in Masks of Conquest (2014). Such work highlights the longstanding desire of colonial powers to control narratives about empire, the colonies, and the relationships between Indigenous citizens and colonial settlers.

The communications connections between colony and metropole grew substantially from the mid-nineteenth century onwards out of an effort to achieve security and to protect colonial interests. Following the Indian War of Independence in 1857, there was a strong desire to improve communications between India and London, in particular. It was presented as an effort to protect the British civil service. The laying of telegraph lines, combined with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, greatly facilitated the building of greater communications links between the imperial powers and India – and enhanced the impetus to keep these links secure through imperial expansion. In many ways, these colonial connections recalibrated time and space on a global scale.[1]

Paul “Julius” Reuter, founder of the Reuters.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, what the British public read about empire was largely determined by one news agency: Reuters.[2] On 10 October 1851, Julius Reuter opened an office at the Royal Exchange Buildings at the heart of the City of London, near the main telegraph offices.[3] This was the beginning of a global news service that would become a key aspect of the global and imperial infrastructure.

News services had already been started in Paris, New York, and Berlin by the time Reuter arrived in London. However, he was the first to sell his news to other London newspapers and that proved to be a fateful decision for the standardization of information that would be received from the colonies.[4]

By the 1870s, Reuters news agency had acquired a virtual information monopoly of the colonies and the Far East. The agency’s own historian claimed that Reuters was a “semi-official institution of the British Empire.”[5] The editor of The Nation admitted on the fiftieth anniversary of the company (1901) that Reuters “stood for British interests as the Foreign Office sees them, and in reporting the internal affairs of foreign countries, its bias was usually governmental”. It reflected the views of “official circles” at colonist clubs, the mercantile class, and governing class. It was Reuters that determined which news that would be telegraphed back to London.[6]

Reuters also provided a private telegraph service that facilitated the spread of information within the empire. Established in 1871, the service was subsequently extended to include the Far East, Australia, and South Africa. The most popular service was the Eastern Private Telegram, which linked Britain with India and the Far East. [7] In 1875, approximately 4,000 telegrams were being sent on these lines. By 1912 this number had reached 276,195.[8]

In The Cambridge Companion to the Fin-de-Siècle (2007), Marshall deals with the commercial roots of the late nineteenth-century press and how this has influenced contemporary media. She argues that “some categories of culture were almost brand new in the 1890s, as markets expanded to capitalize on the appetite for print culture of a newly literate population”.[9] This was a period of the emergence of a “new journalism” that was focused on celebrity gossip and sensation.[10] It ushered in the era of the correspondent who would “interpret the knowledge of the few for the many”.[11]

Alfred C. Harmsworth, 1st Viscount of Northcliffe and owner of the Daily Mail.

It also ushered in Alfred C. Harmsworth’s halfpenny Daily Mail morning paper in 1896, which reached a readership of millions just five years later. Baumgart argues that the paper, not unlike Reuters, regarded itself as ‘the megaphone of the imperialist movement’.[12] Upon its founding the Daily Mail declared itself to be:  

for the power, the supremacy and the greatness of the British Empire.  …The Daily Mail is the embodiment and mouthpiece of the imperial idea. Those who launched this journal had one definite aim and view… to be the articulate aim of British progress and domination. We believe in England. We know that the advance of the Union Jack means protection for weaker races, justice for the oppressed and liberty for the downtrodden. Our Empire has not exhausted itself.[13]

Harmsworth would go on to use his media empire to support the political views of his brother Harold, 1st Viscount of Rothermere, who opposed World War II and believed in appeasement for Nazi Germany.

Caroline Ritter has recently argued that cultural institutions, including the BBC, were used to extend the life of empire in Africa between 1930 and 1980. The BBC started domestic broadcasting in the 1920s and inaugurated its external broadcasting arm, then named the Empire Service in the early 1930s. However, “Britain did not prioritize African listeners until it was on the verge of losing them”. During the late 1950s, Britain reacted to the Suez Crisis and impending decolonization by directing itself for the first time toward audiences in East and West Africa”.[14] 

The tabloid press’s reliance upon eyewitness accounts, modern interviewing, and celebrity culture is in many ways a product of journalism practices that unfolded during this final decade of the nineteenth century. Arguably, they foretold the rise of television in the 1980s, the Internet in the 1990s, and social media in the new millennium. The differences have largely been that of speed and reach. The product remained largely unchanged, although there is a lot more of it and it is more readily available. Contemporary media continue to provide us with narratives that are largely controlled by white male elites and voyeurism into the lives of our fellow humans.

Of course, one big difference between then and now is the growing awareness of the problem. A 2016 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found that hate speech among traditional media, particularly tabloid newspapers, “continues to be a serious problem.” So does diversity in British newsrooms. This CNN story documents the systemic problems of representation in UK media.

This growing awareness might also offer much-needed reform. The resignations of Piers Morgan of Good Morning Britain and Ian Murray of the Society of Editors might be a sign that racist and sensational commentary is becoming less palatable, and transgressors held more accountable. Contemporary media organizations in the United Kingdom may have already begun the process of reforming themselves and divesting of their colonial roots.

Lori Lee Oates Ph.D. teaches in the M.Phil (Humanities) Program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She publishes on transnational cultures of print and is currently preparing her first monograph for SUNY Press.

[1] This has been well-documented by Daniel R. Headrick in Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[2] Gary B. Magee and Andrew S. Thompson, Empire and Globalization: Networks of People, Goods, and Capital in the British World c. 1850-1914, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p. 189.

[3] Donald Read, The Power of News: The History of Reuters 1849-1989, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 13.

[4] Read, The Power of News, pp. 5-6.

[5] Read, The Power of News, p. 49.

[6] Magee and Thompson, Empire and Globalization, (2010), p. 189.

[7] Read, The Power of News, pp. 79–80.

[8] Magee and Thompson, Empire and Globalization, p. 190.

[9] Gail Marshall (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Fin-de-Siècle (Kindle Edition), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Reprinted 2012, p. 276 of 7480

[10] Marshall, Cambridge Companion, p.270 of 7480.

[11] W.T. Stead, The Pall Mall Gazette, 1893. Reprinted in Marshall, The Cambridge Companion, p. 276 of 7480.

[12] Winfried Baumgart, Imperialism: The Idea and Reality of British and French Colonial Expansion, 1880-1914, Rev. Ed edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 52.

[13] Baumgart, Imperialism, p. 52.

[14] Caroline Ritter, Imperial Encore: The Cultural Project of the Late British Empire, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021), pp. 72-73.