Before we start: yes, I am fully aware that this looks like a desperate, algorithm-gaming clickbait article but it really isn’t. Well, I hope it isn’t.
If you told me, when they were getting married in May 2018, that by 2020 the Duke & Duchess of Sussex would have fled to America and sought refuge and security from an African-American movie mogul (specifically Tyler Perry the Great, the pioneer who made "Madea Goes to Jail"), I’d have stopped taking you seriously. If you told me they’d be pouring their hearts out to Oprah Winfrey about all of the above and other royal affairs I’m afraid I would have had to dismiss you as an utter fruit and nut case.
Meghan and Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey was a landmark moment in British history. But what exactly can we in publishing learn from it? I think there are a few takeaways.
1. Diversity fairytales become nightmares when poorly managed
Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that it spawned, there has been unprecedented take-up of books by Black writers. It seems like a new book by a Black author is announced daily.
This is a very long way away from where things were before the murder of George Floyd and could be viewed as a Harry and Meghan-style fairytale for Black writers and the publishing industry. This new zeal for books by Black authors conclusively demonstrates that:
- For a long time, Black writers were, barring a very select few, shut out of the industry.
- The argument that Black penmanship talent was lacking was always false.
Talent was always there; opportunity was not. The objective now has to be ensuring this zest for equality is not a fad. One thing that can help us ensure this period is not a flash in the pan moment – a fairytale en-route to becoming a nightmare - is ensuring books by Black authors are properly promoted, and therefore given a fair shot at success.
2. Diversity and anti-racism are not synonyms
The absence of ethnic diversity in an institution is potentially an indicator of racial bias, hostility or poor recruiting practices. Or perhaps all of the above. The presence of diversity however is no confirmation of an absence of racism.
An industry can be diverse but still breed poor outcomes for minorities. The presence of Meghan Markle in the royal family made the family more ethnically diverse than the boards of most major publishing houses. According to Meghan, however, the environment could not have been more hostile towards her. So alongside drives to diversify must come drives to eradicate racism. Which is harder than it sounds given that you have to accept that you have a problem before you can eradicate it. By dropping Senator Josh Hawley’s and Julie Burchill’s upcoming books, Simon & Shuster and Little Brown (respectively) demonstrated their seriousness regarding separating their companies from bigotry.
3. Know who you represent or else
The role played by Ian Murray – (former) chief executive of the Society of Editors - in the aftermath of the Meghan and Harry interview also served as a cautionary tale of monocultural thinking. Murray issued a statement from his organisation proclaiming that the British press are ‘not bigoted’. This triggered a widely signed response letter from journalists (I was one of the signatories) who begged to disagree. Several board members of the Society of Editors objected or withdrew their memberships altogether.
The statement was both needless and demonstrably false, yet it cost Ian Murray his job and threatens the continued existence of the Society of Editors.
The default mechanism at play here was to defend, as opposed to try and comprehend the moment. In the process there was a failure to understand and reflect the nature of the industry as it is today and as it is swiftly becoming. Learning the lessons of this, it is critical that publishing not only reflects and represents modern Britain but demonstrates a deep understanding of the beautiful (and occasionally ugly) complexities of modern Britain on a consistent basis.
4. Who truly gets to enjoy (remunerated) freedom of speech?
Piers Morgan – who sits atop of the Amazon book charts as I type this - consistently used two of the biggest platforms in the UK, his daily breakfast show on ITV (since literally and figuratively walked away from in anger) and his column in the Daily Mail, to wage a sustained attack on Meghan Markle while strongly dismissing any concerns or accusations levelled at him about his conduct. It is hard to conceive of a situation in which either ITV or the Daily Mail would be comfortable with a Black presenter or writer using their platforms to wage a personal vendetta against a pregnant member of the royal family (not called Meghan). It is equally hard to believe that any publisher would go near him after that.
5. Who gets to tell what stories?
There will be many books written on Meghan and Harry’s interview with Oprah for years to come. Most of these books will be written by people ‘designated’ as writers on royal affairs: courtiers and cronies, the usual suspects. The people who should be writing at least some of these books are the ones not seen or designated to be royal writers, people who are able to create and cascade understanding on the key issue at hand: race. For the long-term betterment of Britain and the royal family: these untraditional people, who better mirror Meghan and Harry, are the people we need to read books on the matter from. During this period, global audiences in their millions gravitated to Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Gina Yashere, Afua Adom and others for this very reason.
With that said, it would be just as good to read books by Black authors (who are not close to the palace) on the royal family that have nothing to do with Meghan, or even race.
Nels Abbey is a writer, satirist and media executive based in London. He is the author of Think Like a White Man (Canongate, 2018), a satirical self-help book. He is the co-founder of The Black Writers’ Guild. He is also a former banker.