In 2003, Buckingham Palace put out a four-sentence press release. Prince Harry, then aged 17, had achieved two A level passes in his final high school exams, taking home a B in Art and a D in Geography. Huzzah!
The better part of two decades later, that middling performance in geography might go some way to explaining the current embarrassing situation Harry currently finds himself in.
Yesterday,The Sun broke the story that two Russians had pranked the Duke of York, pretending to be teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and her father Svante in two phone calls with the royal and which took place on New Year’s Eve and January 22.
While the first section of the conversation, which was revealed yesterday, painted the 35-year-old as anguished over his departure from the royal family, today’s newest revelations were far more damaging with Harry seemingly being conned into answering a question about a fictional Russian island called Chunga Chunga.
Later in the call he also said he would ask a polar guide he knew to help “Greta” move penguins from Belarus (a landlocked country) to the North Pole.
And just like that, barely 48 hours since Harry and wife Meghan cut a glamorous figure striding out of Westminster Abbey and thus bidding farewell to royal life on Monday, they have found themselves embroiled in a humiliating scrape.
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So much about how this prank came to pass is head-scratching, mind-boggling stuff. To start with, why would a 35-year-old father, who has, as far as we know, only a passing acquaintance with 17-year-old Thunberg, happily discuss his family’s most sensitive issues with her?
While I’m all for cross-generational friendships, when the pranksters brought up Harry’s uncle Prince Andrew, how did he not start to smell a rat?
Likewise the fact that Harry seemingly felt comfortable sharing his innermost thoughts about his family to a young person he barely knows, telling her they were “completely separate from the majority of my family” is … surprising.
Then there is how wildly, ridiculously easily the pranksters got through to Harry. All the duo did was set up an email address under the name of the Swiss president and then using that nom de guerre, email the Sussexes’ Hollywood PR team in December (The Sun reports that the subject line read “Call or meeting with Greta Thunberg).
Later the same month Harry emailed back (using his own address) before calling “Greta” on December 31 and then again three weeks later in January. During both calls, he did not withhold his personal number.
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The only redemptive thing about this whole mortifying episode is that Harry comes out of it looking both deeply committed to environmental issues and impressively articulate.
That must be small comfort for the Buckingham Palace courtiers who have already had to contend with one Sussex-related PR crisis this week (on Monday it was revealed that originally Harry and Meghan had been excluded from being part of the Queen’s Westminster Abbey procession, while William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, had been included. The Cambridges, according to reports, defused the situation by bowing out of Her Majesty’s procession).
Harry has always had a knack for getting himself into PR pickles and tight spots, from scuffling with the paparazzi in the wee hours outside a swanky London nightclub, to deciding to dress up as a Nazi for a party, to hitting Las Vegas with some chums and ending up having his barely concealed crown jewels splashed across newspaper front pages.
All of that, mind you, was when he had the well-oiled royal machine and a dedicated staff to try and guide him. Harry has now lost all of that support, with the Sussexes’ London-based team of 15 having been already disbanded. Instead, he and Meghan are being looked after by various members of her former team, including PR and crisis management firm Sunshine Sachs.
The question now is, are they adequately equipped to look out for and protect after a couple of HRHs?
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Harry and Meghan are both now in vulnerable positions, with god knows how many tycoons, tin pot dictators and hoaxers hungry to try and co-opt the Sussexes for their own nefarious ends. Their guardians, in this scenario are a crisis management firm that once had Harvey Weinstein and Michael Jackson as clients.
One royal insider told The Sun today: “This is the whole reason why we were concerned with them taking on agents in Los Angeles who don’t follow royal processes.”
For the Windsors left behind in London to tend the royal fires, this imbroglio must auger badly. Unmoored from royal guide ropes and being in the care of professionals who could have a financial stake in the Sussexes’ commercial success, just what else could go wrong in the months and years to come? The words “recipe” and “disaster” come to mind.
Being royal is not the same as merely being famous or rich or both. It is a uniquely arcane world and an untold number of people are going to want to touch the hem of Harry and Meghan’s garments in the years to come. For minders who lack complete fluency in protecting and managing two royals, this could very well be an awesome task.
While April 1 is Harry and Meghan’s official first day of post-royal life freedom, it seems clear that we have already entered a brave new world. Hold onto your hats, this could be a bumpy ride.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.