An Apology to Prince Harry: A Former Women’s Mag Editor Shares Her Regrets

For four years, Alice O’Connell was editor of New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Is she proud of the way she covered stories about Prince Harry? No. No, she is not.

I am someone who apologises often and profusely – perhaps even to a degree that is problematic.

I apologise when someone else is in the wrong (like when I reflexively, immediately say sorry if someone walks into me) and for things that are entirely out of my control (on more than one occasion I’ve apologised for the weather).

Which is why it’s with some embarrassment that I acknowledge that there’s someone who I’ve owed a genuine apology to for quite some time, that I’ve – until now – failed to say sorry to.

That person is Prince Harry.

I’ve skirted around the idea a few times in the last few years, writing about how terrific and often misunderstood his book Spare is, and have harshly criticised other media outlets in the way they have reported on any story involving the prince. But each time, I’ve fallen short of doing the one thing I really should have written: an apology.

See for four years, from 2016 – 2020 I was the editor of New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (having been the assistant editor for two years before that). The backbone of the Weekly was stories about the royal family – and had likely been that way for the majority of the magazine’s 90-year history. Nearly every week that I worked there, they were either the main cover, or a large drop-in. They were that popular.

But, I didn’t always get it right. Particularly not when Harry and his wife Meghan were concerned.

I published some stories that were unfair and incredibly one-sided – and can now see were from sources who weren’t telling the truth. My biggest mistake though, was that I stopped seeing Harry as a human being.

Kindness is something I’ve prided myself on for a long time. The Weekly was always seen as the “kinder” magazine in its peer group (it was up against the likes of Woman’s Day, New Idea and NW) and when I got the job as editor it was something I was determined to carve out even further. I was determined there’d be no salacious and overly gossipy stories and it would instead focus on the good, particularly when it came to everyday hard-working Kiwis.

But, on reflection, it wasn’t all that kind. I wasn’t kind. I wasn’t kind to Prince Harry, and I certainly wasn’t kind to his wife, Meghan Markle.

As I watch Prince Harry’s court case, I feel nothing but shame, and anger. And regret. Because he’s right. He’s completely in the right – although, unfortunately I fear he won’t have enough evidence to win.

Now, I want to make it clear that in my former job I never had a part in anything as scandalous and low – even in the same ballpark – as phone-hacking, or underhanded measures for getting stories.

But I was a cog in the machine – yes, a very small cog, all the way out on the other side of the globe in New Zealand, but a cog, nonetheless.

I reprinted stories and quotes from British newspapers and magazines that, knowing what I know now, were untrue. I commissioned stories to British writers, who I trusted for their connections in the Palaces, that contained information that was, in hindsight, likely very untrue.

And I don’t blame those writers. Having read the sections in Spare where Harry talks about the lies and spin put out by communications teams from other royal houses (we’re talking about those of King Charles and Queen Camilla, plus the Prince and Princess of Wales here), I can think of several stories that it makes sense about. For one, I can remember the talk about a rift occurring between ‘the fab four’ (that was Prince William, his wife Kate, Prince Harry & Meghan), and the hoo-ha about Meghan Markle supposedly making Kate cry before her wedding to Harry over bridesmaids dresses. We printed that story, when yes, in fact, it was the opposite scenario that took place.

Yes, we had official sources, but those sources were telling a different version of events to protect their own royals, or were deflecting and creating entirely false stories to bury other stories (negative stories, but true stories) that might come out about the royals they were responsible for.

When Harry & Meghan, the Netflix documentary screened here last year, I had a sudden flurry of media requests due to the fact that when the couple were talking about the intensity of negative stories that appeared about Meghan, one of the images that flashed up was a cover of little old New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.

The main image was of Meghan, posing for a publicity shot for Suits, wearing a blue dress, her arms crossed against her knees, her hair and make-up perfect, giving a glimmer of a smile. The headline screamed: ‘Meghan’s Shock Past. Is Harry heading for trouble?

It was a cover I’d signed off.

I had to reread it to remember it, but it was shortly before the pair married. Andrew Morton (the same journalist who wrote Diana: Her True Story) had just finished up a new biography on the soon-to-be duchess, titled Meghan: The Hollywood Princess. We’d got hold of an advanced copy and wrote about some of the ‘bombshells’ in the book, which talked about Meghan’s former marriage and former friends who claimed fame had changed her, for the worse.

When I watched the documentary and it flashed up, I was surprised. At the time, I remember thinking, ‘heck, there were SO many worse headlines that our competitors in NZ put out. Why this one?’. But, I also felt ashamed. It was unnecessarily mean.

Other media who reached out at that time were keen for my comment. ‘It’d make a cute story!’ said one. But it didn’t at all feel cute. It felt wrong, very wrong.

See, as time went on in my role, and the pressure to sell more magazines kept building, I soon found out what sold, and what bombed. And stories of the princes fighting, sold. Stories about Meghan’s past, sold.

Sure, I could say that I was just doing my job, doing what was asked of me and if I had of done a U-turn on that, I would have lost my job. But, in reality, would that really have been a bad thing?

Just because it was what people wanted to read, didn’t make it the right decision to print those stories. Particularly when they were accompanied by salacious headlines – the very thing I set out to stop.

THAT cover, I’m not proud of.

While I should have apologised sooner, I’ve felt the urge recently – especially seeing one paper only apologise when forced to and watching as the rest of the media forges on ahead in their narratives, refusing to reflect on their practices or past reporting.

I get it, in a way. For a lot of people, when they’re accused of doing something wrong – even if they really firmly are in the wrong – the instinct is to be defensive. It’s that knee-jerk, ‘That’s not true! He’s a liar! Look at all the stupid things he’s done,’ response.

It’s one thing, when you’re reacting like that in a conversation in your own home or office, or wherever this heated conversation is taking place. But in Harry’s case, those defensive ‘we haven’t done anything wrong! He’s just a silly, complaining whinger!’ retorts are coming from huge media organisations who have the ability to voice those defensive (and, quite frankly, wrong) thoughts to millions of people packaged up as ‘news’.

Examining their own behaviour and the part they have played in a very broken system, for many, many decades now seems far too much of a stretch for many (or perhaps any?) media organisations. I guess, because doing some serious thinking and reflecting, could bring up the uncomfortable truth that their behaviour has been unethical and wrong – and caused serious distress and harm. Because this isn’t just Harry’s fight. It’s a fight he’s waging to honour his late mum, his wife and for his own children and future grandchildren.

So, while I might be alone in this apology, I wanted to voice it.

And, like I said, perhaps the biggest apology I owe Prince Harry is for not truly treating him like a human being.

I’ll never forget the royal tours I went along on in the job. Before I was editor, I travelled as an official member of the media on Harry’s first visit here in 2014, to cover the trip in the Weekly. The group – the royal rota that Harry now frequently and angrily refers to – contained local media who’d been granted access, as well as international media, mostly dominated by the British photographers and journalists from many of the tabloids, including The Sun and The Daily Mail.

I felt a buzz about the whole thing and wrote stories about how down-to-earth Harry was. Because he was – in every interaction he had with the general public he was engaged, interested and generous with his time. I wrote about those interactions at length. Especially those where he told people not to call him ‘HRH’ – despite the briefings those people underwent before meeting him – and to please just “call me Harry”.

It was also incredibly obvious during that time that he despised the media – he didn’t care whether anyone got a good photo of him, or whatever we were all there to do, he was only interested in talking to the charity workers, or every-day NZers about what they cared about, what was important to them, and whether there was anything he could do to assist. He wasn’t rude or unkind or difficult – he just often refused to acknowledge our existence, and, although it looked like he was doing his best, his facial expressions and mannerisms often gave away his true feelings for the press.

On the job: Following Harry to his first event in 2014, being welcomed to Aotearoa

Meanwhile, the rota were a grumpy pack – constantly barking at him to move or face them or get in the shot (nearly all of which he ignored). They’d complain that he wasn’t pandering to them. They’d complain about the weather.

But none of them complained as hard as they did as when then-Prince Charles and Camilla toured NZ in 2019. Then, I heard them complaining about being the ‘B’ team, forced out to the other side of the earth, instead of covering whatever Prince William or Prince Harry were doing – the more interesting, cool and newsworthy royals. Those were the royals who might land them a spot on the cover, instead of page four, or worse. The pack was also just a shadow of the huge media numbers of the Harry tour. When Harry talks about his father’s hang-ups about his sons – and, more often the case – daughters-in-law stealing the show, I believed his every word.

But what I’d failed to see at the time was that, while I worried Harry looked sad, I hadn’t stopped long enough to think about what was being asked of him. He didn’t owe any of us a perfect photo opportunity. The idea that he was paraded out like a circus animal to perform, and then scolded for not performing enough tricks is…well, insane? Let alone the fact that the people he was being asked to perform in front of, are people who work for the same companies that contributed to the traumatic death of his mother?

It’s one thing that we say about celebrities, like famous actors or musicians, that media scrutiny is just the price they pay for fame, or something that just comes along with the territory (which, I can’t say I agree with). But, for Prince Harry, he had absolutely no choice in the matter. He never asked for a bar of it, or chased fame in any way. Instead, he has been scrutinised since he was an embryo, paraded out in front of the media on a regular basis, and hounded by them in his downtime. Really, I think it’s certainly fair enough that he has a few complaints about it all.

And yes, while I did do a fair few covers that celebrated Harry – like those ones when he visited NZ – I should have been looking at the bigger picture, rather than chasing the stories of who his next girlfriend would be, and how the rest of the family would react. What a waste of time.

Harry deserved better. His wife deserves better. They still deserve better. And for my part, to him and Meghan, I really am sorry.

The Motherhood Diaries: ‘I Wish I’d Had More Access To A Taha Māori Kāinga.’ Creating A Village For Māori Māmās To Be

A new documentary, It Takes A Kāinga, aims to shine a spotlight on the maternal mental health statistics for Maori mothers in Aotearoa –...

The Time of Your Life: Hacking Your Morning Routine So Your Day Runs a Little Smoother (Including a Time-Saving Hair Tool That Absolutely SLAPS)

The last few years have felt disproportionally hard - so Capsule, with the help of our pals at Shark and Ninja, are here to...

The Capsule Book Club: My Favourite Mistake by Marian Keyes – A Beloved Writer’s Best Effort Yet? 

It’s officially cosy season, so we couldn’t be more thrilled to curl up with a good book and settle in for an incredible read...

THE ONE THING… ‘I Wish I’d Done Before Having Kids’ – 25 Women Tell What They’d Do Differently

If there's one thing you could have done differently before having kids, what would it be? We spoke to 25 women who all have...