The Oprah Interview as a Truth Commission

Posted in: Human Rights

Why would a couple who claims to hate press intrusions agree to a no-holds-barred, tell-all interview for global broadcast? While skeptics view Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah as grandstanding, a chance to build their corporate brand, or a vengeful smear on the monarchy, I view it as an analog to a truth commission. Viewing it as such might help to explain how Meghan and Harry balance the conflict between the virtues of privacy and truth telling. And perhaps of more interest to people reading a law blog, it might illuminate how a formal truth commission dealing with the ever-present legacies of racism and colonialism might function in the British empire.

First, the similarities. Truth commissions, particularly those conducted under or as a prelude to transitional justice, are designed to combat denial and forgetting. In settings of political uncertainty with significant past wrongdoing, societies must choose whether and how to deny, to forget, or to remember. Some suggest that once a break has been made with the past, parties should look to the future rather than dwell on the past. Some worry that too much looking back prevents forgiveness and encourages vengeance rather than moving forward. In contrast, others claim that truth telling is a necessary disinfectant. Having the wrongdoing known, exposed, and acknowledged respects and provides some comfort to victims while pointing the way to needed reforms. Martha Minow has written extensively about the tension between these approaches, suggesting that breaking the cycle of atrocity requires navigating a careful pathway between too much forgetting and too much memory.

Here, the Sussexes are fighting to establish their truth. Rather than simply move across the pond and look forward, they decided to actively and publicly revisit the past. While working royals, Harry and Meghan had limited opportunities to forward their version of history. While they could leak information to the media via proxies, they could not speak freely. After leaving, they could litigate to deter future untruths and privacy invasions as well as speak in their own unedited words. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan and Harry explicitly say that wrongdoing occurred by the British media, the Firm, and the royal family itself. In so doing, they have created an opportunity to rehabilitate their names and potentially to transform public opinion regarding the monarchy and the British press.

Second, truth commissions are designed to show the need for institutional and social reform. Take for example the Servicio Paz y Justicia interviews with victims of the dirty war in Uruguay. In telling the stories of victims, the activists hoped to spur the government to acknowledge wrongdoing, stop abuses, and offer reparations. Here, Meghan and Harry are not very subtly suggesting that the monarchy’s relationship with the press and its understanding and participation in racism need an overhaul. One might easily scope it larger and read it as a need for Commonwealth reform on issues of race.

Third, truth commissions give victims the opportunity to assert and demonstrate equal standing. One of the virtues of state-operated truth commissions is that they are an exercise in respecting the victim’s claim to citizenship and equality. When done well, they show the society how to treat victims with respect and recognize their claims on the state. While unofficial truth commissions lack the stamp of the state, they can still show how to treat a victim with respect and allow her to tell her story. Similarly, in the interview, Oprah is demonstrating that Meghan’s voice deserves regard and her pain consideration. The interview itself shows her being treated with respect and as an equal. Together they attempt to dismantle the media’s trope of Meghan as the angry Black woman.

But obviously, a single interview is not a truth commission, and the differences matter too. As noted above, the monarchy did not create or operate the endeavor. Of course, not all truth commissions are state run—for instance, Nunca Mais in Brazil and the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation process here in the United States, among many others, were grassroots endeavors carried on without official state support. But when they lack the support of the state, they are often the first step in hopes of an official truth telling or transitional justice project. This matters because having the imprimatur of the state can add credibility and a message not to be obtained outside the state. The Oprah interview is not the official version of what happened, it is not the historical record, and because Harry and Meghan are not the state, they cannot control the machinery of the Firm and how it continues to interact with the British monarchy. So, for example, the stories about Meghan wearing jewels gifted by the Saudi royal family and her alleged bullying of the royal staff offer a competing narrative. While states have the authority to both disseminate official history and set gag rules or other constraints on alternative versions of history, private citizens have a much more limited ability to do so.

Relatedly, official truth commissions are generally designed to both be and establish the perception of their neutrality and non-partisanship. Official, and often non-official truth commissions, frequently rely on legal trappings to demonstrate fairness and neutrality. Commissioners are often chosen for their character, integrity, and objectivity. In contrast, while Oprah Winfrey is a well respected American interviewer who did a masterful job asking Harry and Meghan questions and follow-ups, few are likely to view her as objective and non-partisan. She attended the couple’s nuptials, collaborated with Harry on a mental health project, and they are social friends and neighbors. Those not already disposed to believe Harry and Meghan are unlikely to find this an unbiased interview, particularly as no documentation was provided for many claims and presumably no opportunity was offered to the royal family to respond.

Nor does the interview directly focus on mass, systemic wrongdoing. While Meghan and Harry may have dealt with the racism of the British press and racist comments from family members, this is a very narrow slice of the instantiation of racism’s harms, inflicted on very few. The interview did not meaningfully shine a light on the experience of racism for Britons outside the royal family as, for example, a truth commission on the treatment of the Windrush generation might do.

Finally, the interview does not seem designed to transform relations. That isn’t to say that the interview might not have an effect on the monarchy and support for it, but rather to say that the interview is not designed purely or primarily as justice seeking. While truth commissions are often aimed at drawing a line in the sand and reinforcing the commitment of never again for past bad behavior, even Harry views his family members as trapped within likely inescapable roles and seems to have little hope the palace will change its relationship with the press or that the press will soon overcome its racist ways. But I do think they do share a fundamental kinship that even when individuals want privacy going forward, the desire to have the truth known and established about the past is a powerful, profoundly human one. The Commonwealth would do well to take this lesson seriously and consider wider-ranging truth projects to deal with the racism and colonialist legacy that plagues it.

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