Oprah Interview as Truth Commission – Part II: What Counts as Success?

Posted in: Human Rights

Is the monarchy doomed? Are Harry and Meghan to be permanently exiled in America? Is the Oprah interview forcing a long overdue UK reckoning with race?

Earlier this month, I analogized the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry to a truth commission. I did so in hopes of shedding light on how formal truth commissions address widespread and systemic abuses by the state as well as to provide a frame to understand some possible motivations for the interview. Today, I continue that discussion with some goals against which we might measure truth commission success. Such a conversation ideally tells us something not only about the royal kerfuffle, but more broadly about the truth commissions for which so many Americans are calling. American pundits often overfocus on the case of South Africa as the paradigmatic truth commission, but as demonstrated below, lessons can be drawn from truth commissions across the globe.

A brief introduction to the basic debate. Advocates of truth commissions view them as superior to or at the very least, important corollaries to other methods of justice. They contend truth commissions are helpfully victim centered, unlike trials; they effectively deter future human rights abusers; and facilitate reconciliation and healing. A second group views truth commission as a largely harmless, but not particularly effective substitute for prosecutions. This group accepts truth commissions as second best when political will or capacity for prosecutions is lacking. Opponents go further, suggesting that rather than settle history, truth commissions harden divergent understandings, traumatize victims when recommendations and punishment do not follow, and upset alleged perpetrators who may retaliate.

Given this debate, how might we measure success for truth commissions? Two weeks in is substantially too early to pronounce any outcome for the Oprah interview. That said, recent on-the-ground developments among family members, in the British press, and across British society more generally might reflect issues that frequently arise with the implementation of truth commissions and their recommendations and whether they successfully meet their goals.

First, one basic and fairly thin metric of success is whether truth commissions finish their mandate and widely disseminate their findings. A truth commission mandate details the kinds of violations to be investigated, the period of time, and its powers and process to engage in the investigation. Some truth commissions simply fail to even complete basic investigatory tasks: report compilation, recommendation generation, and findings dissemination. For instance, neither the truth commissions in Bolivia nor the one in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia completed their reports. Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria were unable to quickly publish final reports after the committee finished their reports. Neither Haiti, Uganda, nor Kenya widely disseminated their truth commission findings. In contrast, Sierra Leone commission’s three-volume report was widely disseminated across the country and largely well received. Similarly, local populations read many of the unofficial truth commission reports in Latin America. For instance, Argentina’s Nunca Mas report was a blockbuster selling 40,000 copies the first day.

For the Oprah interview, this measure is a bit more difficult to tease out. The interview had no official or even unofficial mandate. Oprah determined what information was worth mining and any limits or focus were either privately decided in advance or in the moment. But if one loosely views the interview as exploring the treatment of Meghan during her tenure as a royal and the reasons Harry and Meghan departed the UK and their jobs as working royals, it seems to have satisfied the implicit mandate. Of course, the interview relied solely on victim testimony as is sometimes, but not always, the case with truth commissions. Many believe Harry and Meghan have the receipts to back up their claims, but they presented no documentary evidence. As for the dissemination metric, the Oprah interview was a resounding success with over 10 million UK viewers and 61 million global viewers. Even for those who did not watch, the British press has extensively covered the claims. In this sense, it is most reminiscent of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was relatively unusual in televising victim testimony and hearings.

A second possible truth commission goal is to establish a definitive narrative of the relevant abuses. In this setting narrative usually means “assessing the magnitude of the violence, the patterns, the trends and the locations in which it took place.” For instance, the East German truth commission was designed to establish a shared history of life under state socialism. The commission’s findings have influenced the commonly understood history that is now taught in schools, portrayed in national museums, and memorialized through public art. Contrast that with Nigeria whose government rejected the truth commission’s findings, annulled the body, and refused to implement any recommendations.

The Oprah interview currently looks likely to fail on this metric, but the early verdict is often not the final verdict. While the royal family allegedly considered and rejected a point-by-point rebuttal, they have still very much failed to adopt the “findings” of the interview even if they do not directly and painstakingly dispute each of them. While the Queen’s statement acknowledged Harry and Meghan’s pain, it pointedly rejected the universal truth of their statements, noting that recollections may vary. Similarly, when given the opportunity to endorse Meghan and Harry’s narrative, Prince William instead tersely noted “we are very much not a racist family.” In addition, much of the British press, bolstered by insider quotes, is aggressively pushing back on nearly all of Meghan and Harry’s testimony. The refutations range from major points such as Piers Morgan declaring he did not believe Meghan’s admission of suicidal ideation; arguing that Archie’s failure to receive a prince’s title was consistent with Royal protocol, contending that the media correctly reported the flower girl dresses fight, suggesting that Meghan had access to her passport, to minor ones such as highlighting Meghan’s knowledge of the monarchy as a young person and whether the couple actually had a backyard wedding. A staggering quarter of Brits did not believe any of Meghan or Harry’s claims. Of course, as mentioned above, it is still quite early. Perceptions might change if Meghan and Harry release documentation for their claims. And perhaps more importantly, a significant generational divide exists. Younger people are much more likely to believe Harry and Meghan, so their version may become the dominant narrative over time. A wait-and-see attitude may make much sense here.

A third possible goal of truth commissions is catharsis for individual victims. Optimists hope that victims experience therapeutic benefits from the act of truth telling. They suggest that when victims and their suffering are validated, it can restore self-respect. Victims sometimes also feel relief from having publicly told their story. On the other hand, skeptics fear victims, particularly those without follow-up support or access to counseling, will be further traumatized and may even face retaliation. The empirical evidence here is decidedly mixed. In Guatemala, for instance, victims found testifying gave them a sense of control and long-term mental health benefits. In Rwanda, however, many women who participated in the Gacaca courts felt retraumatized, isolated, and unsafe after their testimony.

We may never know whether Meghan and Harry feel catharsis. Unlike victims interviewed by scholars, Meghan and Harry may choose to keep their true feelings private going forward. One could imagine a variety of possible outcomes. Perhaps they will feel relief at having their truth known after years of silence. Perhaps they will take pride in raising important issues surrounding mental health and misogynoir. On the other hand, they have received no apology from the royal family and very limited acknowledgment by them of their pain. In addition, negative press coverage and alleged continued leaks from the Firm could lead them to conclude that despite hopes, nothing meaningful has changed.

A somewhat related goal of some truth commissions is that of reconciliation. Are victims and aggressors able to come together and peaceably coexist? Are equal social and political relations (re)established? Notably, the time horizon for evaluating success, like that for establishing a definitive historical account, should be extended here. No one expects instantaneous reconciliation given the conditions that led to the need for the commission and in fact, the immediate impact of a truth commission is often vigorous disagreement with findings. Governmental apologies and acknowledgment sometimes happen years after the initial publication as they did in Argentina, Chile, and East Timor. At least the empirical evidence does not suggest the opposite—publication of commission reports does not cause violence to resume.

Again, it is hard to predict whether a long-term reconciliation will be forthcoming, but the short-term signs are negative. Given the continued structure of the monarchy, it seems extremely unlikely that Harry and Meghan would ever be welcomed back as equals with others in the royal family. Nor does a resumption of their working roles whether in Britain or the Commonwealth more generally seem to be on the table. Many in the UK view the interview not as the first step towards reconciliation, but instead as bridge-burning by Meghan and Harry. Allegedly, no member of the royal family has reached out to Meghan, further underlining her outsider status and the Firm is ramping up HR claims against her. Harry has conveyed that post-interview conversations with his father and brother were unproductive. And most recently, the couple has abandoned their royal Sussex monogram suggesting perhaps a widening and hardening rift.

Another major goal for many truth commissions, particularly in the setting of transitional justice, is the promotion of democratic norms and human rights culture often through institutional and constitutional reform. Sometimes this flows directly from the commission’s recommendations and other times, it prompts or complements civil society pushes for such changes. Take, for instance, Canada’s truth and reconciliation commission. Six years after the summary report and calls to action, 33 of the 94 calls to action have been started or completed with 38 more proposed. Of course, Canada was not seeking a massive political overhaul, so other examples such as those who credit the truth commission in Chile with helping to dismantle authoritarian enclaves might be important as well. Skeptics view the effect as much more diffuse and suggest other transitional justice tools are more successful in creating momentum for these changes.

With the case of the monarchy, the interview’s emphasis on the treatment of a single set of family members has little relation to either democratizing the Commonwealth or promoting a human rights culture more generally. Meghan and Harry have effectively explained their beliefs as to how the Firm and the family have mistreated them, but this conversation sheds little light on the ongoing harms of colonialism and racism experienced by others in the Commonwealth. Given the global platform, they missed a real opportunity to delve into the harms of global sex trafficking and how the monarchy has been implicated in that practice. Truth commissions often rely on family members for testimony, but usually that is for victim testimony rather than perpetrator, and it is at least possible that Harry and Meghan do not have any special knowledge about Prince Andrew’s behavior or the work of the Firm and the Royal Family in protecting him.

That said, the Firm and the British press seem to be the two institutions most directly in the line of fire from the Oprah interview. In the short term, the Firm is likely to meet reform proposals, such as diversifying the royal rota (the press that has special access to cover the royal family) with extreme resistance. That does not mean change is impossible. For instance, the Palace is considering hiring a diversity chief, though it claims efforts have long been underway. In addition, the civil society pushback after the Oprah interview might have caused the Firm to hire an external law firm to conduct an investigation into the HR claims lodged against Meghan rather than handle them in-house. Even so, they plan on handling the matter privately and without continued civil society pressure, may not make the process transparent.

As for the press, the combination of external and internal pressure may spur a significant reckoning. Like with many other goals, the initial response from relevant actors was denial and rejection. The executive director of the prominent Society of Editors responded with a categorical denial of the UK press’s bigotry particularly in reference to its coverage of Meghan. But almost immediately, over 150 member journalists signed an open letter condemning Murray’s position as “show[ing] a willful ignorance” of how the press treats those from an “ethnic minority background.” The signatories instead called for a discussion “about the best way to prevent racist coverage in future.” Without walking back any of its claims about Meghan, the Society of Editors then issued a clarification that “there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion.” This prompted continued pushback and the head of the Society to resign in order to allow the organization to “rebuild its reputation.” Whether the Society and the British press more generally go further and actually conduct a systemic review of their practices and reforms their coverage is of course a question that cannot be answered now.

Measuring the success of a truth commission is an empirically tricky business and, in my opinion, requires a long-time horizon. So too for the Oprah interview. While some initial facts on the ground are negative, reform and reconciliation are still possible. Stay tuned.

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