We learned a lot from Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's interview with Oprah Winfrey, which aired last night in the UK. One such thing being Meghan's nickname for the royal family: 'The Firm'. But what does 'The Firm' mean, and how is it different from 'the institution,' which is another description the Duchess of Sussex had for her former workplace?
In the interview, Meghan clarified that "there’s the family, and then there’s the people that are running the institution," describing them as "two separate things." The ex-senior royal noted that it’s "important to be able to compartmentalise that, because the Queen, for example, has always been wonderful to me," suggesting much of her criticism wasn't specifically directed at the family members themselves.
But because the terms are now being used interchangeably, it can get a bit confusing. So let's get to it: what's the actual difference between The Firm, the institution, and the royal family?
What is the meaning behind 'The Firm'?
'The Firm' may sound like the name of a Tom Cruise thriller movie (and that's because, well... it is) but beyond that, it's also a name that's widely used as a descriptor for the British royal family, supposedly having originated from the Duke of Edinburgh.
In the blurb of her book The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor, Royal biographer Penny Junor describes the concept succinctly: "However you look at it, the royal family is a big business, though one with more ups and downs than the stock market. Prince Philip calls it "The Firm," and all the royal executives and their powerful associates are supposed to make every effort to avoid even a hint of scandal that could diminish the reputation of the family business."
Junor isn't wrong when she says the royals are "big business" - in 2020, the Queen was ranked number 372 on the Sunday Times Rich List, estimating her net worth to be in the hundreds of millions. The sovereign grant, which is the royal family's day-to-day income, is £82.4m, and the monarchy also owns various collections and a portfolio of land and property, which elevates the total 'brand' value into the billions, it's estimated.
While Meghan Markle was previously on the inside of the family business, since she and Prince Harry stepped down from their roles as senior royals - and having subsequently had all working ties cut - some believe her use of the term 'The Firm' in the interview is significant. Speaking to OprahMag.com, royal historian Edward Owens said: "Meghan was once party to the secretive operation of the monarchy; but now she is firmly on the outside, and I think her phrase is suggestive of how she and Harry have been cut off and excluded.
"Meghan’s words capture the impersonal nature of this PR operation: the monarchy have demonstrated a real ruthlessness in ensuring their survival over the last one hundred years as well as the survival of their wealth and privilege," he suggests.
The Sussexes' reference to the royal family as 'The Firm' and 'the institution' echo the words of Princess Diana in her 1995 interview with Martin Bashir, when she called the royal family 'the establishment'. When asked if she had thought she would ever be queen, the Princess of Wales replied: "I'd like to be a queen of people's hearts, in people's hearts, but I don't see myself being Queen of this country. I don't think many people will want me to be Queen. Actually, when I say many people I mean the establishment that I married into, because they have decided that I'm a non-starter."
What does Meghan mean by 'the institution'?
Like every business, the royal family has a PR (or 'communications') department looking after it, to ensure the brand stays in good public favour. Prince Harry alluded to the "fear" that surrounds this for his family, telling Oprah: "The institution survives based on that [positive public] perception."
"There is this invisible contract behind closed doors, behind the institution and U.K. tabloids," Harry explained. "Well, to simplify it, it's a case of if you, as a family member, are willing to wine, dine, and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press. I think everybody needs to have some compassion in that situation. There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations," he claimed.
When 'the institution' is described by Meghan Markle, it could perhaps be assumed that she's talking about the wider workings of the royal family brand, and not the family members themselves. For example, when the Duchess described attempting to seek help for the suicidal thoughts she had experienced at the height of the media attacks on her, she explained that she "went to the institution" about it and was refused help.
"I said that I needed to go somewhere to get help. And I said that I’d never felt this way before. I need to go somewhere. And I was told that I couldn’t, because it wouldn’t be good for the institution," said Meghan. "They said, 'My heart goes out to you because I see how bad it is. But there’s nothing we can do to protect you because you’re not a paid employee'."
These were not conversations Meghan had with members of the royal family, but instead senior employees within the royal household, which is where the reference to 'the institution' becomes important.
The bottom line? 'The Firm' and 'the institution' are effectively one and the same - they're the business that surrounds the royal family, and not necessarily the individuals within it.
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