Cruel hoax and Sussex Squad ruined my life, says royal expert

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Victoria Arbiter, a Royal expert, is threatening to take legal action against YouTubers Archie Manners and Josh Pieters for fraudulent representation - Neville Elder
Victoria Arbiter, a Royal expert, is threatening to take legal action against YouTubers Archie Manners and Josh Pieters for fraudulent representation - Neville Elder

The daughter of the Queen’s former press secretary is threatening to sue two pranksters who tricked her into commentating on Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex before it aired.

Victoria Arbiter was “cancelled” by CNN, the US television news channel, and suffered horrific online abuse at the hands of the so-called Sussex Squad, the internet army that supports Prince Harry and his wife. In the wake of the hoax, Ms Arbiter was branded a “Nazi Barbie”, “toxic racist liar” and “Apartheid Vicky” and CNN was urged by the Sussex Squad to sack her.

Ms Arbiter, 48, who lives in New York, is now considering legal action against the two London-based hoaxers in an attempt to restore her reputation. The prank, broadcast on YouTube, has cost Ms Arbiter, a single mother, tens of thousands of pounds in lost earnings over the past year. She believes she is the victim of fraudulent misrepresentation.

She said: “I just want to clear my name and for them to apologise and be accountable for what they did. They set out to have a laugh and make some money and in the process destroyed my life as I knew it. If it wasn’t for my family and friends I don’t know what the eventual outcome would have been.”

The hoaxers - Archie Manners, the Radley College-educated descendant of the Duke of Rutland and the South African-born Josh Pieters - conned Ms Arbiter and three other Royal commentators into giving their thoughts on the interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex two days before it was actually broadcast. Among those also tricked was Ms Arbiter’s father Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the Queen and media manager for Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Ms Arbiter, who was paid a fee of £300 which was never cashed, was told she was taking part in a programme to be aired on ITV after the interview but that the programme makers - using the fake company name Beneath the Fold - needed a pre-record. Ms Arbiter says giving interviews in advance is recognised industry practice and she was merely trying to help out what she thought was a legitimate programme maker.

Ms Arbiter said that in the aftermath the “onslaught had been relentless”, leaving her with dark thoughts and without any income.

‘I could hardly breathe’

“I have literally lost all of my work,” she said, “I was mocked mercilessly. I went to see a doctor who diagnosed me with acute anxiety and depression. I still have insomnia.”

Mr Manners, 29, who is also a magician, and Mr Pieters, 28, approached Ms Arbiter through her agent, asking her to comment on the Oprah interview, broadcast on March 7 2021. Ms Arbiter insists such pre-recorded interviews ahead of events are not uncommon.

In the course of the hoax interview, Ms Arbiter at times had declined to comment pointing out she did not know what was in the broadcast. Other comments, she said, were based on snippets already trailed by the broadcasters and a clear indication of what was likely to be involved.

In her commentary, Ms Arbiter told the hoaxers: “She [Oprah] did ask the tough questions, she had to ask the tough questions… But at the same time I think she did ask those questions in a sympathetic light.”

Asked if Oprah Winfrey had given the Duke and Duchess an “easy ride” because they are friends, Ms Arbiter said: “And certainly favouring Harry and Meghan.”

She was also quizzed on the “brotherly rift” between Prince Willian and Prince Harry, responding: “In describing the brotherly rift, as they did in the interview, you can’t help but be incredibly moved, stunned, saddened by all of it.”

But Ms Arbiter says the YouTube video had been heavily edited, omitting parts of the interview where she had been uncomfortable to comment.

When the hoax was broadcast on YouTube, Ms Arbiter realised she had been tricked and knew what would be coming next. “I could hardly breathe,” she recalled, “It was awful. I was watching the damage unfold.”

A few days later CNN, which paid her an annual retainer, cancelled an offer of a new contract. “I loved working for CNN. It was the pinnacle of my career,” said Ms Arbiter, who had worked for the channel for eight years. Other broadcasters also snubbed her.

“Archie and Josh sowed the seed and then willfully allowed the Sussex Squad to do its worst,” said Ms Arbiter, “The onslaught was relentless. I lost the ability to earn an income. We were still in the midst of a pandemic so there wasn’t a survival job to be had. I was too scared to leave my home. I lost a stone in weight and my eyelashes fell out. I still suffer from insomnia and at times the anxiety is so paralysing I’m unable to function.

“I’ve lost 15 months’ worth of income not to mention future opportunities and I’m on the cusp of losing my home. I’m a single mother with a son to support. I started going to counselling but I had to stop due to the prohibitive cost. My character has been assassinated, I was publicly humiliated and my reputation is in ruins.”

She said she has had “dark thoughts”, adding: “There’s only so much one person can take when the hate is pouring in from every side.”

Ms Arbiter has now been removed from the video after her lawyers at Kingsley Napley complained. But Ms Arbiter says the damage has already been done.

The hoaxers headlined the video “We prove royal experts lie” but Ms Arbiter said their “defamatory narrative cost me all my work”.

Neither Mr Pieters, Mr Manners nor their agent responded to a request for comment last week. In other stunts, the YouTubers tricked Katie Hopkins, the Right wing commentator, into accepting a fake award with a derogatory word displayed on a screen behind her; and hoaxed David Walliams into auditioning for a fake movie.

Pair insisted they weren’t leading commentators on

But in explaining why they had carried out the royal interview hoax, they told the Guardian they had “wondered whether people would say things that weren’t necessarily true to purely jump on the buzz of this Harry and Meghan interview, and it turned out that they would”.

Mr Manners said: “To me, it’s like asking a football commentator to give me 90 minutes of voice-noting on [a match they haven’t seen]. It’s such a ludicrous premise.”

The pair also insisted that they weren’t leading the commentators on or “feeding them lines”, simply asking “broad stroke questions that you simply cannot answer if you have not seen the interview”.

Dickie Arbiter has previously described the stunt as “deliberately misleading and a scam” and his interview edited “so as to imply I was speculating on the full-programme interview. I was not speculating. I do not speculate.”