Jacinda Ardern's involvement in Prince Harry, Meghan Markle Netflix show was 'misrepresented' in trailer, Prime Minister's Office claimed

Newshub can reveal the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) last year wrote to the organisation behind a Netflix show fronted by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, claiming a trailer "misrepresented" Jacinda Ardern's involvement.

"Unfortunately, the trailer and publicity around it in New Zealand has misrepresented the Prime Minister's involvement in this project and caused confusion around the role of the Duke and Duchess," Ardern's Chief Press Secretary emailed the Nelson Mandela Foundation in December.

The press secretary said a media statement had been released to clarify that an interview with Ardern set to feature in the series was conducted years prior and not by the royal couple. 

The PMO was notified last year - after the interview was recorded in 2019 - that Harry and Meghan were involved in the project. However, it never replied to that email, according to correspondence obtained by Newshub.

In a new statement to Newshub, a spokesperson for the PMO said the foundation "apologised for the confusion" after the trailer was released. 

Newshub has been told an email to the PMO from the foundation said it did "apologise for the confusion that has arisen".

But the Nelson Mandela Foundation has now told Newshub it doesn't believe the trailer misrepresented Ardern's involvement.

It's also said: "Understandings of what constitutes 'apology' differ; in this instance, what we would call clarifications and acknowledgements were sought and communicated by all parties concerned."

The trailer for the Live to Lead documentary series came out in mid-December last year ahead of the show's December 31 release on streaming giant Netflix. 

It promised the series would feature a star-studded line-up of interviewees, including Ardern, former US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and climate activist Greta Thunberg, reflecting on their values and legacies.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex produced the series and appeared throughout the trailer speaking of how the guests are "people who have made brave choices" and inspired others.

While the trailer quickly made global headlines, Ardern said she had had no clue she'd be showing up in a series presented by the royals when she sat down for her interview in 2019. 

It was intended initially as material for a short book and other resources being made by the Nelson Mandela Foundation for aspiring leaders around the globe.

But in the years since the interview was filmed and permission for its use was granted by Ardern, the foundation had secured an agreement for Netflix to broadcast it.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle then became involved amid their foray into entertainment. 

The pair shocked the world in 2020 after ditching their senior royal roles and moving to the United States. There, they signed deals with the likes of Netflix and Spotify, and used interviews to criticise the British royal family and attack the media. At the same time, their personal popularity plummeted

The PMO first became aware of the royals' involvement in May last year when Verne Harris from the Nelson Mandela Foundation emailed with an update on the project.

Newshub has obtained that email and other correspondence under the Official Information Act (OIA).

After discussing the challenges COVID-19 had presented and how the rollout of the project "has been slower than originally planned", Harris gave the office a heads-up about Harry and Meghan's involvement. 

It was called an "exciting new dimension" that Netflix had asked to remain confidential.

"We had an opportunity to share material from the interviews with [the Sussexes] in 2020 and as a result of feeling inspired by both the quality of the material and the importance of the message, they undertook to help open doors for Netflix to broadcast it," Harris said.

He said the royals had agreed to record brief introductions for each episode "in an effort to help the series reach the largest possible audience". 

The email ended with Harris saying: "Please let us know if we can tell you anything more about the project."

Email from Verne Harris to PMO.
Email from Verne Harris to PMO. Photo credit: PMO.

According to the correspondence provided to Newshub, the PMO didn't reply. Ardern would later say she personally wasn't aware she'd be in a documentary with the royals until the Live to Lead trailer was released on December 20.

That morning Harris emailed PMO links to publicity material and told the office Netflix had chosen "an additional trailer clip from the Prime Minister's episode to feature as part of the release campaign".

Later that day, Ardern's Chief Press Secretary would email Harris claiming the trailer and publicity around it had "misrepresented" Ardern's involvement in the project and the office had released a statement clarifying the situation.

"Given the PM is the only head of Government in the series, setting out the origins of this interview was important to us," he said.

"This however raises the question of any further publicity involving the Prime Minister and the episode itself."

Email from PMO to Verne Harris.
Email from PMO to Verne Harris. Photo credit: PMO.

The PMO requested to see and approve Ardern's episode prior to its release as well as any other publicity planned for the series using her image.

"We need to ensure the interview has not been repurposed from its original intent or edited in such a way as to misrepresent the original intent or the Prime Minister." 

A spokesperson for the PMO told Newshub: "Following the public release of the trailer, which was not provided to PMO in advance, PMO asked to see the full episode to check that the interview had not been misrepresented."

"It was not, the Nelson Mandela Foundation apologised for the confusion and there was no further communication following that exchange."

Newshub has been told an email to the PMO from the foundation said it did "apologise for the confusion which has arisen".

But the Nelson Mandela Foundation told Newshub it "does not believe that the trailer misrepresented the former Prime Minister's involvement".

"We wrote to the Prime Minister's office in May last year to provide details of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's participation well in advance of Netflix releasing both the trailer and the series.

"As you know, the Prime Minister's Chief Press Secretary requested to see the episode before it was released and later advised that he would be in touch with us and [creative agency] Blackwell and Ruth the following day if there were any issues.

"A copy of the episode was provided as requested and no issues were raised."

Newshub asked if the foundation had made an apology to the PMO for any confusion. 

"Understandings of what constitutes 'apology' differ; in this instance, what we would call clarifications and acknowledgements were sought and communicated by all parties concerned," it replied. 

Ardern has previously met with the royal couple.
Ardern has previously met with the royal couple. Photo credit: Getty Images.

How the interview came about

The correspondence obtained by Newshub reveals how the interview was first set up and the various exchanges the PMO had with the Nelson Mandela Foundation afterwards.

On March 12, 2019, Harris emailed the PMO asking if an interview could be facilitated with Ardern.

He explained that the foundation wanted to create a "highly accessible, uniquely inspiring and instructive resource for aspiring leaders around the world". It would be distributed free to youth in 144 developing countries in their own languages. 

The five-year project would feature original interviews with 12 leaders, Harris said, and Ardern's participation "would shine a tremendous light on the project and help enormously in our mission to ensure it reaches a truly global youth audience".

Two days later, Geoff Blackwell - who would go on to direct Live to Lead - emailed the office. He's part of the Blackwell&Ruth creative team alongside Ruth Hobday that worked with the Nelson Mandela Foundation on the project. 

Blackwell provided more detail on the questions Ardern would be asked. They ranged from what daily routines she practises to advice she would give to her 20-year-old self.

The email also included logistics about how the interview would be filmed as well as noting that Ardern would have "full right of approval before any material from the interview and portrait session is published".

The interview would be used to "create educational resource kits, printed and digital books, short films and audio books". Royalties would be paid to the foundation to fund translation costs and distribution. 

Email from Verne Harris to PMO in March 2019.
Email from Verne Harris to PMO in March 2019. Photo credit: PMO.

Blackwell emailed again in April to follow up, noting the "tragic events in Christchurch" very soon after his initial email. 

In October, the PMO would reply saying Ardern would take part in the interview. The logistics were sorted over the coming days ahead of the interview in early November.

Afterwards, Hobday contacted the PMO with material from the interview they wanted to use, asking for it to be checked over and approved. 

"We do hope Ms. Ardern is happy with the material but of course would be pleased to make any changes she would like". 

A couple "minor tweaks" were made and two photos crossed out. Hobday would later email back with a "plea to include one of the more pensive images of the Prime Minister". Ardern would approve an additional image.

Nearly three months later in February 2020, PMO is contacted by Blackwell&Ruth noting Ardern's book would be released at the end of March that year. Advance copies of the book were being delayed by "the reduced flights coming out of China" - this was as countries first began banning flights due to the spread of COVID-19.

In May 2020, the creative agency gets approval to add some new quotes from Ardern about her response to COVID-19 to "demonstrate New Zealand's quick action and Prime Minister Ardern's emphasis on kindness". 

Harris gets back in touch with the PMO in March 2021, telling the office about the agreement with Netflix to broadcast the filmed material. 

Over the following year, further permission is sought and given for the use of Ardern family and graduation photos.

There's no further correspondence until Harris emails in May 2022 to tell the PMO about Harry and Meghan being involved.

After the trailer was released, Ardern said she personally previously hadn't known of the royals featuring in the show

"The Mandela Foundation has kept the office up to date with what they have intended to do with interviews, but I have not stayed close to that, so I became aware of what was happening with it yesterday," she said at a press conference.

Ardern said it was up to the Mandela Foundation how the three-year-old footage is now used.

"Roughly three years ago I undertook an interview with the Mandela Foundation. They were producing resources for future leaders, with a focus on young leaders," she said.

"As is common practice, the Mandela Foundation hold the rights to do what they will with that interview. I continue to stand by that. This is now their footage, their transcript and it is ultimately a matter for them what they choose to do with it.

"I have not been involved in the decision-making around what happens next, nor have I had direct contact with the Sussexes over what is happening next."

Asked if she would have done the interview if she knew it would end up in the Netflix documentary, Ardern didn't answer the question.

"It was an interview I absolutely stand by. The Mandela Foundation do excellent work. They've already produced a number of resources from their conversations with a wide-ranging group of individuals. 

"I gave over those rights for that interview, which is not uncommon practice. I stand by doing that. It is ultimately for them to decide."