Kate's photo scandal shows how hard it is for the UK monarchy to control its narrative


The scandal over Kate, Princess of Wales’ family snapshot is a new chapter in the thorny relationship between the media and Britain’s royal family.

It’s also a sign of how hard it is for the monarchy to control its own narrative in the social-media era.

“Social media has empowered the royals to curate their public image in new ways,” royal historian Ed Owens said Tuesday.

"But they have also given over significant power to the end user. And that end user … desires greater insight, greater intimate detail about what exactly has been going on behind closed doors.”

The palace issued the image of Kate and her children — Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis — on Sunday to mark Mother’s Day in Britain. A family snapshot taken, the palace said, by Prince William, it was intended to calm speculation about Kate's health, almost two months after she had abdominal surgery for an unspecified condition.

But within hours, The Associated Press withdrew the photo over concerns it had been digitally manipulated in a way that did not meet AP’s photo standards. For instance, it contained an inconsistency in the alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left hand with the sleeve of her sweater. Other major agencies including Getty, Reuters, AFP and Britain’s PA also retracted it.

Kate said sorry on Monday, saying that “like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing.” In a statement on social media, she expressed “apologies for any confusion the family photograph” had caused.

The royal family is under particular scrutiny because King Charles III has also had to cancel public duties while he undergoes treatment for an unspecified form of cancer. Charles’ relative openness about his diagnosis was a departure for the generally secretive royal family.

Both online conversation and traditional media in the U.K. were dominated Tuesday by what the Daily Mirror called the “Picture of Chaos” and the Daily Mail labeled a “PR disaster” for the royals.

The tabloid Sun leapt to the princess’ defense with a front page that thundered: “Lay off Kate.” The tabloid said “social media trolls, idiotic conspiracy theorists and sniping media critics” were bullying the future queen.

The royals have long had an awkward relationship with the media in Britain, where they are an uneasy hybrid of celebrities and taxpayer-funded public property.

Decades ago, it was possible for the royal family to assert control. In the 1930s, the romance between King Edward VIII and twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson was headline news in the U.S., but was barely mentioned in Britain until the king abdicated to marry the woman he loved.

But the era of deference gave way to the age of celebrity, and with it pressure on the royals to be open and likeable, glamorous but relatable — all while maintaining the dignity of a 1,000-year-old institution.

At times, the royal-press relationship is openly hostile. William and his brother Prince Harry accuse the media of hounding their mother, Princess Diana, and blame paparazzi for her death. Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 while she was being pursued by photographers.

Harry, who moved to California with his wife Meghan in 2020, has made taming Britain’s tabloid press a personal mission. He has launched lawsuits against several newspaper publishers over alleged phone hacking and other unlawful intrusion.

Harry has attacked the media directly in television interviews, a Netflix documentary series, and in his memoir, “Spare,” accusing the press of racist attitudes towards Meghan, who is biracial. He said he feared Meghan would suffer the same “feeding frenzy” as Diana had faced.

Harry isn’t the first royal to try to speak directly to the world through TV interviews. During the breakdown of her marriage to the then-Prince Charles in the 1990s, Diana gave a BBC interview in which she said, “There were three of us in that marriage,” referring to Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, who is now Queen Camilla.

Prince Andrew tried the same tactic, disastrously, with a 2019 BBC interview to address his friendship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and allegations of sexual abuse. Andrew appeared uncomfortable and evasive, and announced after the interview that he was “stepping back” from public duties. He has not returned.

Diana’s death shocked the palace and the press into an uneasy truce. The British media left young William and Harry alone in exchange for carefully staged interviews and photo opportunities as they grew up. That practice has continued with William and Kate’s children.

British media also became more reluctant to use paparazzi photos. A picture of Kate and her mother in a car was published last week in the United States but not in British publications.

That rule is flexible, though, if an image is judged sufficiently newsworthy. Several U.K. outlets used a grainy photo of Kate in a car with William taken near the couple’s Windsor home on Monday.

The age of social media, with its democratic but chaotic flow of information, made the palace’s decision to say little about Kate’s condition risky.

Royalty has always attracted gossip, rumor and conspiracy theories — look at the evergreen theory that Princess Diana was murdered.

Stephanie Baker, senior lecturer in sociology at City University of London, said social media amplifies that chatter and allows the creation of “crowd sourced conspiracy theories” that can spread around the globe.

“The most serious issue for the Princess of Wales and the monarchy in light of the photoshopped image is the erosion of trust and credibility” she said.

Despite pressure from the media, however, the palace has said it will not release the original, unedited photo.

Owens, author of “After Elizabeth: Can the Monarchy Save Itself?” said William and Kate “have been the great beneficiaries of social media up to now."

But from now on, “they are going to have to be more honest in terms of their communications strategy," he said.