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William and Kate's desire to maintain privacy may have fueled damaging photo scandal

“It’s been pretty clear where they want to draw the line in terms of privacy, and they think what they said is enough,” a crisis PR expert said, “when it clearly isn’t.”
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LONDON — Only a select few know exactly how an edited family photo became the latest crisis to engulf Britain’s royal family, a rolling controversy that raises fundamental questions about the transparency and accountability of this millennium-old institution.

What is clear — royal and communications experts said — is that Kensington Palace, the household of William and Kate, the Prince and Princess of Wales, has sorely mishandled the situation, perhaps owing to the family’s decades-old animus toward the media and resulting struggle to keep their lives private, despite their public profile and taxpayer-funded millions.

“We know that William, like Harry, is very stubborn and isn’t brilliant at taking advice, particularly when it comes to the privacy of his family,” said NBC News royal commentator Daisy McAndrew, referring to the heir to the throne and his younger brother. “He is particularly fanatical about keeping his children’s childhoods as normal as possible, keeping them as private as possible.”

But in releasing scant details, “they’ve inadvertently increased the speculation, not decreased the speculation,” McAndrew added, “and actually made the situation worse.”

This is the story of how Kate had not been seen in public for more than two months following unexplained abdominal surgery, how online conspiracy theories about her condition and whereabouts filled the vacuum left by the lack of palace-issued information and how the family’s attempts to silence that noise by releasing a photo backfired Sunday after it quickly emerged the image had been altered.

British Tabloids Kate
British newspaper coverage of the altered Mother's Day photo Tuesday after it was released by Kensington Palace.Paul Ellis / AFP - Getty Images

The palace issued a rare apology Monday, apparently written by Kate herself, but that went only some way in explaining what happened and even increased speculation in some quarters.

Despite the couple being among the most popular royals with the country’s public, according to a running tracker by the pollster YouGov, and being able to rely on a largely sympathetic press, this royal scandal shows no signs of abating.

“They wanted to draw a line under it, but they have made a mess of it,” McAndrew said. “It was very naive to think that they could do some quite amateurish edits and get away with it.”

At the center of all this is a woman recovering from major surgery, which will not have been eased by this high-profile uproar.

But it is also a public interest story, media commentators say, because the royals are inherently public and political figures — they get around $110 million yearly from the taxpayer — and their approach to transparency and factual details must be scrutinized.

Imagine “what would have happened if Meghan had done this, if we were talking about a picture which she had manipulated,” David Yelland, former editor of the British tabloid The Sun, told the BBC on Tuesday. He was referring to the Duchess of Sussex, the wife of Prince Harry who is so often vilified by the British media. “Or if the White House did this, and Joe Biden looked younger and better than he actually is, I think that might finish his presidential bid, I really do,” he said. “This is very serious.”

The palace did not respond on the record to NBC News’ requests for comment.

Kate’s last public appearance was Christmas Day, when she was seen leaving a church service at the royal family’s Sandringham Estate. On Jan. 17, the palace announced that she had undergone “planned abdominal surgery,” without offering any more details, and that she would be hospitalized for up to two weeks while avoiding public duties until the end of March.

Last week, she was photographed in a car being driven by her mother near Windsor Castle, although no British newspaper ran the picture, citing privacy concerns. Stoking the intrigue further, a day later the British Army posted — and then hastily deleted — a statement saying that Kate would attend its Trooping the Color ceremony on June 8.

Then, just as the speculation was reaching a crescendo, came the photo. 

William and Kate posted a picture to their social media channels showing Kate in a garden with the couple’s three children, Prince Louis, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, and the palace said it was taken by the heir to the throne himself.

The inconsistencies were quickly noted on social media, which led to the world’s biggest news agencies pulling the image from their platforms, threatening to elevate the saga into a fundamental threat to public trust in the royals. 

The apology by Kensington Palace contrasted with the treatment described by Harry and Meghan, who complained that the palace never backed them up when Meghan was subjected to racist coverage in the British media.

Some British media outlets have remained supportive of the Prince and Princess of Wales, The Sun, for example, demanding “LAY OFF KATE,” and “stop bullying over edited pic,” on its front page Monday. And 49% of the respondents to a YouGov poll Monday said the palace had released the right amount of information about Kate’s health.

But the brief statement, which leaves plenty of questions unanswered, is unlikely to silence the debate, according to Steve Double, a partner at the London-based crisis PR firm Alder.

“Trying to draw a line under it is fairly good practice,” Double said. “But you’ve only got to look at this morning’s newspapers and the online chatter from the last 24 hours to see that Kate’s apology and minimal explanation simply hasn’t worked in terms of closing things down.”

The Princess Of Wales Delivers Keynote Speech At The Shaping Us National Symposium
The Princess of Wales is one of the most popular royals. Max Mumby / Indigo / Getty Images file

This is a rare instance of William and Kate seeming to get it wrong when it comes to the press. The couple usually run a tight media ship, even advertising last year for a CEO to run their operations — a novelty in the more old-fashioned royal family that has traditionally relied heavily on courtiers.

To hear Harry tell it, his brother hasn’t been afraid to mix it up with the media. 

“It’s a dirty game,” Harry said in an episode of “Harry & Meghan,” the Netflix docuseries released in 2022. “There’s leaking, but there’s also planting of stories.”

The brothers were united in their mistrust of the press following the 1997 death of their mother, Princess Diana, in a crash in Paris while her car was being chased by press photographers.

They “believe — and still believe — that their mother was martyred by the paparazzi,” royal author Tina Brown said in her 2022 book “The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — The Truth and the Turmoil.”

And so the princes “express their contempt for the press in different ways,” Brown wrote. “William with a grim, steely obsession with control; Harry with tortured, vocal, frequently ill-judged condemnation” and a “never-ending flurry of lawsuits” against the media, she said.

Whatever the intentions, the palace’s strategy has not worked. 

What may have happened, according to McAndrew, is that “their staff were saying, ‘We need something, we need to feed the beast,’ and they said, ‘Well, you can give them this photograph — it’s that or nothing.’”

Based on his own experience, Double said he believes the couple’s team will be urging them to release more details, but that “the prince and princess may have dug their heels in.”

“It’s been pretty clear where they want to draw the line in terms of privacy, and they think what they said is enough,” he added, “when it clearly isn’t.”