The Media Today

Kate Middleton and the case for hope in our information hellscape

March 12, 2024
Catherine, Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales. (Photo by DPPA/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

In January, Britain’s royal family put out two statements in quick succession concerning the health of senior members. One said that Kate Middleton, the princess of Wales, had been hospitalized for a “planned abdominal surgery,” the other that King Charles would soon be going to the hospital for treatment on an enlarged prostate. The disclosure of these visits might sound routine, but royal commentators and journalists noted that it reflected a departure from more secretive past practices—some even described it as a sign of “a new era of transparency” and of “respect and caring” for the public, as well as a means to tamp down “rumors” and “controversy.” The following month, Buckingham Palace announced that Charles had been diagnosed with cancer. On this occasion, too, his candor was hailed.

Since then, Charles has been pictured at church and reading cards from well-wishers, though the transparency has hardly been limitless—Buckingham Palace has not said what type of cancer he has (beyond confirming that it is not prostate cancer) or commented on his prognosis. And, in the weeks after her announced surgery, Kate wasn’t seen in public at all. (Last week, a grainy photo of her in the passenger seat of a car was published by the American gossip site TMZ; the British press, notably, did not reproduce it.) Increasingly, speculation swelled on social media as to her well-being, even her whereabouts. Kensington Palace (the seat of the prince and princess of Wales, whose press team is different from that of Buckingham Palace) put out several on-the-record statements in an apparent attempt to counter the online furor (as well as a report in Spanish media that Kate had secretly been in a coma). This was a highly unusual response—Kensington Palace typically ignores online scuttlebutt, as the royal reporter Ellie Hall pointed out to Nieman Lab. Again, though, if this level of engagement was rare, it was also partial, and thus unsatisfying. “Everybody feels unsettled by uncertainty,” the royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith told People last week, as part of a skeptical story on the family’s current travails. “There is too much uncertainty that is surrounding the monarchy right now.”

On Sunday, which was also Mother’s Day in the UK, the palace attempted to tamp down the uncertainty, releasing a photo of Kate surrounded by her children. Instead, the photo only stoked the rumor mill (as you doubtless know by now unless you’ve been living under a rock—in which case, send your address, and I’ll be on the next plane). Legions of the Extremely Online quickly noticed apparent anomalies in the image: a young girl’s sleeve that didn’t appear to circle her wrist here; a weirdly jagged edge there. I was among those who thought the photo looked weird, though friends thought that I was seeing things. (Okay, fine—maybe I don’t want to come live under your rock after all.)

Then, in the evening UK time, the situation became officially weird: news agencies including the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse retracted the photo from distribution on their wires, on the grounds that the source appeared to have manipulated it. Ever since, news organizations have gone into overdrive analyzing the photo and its backend data, reporting, variously, that it was run through Photoshop, that it may be a composite of multiple separate images, and that a copy-paste function may have been used. Kensington Palace, for its part, did not release any original unedited images, but did put out a statement, signed by Kate, in which she claimed that “like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing.” (The statement also apologized for any confusion caused.) Later, photos surfaced in the British press purporting to show Kate and Prince William leaving Windsor Castle for respective engagements. It’s not clear whether the photo was authorized; in any case, it only showed the back and side of Kate’s head. (So much for unprecedented transparency.) The rumor mill, needless to say, churned on.

Where social media conspiracy theories and manipulated imagery come, anguished questions about the epistemic health of our digital age are rarely far behind. “In an age when digital editing tools are more widespread and easier than ever to use, what even is a photo anymore?” CNN asked (while separately saying that it would review all photos previously provided by Kensington Palace). The headline on a Washington Post op-ed asserted that the photo “shows why no one believes what they see anymore”; a headline in Business Insider said that it “shows we’re at the point of no return with trusting anything online.” The royal family “is learning the hard way about navigating the AI-driven world of deepfakes,” Politico concluded. “For years, researchers and journalists have warned that deepfakes and generative-AI tools may destroy any remaining shreds of shared reality,” Charlie Warzel wrote in The Atlantic. “Experts have reasoned that technology might become so good at conjuring synthetic media that it becomes difficult for anyone to believe anything they didn’t witness themselves. The royal-portrait debacle illustrates that this era isn’t forthcoming. We’re living in it.”

Many pieces of this nature made important, nuanced points about the fragility of our present information landscape. (“This post-truth universe doesn’t feel like chaotic science fiction,” Warzel wrote, in one characteristically astute observation. “Instead, it’s mundane: People now feel a pervasive, low-grade disorientation, suspicion, and distrust.”) From a news-media point of view, the photo incident has also felt dystopian and post-truthy. The timing of the news agencies’ retraction of the photo—right around the moment that Britain’s newspapers were going to print—meant that some front pages appeared on Monday morning bringing word of the retraction and its associated questions, while others pointed to the photo as evidence that all is well. The BBC turned its disinformation and social media correspondent on the royal family—a vaguely disconcerting sight for such a straitlaced institution. (The BBC, not the royal family.) Respected TV anchors analyzed the photo in ways that essentially echoed amateur sleuthing on X, or took to X to canvass horticulturalists as to what the plant in the background of the photo might be, and whether it looked suspiciously leafy for this time of year.

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Still, these weird aesthetics aside, I’m not sure that this episode—in isolation, at any rate—illuminates interesting new truths about a post-truth world as much as some notably old truths: namely, the destructive power of the botched PR job and the enduring inscrutability of the royal family. The questions it raises around the manipulation of photography are about as old as photography itself (and haven’t yet plunged us into total epistemic crisis). Indeed, if you squint, this episode may contain some seeds of epistemic hope.

As some articles in the vein of those cited above noted, concern around the manipulation of images is not new. Some of the very earliest photographs were altered in ways that would make an amateur photo editor blush; one purporting to show a young girl’s coterie of fairies was a more egregious fake than any tampering with a young girl’s sleeve. Photoshop itself is well into its fourth decade of commercial use; when it was released, experts warned of the potential for mass confusion, but the worst never happened. The same has been true, at least so far, around the more recent rise of “deepfakes.” So far, admittedly, is a key caveat here: recent rapid improvements in generative AI do represent a new frontier in image manipulation, one whose contours and precise level of threat are not yet fully known. The Kate photo did indeed drop into that climate of increased uncertainty. But the photo itself does not appear to be a product of any particularly advanced AI technology—not purely, at any rate. Even absent the current AI discourse, it strikes me as a safe bet that the edits to the image would have caused a big ruckus.

If there has always been a question mark as to how much we should trust images, the same is true, in a different way, of the royal family—an institution so weird, in itself and its relationship with the media, that drafting it as evidence for broader trends is complicated. The royals and their spinners have always massaged the truth, or even outright hidden it, including around their health; in 1951, King George VI underwent an operation for cancer that was kept highly secret (so much so that even he may not have known all the details). (He died a few months later.) Those outside the walls have always been partial to guessing at what happens behind them. (The death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a particular magnet for conspiracy theories.) In a more abstract sense, the royal family’s legitimacy has always been rooted in a kind of mystique that bears little resemblance to the notion of truth as we understand it. The monarchy “depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut,” the famed British broadcaster David Attenborough reportedly once said. “If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”

Finally, and back very much in the nonabstract world, the uncertainty around the Kate photo is, principally, the fault of Kensington Palace, which has conducted a public-relations disasterclass in recent days. As Hall suggested, officials stoked intrigue by breaking from their habit of not responding to online gossip, but then didn’t offer much actual transparency to back up their statements; when they did, it was in the form of an obviously edited photo almost tailor-made to drive the internet mad, then a subsequent refusal to clear it up beyond issuing a (it must be said, credulity-straining) statement about Kate’s personal use of editing software. (The photo of the back of Kate’s head that surfaced yesterday was also deeply weird, though again, I’m not sure if this was authorized.) Perhaps palace officials see it as beneath them to respond to every demand of the great digital unwashed. Perhaps they simply see putting out further evidence as an embarrassing admission that this is now a mess of their own making.

Or, perhaps, all is not as they say it is—at this point, who knows! Of the conspiracy theories that have coalesced around Kate’s absence from the public eye and the events of the past few days, many are wild, and all have evinced some sort of belief in the absence of evidence (which, as I see it, is the essence of a conspiracy theory). Equally, though, the proffered evidence here doesn’t inspire much belief, and it isn’t conspiracy theorizing to question it. If it’s been disconcerting to see respected TV journalists talk like social media sleuths, it’s not because we’re in some informational twilight zone where the line between those actors has become blurred—it’s because, at least on this occasion, asking questions of the palace’s official narrative, not least the photo it put out, is journalistically responsible.

Our information landscape is undoubtedly polluted; if doubt is an ever-present part of its condition, then our age of profit-driven algorithms, collapsed distance, and rapidly developing technologies of manipulation has indeed exacerbated it. Rather than the Kate photo episode being an avatar of this worrying situation, though, I think there are equal signs of hope here—much more so, for instance, than around the viral spread of vaccine and election denialism. Yes, much of the discourse around this episode has been untethered from reality. But much of it has actually applied due skepticism to a piece of information that merited it—more skepticism, indeed, than credulous recent statements from traditional commentators about the royal family moving into a new golden age of transparency. Declining trust in institutions is, undoubtedly, a problem of our current information age. But institutions don’t automatically deserve trust, either.

Other notable stories:

  • CNN’s Oliver Darcy took CNBC to task for airing a phone interview with Donald Trump yesterday and failing to push back adequately on the things he said. “Watching the CNBC interview felt like being transported in time to 2015, back when news outlets allowed Trump to phone in to news shows and deliver a drive-by of lies to their audiences,” Darcy writes. “Even after the interview aired, CNBC waited hours to do the bare minimum and publish digital stories fact-checking some of Trump’s claims.”
  • Also yesterday, CNN aired an exclusive interview with Brian Butler, a longtime employee at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence who became a central witness in the federal case concerning Trump’s mishandling of classified documents. Butler was previously anonymous, referred to in legal documents only as “Trump Employee 5”; according to CNN, he considered going public about his role for months before eventually deciding to do so to clarify that the case is not a “witch hunt,” as Trump has claimed.
  • G/O Media, the private-equity-owned media company that has sold off several of its properties in the past year, is now selling Deadspin, its sports site, to Lineup Publishing, a new digital-media company in Europe. Jim Spanfeller, G/O Media’s CEO, told staff that the new owners “plan to be reverential to Deadspin‘s unique voice”—but also that they are planning to rebuild the staff from scratch, meaning that current employees will be let go. One current staffer said they were given half an hour’s notice of the news.
  • The Ankler’s Manori Ravindran assesses the demise of TalkTV, Rupert Murdoch’s upstart right-wing network in the UK, at least as a broadcast entity—the channel, which has struggled for ratings since its launch in 2022, will go online-only later in the year. One source suggested to Ravindran that the network’s “obituary may have been written the moment that Lachlan Murdoch was announced as the new chairman of News Corp last fall,” since Lachlan (Rupert’s son) has “no allegiance to the UK.”
  • And for The Atlantic, Steve Inskeep—the NPR host, who was himself adopted as a child—digs into the history of secrecy around adoption in America. “I grew up to become a journalist, exposing hidden facts, and a writer of history, seeking meaning in the past—but avoided my own story until I received an external push,” Inskeep writes; he adopted a daughter of his own. In digging into his own story, he realized “that someone had information about me. It was part of my identity, which my state had seized.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.