British Royal Family

The Kate photo scandal has tested the public's trust. How do the Royals get it back?

Author: Editors Desk, Janet Davison Source: CBC News:
March 15, 2024 at 13:03
Princess of Wales not expected to return to public duties until after Easter

The rumours were already rampant on social media.

Then "photogate" came along last Sunday, setting off even more speculation as a digitally manipulated picture of the Princess of Wales and her three children was killed by photo agencies, adding yet another curious chapter to the saga surrounding Catherine as she recovers out of the public eye from planned abdominal surgery nearly two months ago.

Some of the media din has eased in the United Kingdom in the past few days. Some headlines are suggesting "Lay off Kate" and allow her to convalesce in peace

But after what's become known in some quarters at the "Kate Middleton photo scandal," questions loom over what this latest episode might mean more broadly for the Royal Family as it tries to find ways to bolster its relevance.

Headlines on both sides of the Atlantic wonder if the royals "can move on" from the media storm or raise the spectre of a "trust problem."

Whether trust has been damaged will only emerge over time, but in ways it appears to have been tested, at least in the short term.

"A little bit has died," Mark Borkowski, a U.K. public relations expert, said in an interview.

"But the true answer to regain that respect and trust comes with what their big moment is when Kate comes back into her royal duties."

WATCH | Photo adds to speculation about Catherine's health:

Catherine, Princess of Wales, apologized for 'confusion' caused by her editing of a family photo that was intended to calm concern and speculation about her health. Several news agencies initially published the image but then withdrew it when concerns arose that it had been Photoshopped.

When exactly that will be is unknown. When Kensington Palace announced Catherine had undergone surgery in January, it was said she would likely be out of the public eye until after Easter.

"I think once Catherine is back in the public eye and on royal walkabouts and able to answer questions even informally about how she's feeling, I think that will dampen a lot of the speculation," Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian, said in an interview.


Queen Victoria disappeared for a while, too

Also spawning the recent rumours is the rarity of a senior member of the Royal Family — particularly one who has such a high public profile — being for all intents and purposes publicly invisible for such a long period.

"Whenever a member of the Royal Family is out of the public eye for an extended period of time, this leads to a great deal of speculation about what the reason might be for that seclusion," said Harris.

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Harris points to the time of Queen Victoria, and the extended period of mourning she went into after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Speculation tried to link her disappearance to mental health issues in previous generations of her family.

"As she was the granddaughter of King George III, there were members of the public and members of the political class who speculated about her mental health … that she was experiencing a mental breakdown because of George III's condition," Harris said.

WATCH | Apology likely the last we will hear on this:

Katie Nicholl, a royal commentator, says an edited photo and subsequent apology from the Princess of Wales has taken on a 'life of its own' because of Catherine's lack of visibility following surgery.

Catherine's public profile — pre-surgery — for the Royal Family also appears to be playing into how the speculation has swirled.

"She was everywhere … every front page, every newspaper carried her looking fabulous every day," said Borkowski.

For more than two months, however, that's been gone, leaving a void.

'William wants to protect her'

"The King's ill. Camilla's tired," said Borkowski. "William wants to protect [Catherine]. He hates the media as well, which is the other point. 

"He has no empathy with the media's demands, so he wants to wrap her up in cotton wool and, you know, family first. Of course, that doesn't really work."

The whole episode has prompted questions about just what public relations strategy has been at work in recent weeks for the royals, who have their various offices overseeing their public images.

Certainly there appear to be different approaches, as pictures continue to emerge of King Charles undertaking some royal duties — meeting ambassadors or British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Buckingham Palace — while he undergoes treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer. A video message from Charles was played at the Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey on Monday.

A person gestures with their hands as they speak to other people.
Prince William gestures as he speaks to young people during his visit to a youth charity in London on Thursday. William has resumed public engagements after taking some time to support Catherine and their children following her surgery. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

Borkowski sees the current situation as one that might make the royal households "think about how they strategically communicate," knowing that "they've got to adapt and continue to shape shift to deal with a world that is run by social media."


'More about media self-interest'

Questions also arise, however, over the media's role itself in recent weeks.

"I think that the media is making a meal of this," Judith Rowbotham, a social and cultural scholar and visiting research professor at the University of Plymouth in southwestern England, said in an interview.

"And while I am normally an enthusiastic supporter of the media for exposing things that need to be exposed, this is more about media self-interest than the public self-interest."

Rowbotham says the critical assessment of the photo released Sunday was used by the media to build a big story that sells media views.

"The media is insisting on there being a public demand to know more. 'Tell us everything, Kate. Come clean, Kate,'" said Rowbotham. 

"It has been, frankly, I think, unkind and a convalescent Kate really could do without this."

On the issue of trust, Rowbotham thinks it's "more that the Royal Family will be less trusting of the media" and that the number of images they release may be reduced. 

A montage of front pages of newspapers.
A montage of some of the front pages of Britain's newspapers in London on Tuesday shows a variety of royal headlines. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

"I think it's going to be more a question of, OK, you're going to get good snaps of them from professional photographers on public occasions … from the occasional member of the public who's got a good shot and has done a good job, but that they will be less ready to share … something which gives a more personal and private insight."

Harris expects that in the short term, there's going to be a lot of scrutiny on any images that appear of members of the Royal Family — along with more information from them about any film footage or photos that are released.

"And then gradually trust will be rebuilt."

Harris is also curious about just how Catherine will return to public life.

Will there, for example, be photographs released of behind-the-scenes meetings where she's sitting down, with less time on her feet?

"Or is she going to remain in comparative seclusion until she is able to conduct walkabouts and greet the public?" said Harris.

"It will be interesting to see how William and Catherine negotiate Catherine's return to public life."

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