Wedding dress: everything is posed, everything is for show

Doctoring the princess

Kate Middleton’s photo fiasco casts an unflattering light on the relationship between the crown and the press, argues Paul Demarty

For a little while, the not-so-quality press has been captivated by the strange saga of a photograph.

Apparently taken on mothering Sunday, a couple of weeks ago, it shows a happy Kate née Middleton, smiling radiantly out from a huddle of her children. It is a rather touching portrait of the joys of family life, such that you might find on the social media profiles of one of the contemporary breed of ‘tradwife’ influencers, who pitch to their adoring public the joys of ensuring that the man of the house has a piping hot supper awaiting him, as he comes home from a hard day’s work, with a quiverful of tiny feet pitter-pattering around the place.

Alas, like most of that particular stream of content, the photograph appears to be less than entirely authentic. You did not need be a particularly talented amateur sleuth to spot the joins, the places where Photoshop had intervened to make the whole thing more uplifting and twee. Having been published by Associated Press and widely disseminated, it was rapidly withdrawn. Before long, the palace authorities had to admit it, and Kate – showing, in equal parts, dutifulness and folly - insisted that all the edits were made by her personally.

Certainly it seems not to be a terrifically professional job, so quickly was the ruse discovered. On past evidence, that does not mark it out as specifically the work of a princess, as opposed to the gormless idiots who seem to staff the royals’ PR corps in great numbers. But, whoever the perpetrator is, there remains the question - why? There is, in certain recurring communications, the practice of the ‘canary’, which works like this: suppose you are a delivery company and you are forbidden by law from alerting your customers when their packages have been interfered with by the authorities. You can send out a monthly newsletter that includes the sentence, “No packages have been searched by the police this month.” If it becomes untrue, you can simply not include the sentence (perhaps, depending on the wider legal environment). Did the palace think that, if there was not a cloying mothers’ day picture, we would all assume she was dead?

Now that the edits have become public knowledge, of course, all manner of assumptions are flying about. This cannot merely be a matter of a few cosmetic tweaks to a photo - oh no! The theories multiply. The couple are about to get a divorce. William is abusive. Somebody, somewhere is hiding something.

All of which only makes the rather limited sense that it does because Kate is currently withdrawn from public life, following an abdominal operation in January. Nobody likes to hear the word ‘operation’ used in connection with a public figure with whom they have an unhealthy obsession. The reality of major abdominal surgery - familiar to those who have undergone it, or know people who have - is a fairly long recovery. When fitness coaches talk about your core strength, they are talking about precisely the bits that the surgeon has been rearranging; rather basic activities are difficult, and it is hardly unusual or alarming for the patient to take a long time to convalesce. Needless to say, you probably do not want to be bundled by three spunky children during that time. That ought to be a sufficient explanation; but the British appetite for royal gossip cannot possibly be sated by such meagre portions.


The debacle comes at a difficult time for the royals, and also highlights the still tense relations between them and the press. So far as the family goes, they are presently rather depleted by health problems. King Charles has had his cancer diagnosis - we are told that it was caught early, but it is nonetheless dangerous territory. Between his ill health and Kate’s, William Windsor has also largely withdrawn from public engagements.

All of this follows the decision on the part of Charles’s people to shrink the surface area of the royal family as a public institution. Since the 1960s, all the immediate family of the monarch have taken on significant public roles; but that has proven a little too risky: we need only mention the rogue Sussexes - and, of course, Andrew and his possibly malfunctioning sweat glands. Too many times the last few years, or even decades, have been enlivened by various royals briefing against each other. A leaner, meaner operation is favoured by Charles Windsor (relatively speaking).

Which is all well and good until the king has cancer, the princess of Wales a surgery recovery ordeal, the prince of Wales altogether too much on, and still there are charity galas to be attended and municipal swimming pools to be opened. Camilla has stepped up - reluctantly, according to the royal gossip-hounds - but there are only so many inane occasions one woman can attend.

Even such a stripped-down operation is vulnerable to dysfunction. We have spoken of ‘the palace’, but there are two palaces involved here - Buckingham (Charles) and Kensington (Wills and Kate). Private Eye’s royal hack, known only as ‘Flunkey’, claims that they are at sixes and sevens: whether or not the edit was Kate’s work, the decision to release the picture came from Kensington. The fiasco, however, laps inevitably up against the gates of Buckingham, much to the annoyance of the king’s people. They have, after all, chosen to be relatively open about Charles’ illness, and the limits it places on his activity. There is not much to speculate about (except, inevitably, whether his cancer is more serious than they are letting on). The photo disaster is a desperate reaction to speculation provoked by earlier secrecy, which has inevitably just made things worse.

All of this is, of course, a temporary embarrassment. Kate will be back on her feet in due course; so will Charles, or else he will be dead, and we will go through the whole circus again. The more fundamental problem has to do with the ever stranger relationship between the monarchy and the media in this country. Both the decision to spread out royal duties under Elizabeth and the decision to re-centralise them under Charles are fundamentally initiatives in relation to the media.

Yet in the interim the media has changed enormously - at least twice. There was first of all the creation of the modern tabloid press by Rupert Murdoch and equivalents, which took the gossipy output of the News of the World and Daily Mail up to the 1960s and married them to an almost admirably pervasive cynicism. The Murdoch tabloids were, of course, always notionally monarchist; yet they were utterly committed to profit, and the need for endless scoops gave them (and the competitors pulled along in their wake) the habit of pushing ever further. The gutter press became very dependent on paparazzi photographs, which got them into hot water when Diana Spencer died - she was pursued to the end by telephoto-wielding perverts, sparking widespread public mourning.


That was merely a flesh wound for the press, which - having relentlessly monstered Diana for many years - quickly got on board with the public mood, and made the story one of an out-of-touch palace. Worse was to come for them with another of their dirty tricks - voicemail hacking. It was a leak from Harry’s phone that first sent people to jail for that crime - namely, NotW royal correspondent Clive Goodman and private dick Glenn Mulcaire.

Were the royals married to the press, you would characterise the relationship as one of pathological co-dependency. Just as people ill-advisedly ‘stay together for the kids’, these two institutions have a common purpose in keeping sections of the masses reconciled to the grubby manoeuvres of state power. The monarchy, in a constitutional regime like ours, allows the government to act with executive power, and offers a single point on which to project the mass of anxieties, known by the name of ‘patriotism’. These goals are accomplished by way of story-telling, which requires story-tellers and means of mass broadcast. The popular press played that role adequately in this country at least well into the 2010s. It needed the royals as raw material for the stories - the royals, meanwhile, needed the reach of the tabloids.

Today we are at least in the midst of a further transformation of the media, if not quite yet at the far side of it. The default entry point for news media has become the internet; but this has given considerable power to the platforms that provide that entry point - social media and search engines. This has tended to decimate the economic basis of the print media, however, by drastically reducing advertising revenue and reducing customer loyalty. I say we are not at the far end of this transformation merely because the effect has been to fatally undermine a determinate media structure without replacing it with anything viable, at least from the point of view of ideological reproduction.

Something will turn up, eventually: ideology abhors a vacuum. (Perhaps the US ban on TikTok really is, as some of its proponents promise, the beginning of a new and far more stringent regime of social media regulation across the board, which would in turn allow incumbent monopolists to shape the narrative more directly, like the media moguls of old.) In the meantime, absurd dust-ups like ‘photogate’ will likely continue.

After all, it could only get this far out of hand because the flattening effect of social media brings forth the most morbidly amusing conspiracy theories, which in turn become problems of ‘optics’, which the ‘respectable’ media must in turn report on. To make things worse, the search engines are now trivially gamed by producing specific kinds of unreadably repetitive prose. Hacks for the Sun and Mail are hardly any better at this than more industrialised content-farming operations, so capitalist civilisation has tended to lose its former capability of controlling the narrative.

This has very recently gotten a lot worse. For all the hype, the one major effect of the launch of generative AI platforms like ChatGPT has been to effectively automate the production of this worthless slime. There is an idea out there called the ‘dead internet theory’, which states that for some time most web content has consisted of bots writing content for other bots to consume, in a perfectly pointless perpetuum mobile. Wikipedia calls this a “conspiracy theory”, but it is the “conspiracy theory” most immediately pressed on anyone who scrolls through their Facebook feed nowadays, searching in vain for any posting from somebody they actually know. It has a little more than a grain of truth to it.

I have ended up, somehow, as this paper’s own ‘Flunkey’; and in recent years I had begun to think that the rift between the press and the royals - opened by the death of Diana and widened by the phone-hacking scandal - had begun to repair. The means by which it did so was the ritual sacrifice of Harry Windsor and his oh-so-troublesome wife, Meghan Markle. Their decision to take their distance from ‘the Firm’ allowed the press to present the conflict as one pitching detestable, modern, ‘woke’ pieties against the quiet, patient, conservative progress of a venerable institution through the ages.

Yet all this recent nonsense rather tells against my little theory. The institutional decay of both sides - most especially the press - has prevented a compact from truly being secured. From the point of view of the palace (or palaces), the only meaningful upside would be some let-up in the relentless scrutiny that has bundled the royals into one disaster after another. The press might have achieved this by diverting its dirty tricks wholly and permanently onto the Sussexes and other ‘woke’ adversaries, like the NGO activists who embarrassed Lady Susan Hussey a few years back.

But it cannot. The tabloids are all but drowning in possibly AI-generated glop. Their output is ever more governed by nonsensical twitches in the public’s obsessions - obsessions they used to be able, reliably, to invent on command. The king, meanwhile, sits ill at ease on the throne of a kingdom in an advanced and obvious state of decay, his subjects divided and rancorous. On March 19, video footage was mysteriously obtained by The Sun of the Waleses trooping around a Windsor farm shop: “the image the world has been waiting to see”, declared the Mail in its turn. There is an undertone there: “why were we waiting? Help us to help you.”

A serious left has scores to settle with both these institutions and, while we may not have much use per se for this ridiculous doctored photograph, we ought to be cheered by the weakness of the institutions forced to account for it.