Princess Kate's photo should have quelled the rumors. Editing it has done exactly the opposite

ByAnalysis by Lauren Said-Moorhouse and Max Foster, CNN, CNNWire
Tuesday, March 12, 2024
Critics demand answers after doctored photo of royal family
The British royal family is facing new questions about a doctored photo of Princess Kate and her children.

LONDON -- The image of a smiling Catherine, Princess of Wales, flanked by her three children, should have put a stop to the explosion of speculation over her health and whereabouts. Instead, it triggered a whole new controversy for Britain's royal family after multiple global news agencies recalled the image from circulation hours later, citing manipulation concerns.

The British royal family is facing new questions about a doctored photo of Princess Kate and her children.

The photograph was released by Kensington Palace early Sunday on the couple's official social media accounts, to mark Mother's Day in the United Kingdom. As is standard practice for official UK royal photographs, it was also released concurrently to news and photo agencies for distribution.

It showed Kate surrounded by Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis relaxed and laughing - perhaps sparked by something from Prince William, who was credited with taking the photo.

On Monday morning, after the storm broke, Kate issued a personal apology, taking responsibility for the confusion she said she had inadvertently caused.

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"Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother's Day," she wrote before ending her post with a "C" for Catherine.

The family mark the celebration each year, but the touching photograph was also seen as a message to the nation and ought to have eased growing public concern following Kate's surgery in January for a noncancerous abdominal issue.

Despite the palace having said that it would take two to three months for the princess to recover, her temporary hiatus from engagements and the lack of clarity on her medical condition created a vacuum that was filled on social media by conspiracy theories ranging from the insensitive to the outlandish.

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This year's Mother's Day photograph was also the first proper sighting of the princess since Christmas Day. Last week, a grainy paparazzi photo emerged of Kate in the front seat of a car driven by her mother. CNN was among many media outlets that made the independent decision not to run that unauthorized photograph. Many reputable news organizations typically avoid using paparazzi photographs without a strong editorial reason or a public interest argument.

Questions about the Mother's Day image first emerged on social media. Given the princess' popularity, every inch of it was meticulously scrutinized and eagle-eyed royal-watchers quickly questioned the absence of either her wedding or engagement ring and the lush greenery in the background despite the currently bitter March temperatures.

The conversation escalated when The Associated Press issued a retraction to its clients and suggested "the source has manipulated the image." Other international news agencies soon followed with similar guidance.

An initial CNN review of the image identified at least two areas that appear to show some evidence of potential manipulation, including Princess Charlotte's sleeve cuff, and a zipper on the lefthand side on the jacket of the Princess of Wales, which does not appear to be aligned.

CNN has continued to use the original photo, appropriately captioned, in the context of the debate around its alleged manipulation.

British newspapers featured the family snap prominently on Monday, with some highlighting the withdrawal of the photo and the mounting questions facing the palace.

The Daily Telegraph headline read: "Photo from palace was doctored, says agencies" while the Daily Mail ran the headline: "This joyous Mother's Day snap was meant to be the reassurance we all needed - but has it backfired?"

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It's not uncommon for the snaps to have been personally taken by the royals. Kate is known to be a keen photographer and has captured many family moments and milestones of her children released over the years. They've also brought in photographers to take official portraits on occasion.

Palace aides are well aware of the wild social conversation around the princess and have in recent weeks made rare moves to quash rumors. But they've also been trying to protect the medical privacy of one of the most senior members of the Windsor clan.

Kate has been recuperating at the family's Adelaide Cottage property in Windsor and given her lengthy recovery until at least Easter, it wouldn't be unreasonable for William to have taken this year's Mother's Day rather than open their home to a professional photographer.

In this instance, the explanation from Kate may have been down to the challenge of getting three young children to look at the camera at the same time.

But the photograph was disseminated for editorial purposes and media organizations expect those images to be accurate.

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CNN is now reviewing all handout photos previously provided by Kensington Palace.

In editorial photography, photojournalists and editors commonly adjust a photograph's exposure or color balance in order to more accurately reflect the scene. Most news organizations, including CNN, regard it as unacceptable to move, change or manipulate the pixels of an image. To do so would alter the reality of the situation the image is intended to document.

In the past, the family's amateur photographs have been well received when posted on social media. But on this occasion, this photo was also released to media organizations as a handout and the palace wasn't transparent about the fact it had been adjusted.

That will have damaged the trust between the palace and media organizations - many of which, like CNN, will likely be assessing all royal handouts. The editing storm has undermined the existing relationship and when public interest over any possible cover up escalates, as it has done recently, many news outlets will now have take that speculation more seriously.

The situation has also cast an uneasy shadow over the annual Commonwealth Day celebration, which Prince William and other senior royals were due to attend at Westminster Abbey later Monday.

While the princess' apology and claim of an honest mistake should go some way to halting further social media conversation, others will find the altered image and subsequent explanation hard to accept.

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