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Don't blame the public for failing Kate Middleton. Blame the palace

Kate Middleton
Breaking television news coverage of Friday's announcement by Catherine, Princess of Wales that she is undergoing treatment for cancer. (Rasid Necati Aslim / Anadolu via Getty Images)

After weeks of often wild speculation about the nature of her planned abdominal surgery and subsequent months-long absence from the public eye, Catherine, Princess of Wales announced Friday that she is in the early stages of treatment for cancer found during post-operative tests.

"This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family," Kate, 42, said in a video filmed Wednesday at Windsor by BBC Studios. "As you can imagine, this has taken time. It has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment."

The nature of the cancer was not disclosed but Kate began chemotherapy in late February and says she is "well and feeling stronger every day."

She has found comfort in having Prince William by her side, she said, and "it has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be OK."

"For everyone facing this disease, in whatever form, please do not lose faith or hope," she said. "You are not alone."

But she added, her family does need "some time, space and privacy."

In light of this news, senior writer Meredith Blake and columnist Mary McNamara continue their conversation about the mania surrounding the princess' absence from public view and Kensington Palace's handling of the media scrutiny.

Read more: Kate Middleton's cancer announcement brings messages of concern, support

Mary McNamara: The thing about conspiracy theories is they can be fun when they are theories, but it's always rotten when they turn out to be right.

Along with the truly bonkers suggestions that the princess was dead or in a coma, or the notion that the Waleses' marriage was on the rocks, many have suspected that Kate's months-long recovery from a planned surgery indicated something more serious, like cancer treatments. Which turns out to be the case.

I hope that whatever form of the disease she has, they found it early and that she is indeed responding well to treatment and not feeling too ghastly. My prayers go out to her, as a patient and also a mother of three young children.

With King Charles III also undergoing treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer, I suppose one can understand why Kensington Palace did not want to make the announcement sooner — two cancer diagnoses is a lot for any family, never mind one under such a microscope.

Even so, it seems like a huge mistake. Everyone, including members of the royal family, are entitled to privacy, but Catherine is the future queen of England and the media has been erupting with all manner of speculation and criticism for weeks now.

It seems awful to contemplate anyone in the middle of cancer treatment having to watch their altered Mother's Day photo being put on a wire service kill list and then dissected the world over, but it was such an unforced error.

Not on Kate's part, I hasten to add — those who control the royal communications apparatus are to blame for that mess, and frankly for the entire "Where's Kate?" situation. By ostensibly trying to protect her privacy, the silence of Kensington Palace made Kate the center of a string of news cycles. Obviously, the convulsions of Reddit are not the Waleses' primary concern at the moment, but the ancillary coverage, including ours, can't have helped.

And while it would be easy to blame the internet or the salacious nature of royal gossip, the palace should have known better. After being fed a steady diet of the ever-smiling, perfectly styled princess for years, the public was inevitably going to question her prolonged absence and the very vague explanations for it.

Why not just let people know the truth, for heaven's sake? Most people have experience with cancer, if not their own then their family members' or friends'. If today's announcement had been made in February or even two weeks ago, we could have all be sending the princess and her family our thoughts and prayers instead of wondering where her wedding ring was or if a stand-in had been used for the most recent "the Prince and Princess of Wales go shopping" photo.

What were they thinking, Meredith?

Read more: As with Diana and Meghan, palace missteps in Kate Middleton saga spark a royal crisis

Meredith Blake: I think it's clear the Firm has failed Kate on many levels with this entire debacle. The messaging has been catastrophic from Day 1. If there is anything that Kate has earned after decades of unwavering perfection in the face of relentless scrutiny, of years under enormous pressure without ever putting a foot wrong, it's the right to a few months away from the prying eyes of the public and the meme-hungry internet hordes (a group that includes me). Given what we know now, the jokes about Kate isolating while she grew out bad bangs or recovered from a Brazilian butt lift seem cruel. At the same time, I wish that's all Kate were dealing with.

As to the "why" of it all, one part of Kate's message that really stood out to me — and, frankly, made me feel awfully guilty for playing some microscopic part in all of this mess. It's when she explained her absence from the public eye over the last few weeks by saying, "It has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be OK."

In other words, she didn't want the world to know what was going on with her health before she'd been able to talk to her kids about it — or before she had some grasp on it herself. I've got kids the same age as Kate's, and they are old enough to understand the gravity of a cancer diagnosis. I can completely understand why she wanted to wait to make any kind of public statement, and to process this news in private with her children. For Charles, her father-in-law, things are different: His children are grown and he is the monarch, not the spouse of the heir to the throne, so his health is an urgent matter of national interest.

I think this whole disaster has shown that the palace's communications team is not suited to the task of shaping the public image of the royal family in an era when memes and conspiracy theories take off at lightning speed. That being said, I am not entirely sure what they could, or should, have done differently. If Kate wanted to keep the news private — a completely reasonable choice — then what else could or should they have done? Other than brushing up on their Photoshop skills — and not blaming the whole thing on Kate, a woman with cancer.

The last few days I had started to think about "Kategate" in light of the frenzy around Britney Spears and her conservatorship, something that originated with her most devoted fans on social media and became a massive news story. #FreeBritney advocates were dismissed as crazy, but ultimately vindicated. I don't want to claim that those of us who've been concerned by (or at least obsessed with) Kate's situation the last few weeks were right to go down the rabbit hole, but clearly this was not "QAnon for Wine Moms," as at least one major national publication has dubbed it.

It turned out things were worse than the palace was letting on, and the people in charge of managing Kate's image were failing her spectacularly.

Mary, where do you think we go from here? Will the Waleses fire their entire press team? Should they? And do you think, now that Kate has shared this high-class equivalent of a proof-of-life video, the chattering masses will leave her alone? What good is being a princess if you can't even keep your cancer diagnosis to yourself?

Read more: What the frenzy over Kate Middleton’s ‘disappearance’ says about the royals — and us

McNamara: I think people will, and should, leave them alone. No doubt, there will be speculation about the nature of the disease, which especially in a woman so young is always scary. But not even the most anti-monarchist rabbit-holer could argue that a cancer diagnosis is providing cover for something else.

Which is why I don't understand why the news was not shared earlier. Of course you want to put the children's feelings first (though I can't imagine the Wales children are rabid readers of the Independent or BBC.com, never mind Reddit). But when the protective mechanism of "she's doing well" began to fail so spectacularly, even the kids would be better served by the truth being made public. Rather than, say, front pages devoted to what's wrong with Princess Charlotte's skirt or Stephen Colbert riffing on William's alleged affair with the Marchioness of Chumpetyhumph.

Once again, the world is confronted by the brutal nature of what it means to be a member of Britain's royal family. A lot of celebrities face endless "inquiring minds want to know" privacy invasion, but not even Taylor Swift is the literal embodiment of divine right, paid for, one way or another, by her nation's citizenry.

The Firm, the British press and Britain in general make a lot of money from the continued presence of the royal family. All those tea towels! All those photos! According a report in Variety, the Daily Mail offered to pay $126,000 for the farm stand footage, only to be outbid by the Sun.

For that kind of brand-driven economy to work, there must be both mystique and regular access. A health scare disrupts both of these things and, more important, underlines how outrageous it is to expect actual humans to live like this. Of course Kate should be able to keep quiet while dealing with cancer. But at the same time, of course her prolonged absence from public will be filled with speculation that should have been handled more professionally.

Which is why I think honesty is the best policy — about what is going on but also about how the world works. History has shown over and over how easily interest in the royal family, interest that is created directly by the palace, turns into a feeding frenzy.

Perhaps Kate's revelation will spark a moment similar to the one following Diana's death, in which the palace, the press and the public remembers that princesses are people too. But memories of Diana inevitably fuel suspicion that all is not what it seems. And if you create a system in which Charlotte's sisterly solicitousness, Louis' funny faces or Kate's penchant for pencil skirts are international "news," you can't expect the public not to wonder why they all vanished from the public eye for so long.

Now that we know, I believe privacy will be much more of a watch-word.

Blake: Is now an appropriate time to admit that I am am still wondering if that was really Kate in the video at the Windsor Farm Shop? Here's why it matters, other than my own insatiable curiosity: Because if it was Kate, then they made this poor woman go put on a brave face (and carry her own groceries!) for the cameras in what was clearly a "pap walk," a misguided attempt to redirect the narrative about her well-being and to quiet speculation. Obviously, it worked about as well as the botched Mother's Day photo.

Which brings me back to the Charles of it all. It is utterly bizarre, in an even-Peter Morgan-couldn't-have-written-this sort of way, that both his and Kate's cancer diagnoses came down within weeks of each other. The contrast between the way each case has been handled remains stark. Charles announced that he had cancer, didn't elaborate, and has been seen a few times, looking well enough for the press to more or less take him at his word. Kate, on the other hand, is the princess who unwittingly launched a million memes.

I am left with the same conclusion, oddly, that I reached after reading "Spare," Prince Harry's memoir, last year. (Speaking of our royals in Montecito, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex released a brief statement today, one that included well wishes but, alas, did not hint at any sort of imminent reconciliation between the brothers Windsor. "We wish health and healing for Kate and the family, and hope they are able to do so privately and in peace," it read.)

In between TMI details about frozen todgers and losing his virginity to an older woman in a field behind a pub, Harry paints a truly miserable picture of life inside the royal family, an institution in which an individual's value and ranking is based on when they were born and to whom — and nothing more — and where one's power is largely symbolic, and thus dependent on being seen by the public, even in desperate times. (Like, say, at your mother's funeral, watched by billions around the globe, or while in the middle of chemotherapy regimen as a relentlessly scrutinized 42-year-old mother of three.) My biggest gripe with Harry's book is that, in the end, he wouldn't denounce the whole inhumane institution, one that chewed up and destroyed his mother and pitted him against his only sibling. And one that, over the last few weeks, has miserably failed the woman who is its most popular member.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.