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Doctored photo of Kate Middleton is credibility blow for royal family in crisis

A close-up of Catherine, the Princess of Wales
Amid speculation about Kate Middleton's health and whereabouts, Kensington Palace tweeted a statement attributed to the Princess of Wales on Monday that apologized for any "confusion" she caused by digitally editing a photo of herself and her children. (Kin Cheung / Associated Press)

Catherine, Princess of Wales, issued an apology Monday for distributing an image that had been manipulated, only heightening speculation about her health and whereabouts since she had surgery in January.

Kensington Palace had released the image of the former Kate Middleton and her children the day before, apparently hoping to quell questions that have fueled worry as well as online sleuthing and conspiracy theories.

But her admission that the image had been doctored has intensified the controversy and raised serious questions about the way the royal family has handled news of the princess' health.

"The palace clearly messed up. Full stop. You don't release a manipulated image with the world watching," said Mike Ananny, co-director of the Center for Generative AI and Society and co-director of the Artificial Intelligence for Media & Storytelling initiative at USC.

It breaks "this myth that royals are showing us genuine trusted images," he added. "This historically is a moment of 'Can we trust images and public institutions?' being blown up."

Kensington Palace on Sunday released the Princess of Wales' first photo since her hospitalization for abdominal surgery nearly two months ago, but the Associated Press and other news agencies retracted the image "because it appeared to be manipulated." It is common practice for news outlets not to publish retouched photos. Getty, Reuters and AFP also issued take-down notices that said the photo had been removed for editorial reasons. At that point, however, the image had already been published on the front page of numerous British publications and online.

Read more: AP retracts Kate Middleton photo 'because it appeared to be manipulated'

Catherine's photo distribution and news agencies pulling back the image fueled even more conjecture about the 42-year-old royal. Instead of quelling rumors, her U.K. Mother's Day greeting resulted in a rare apology from the British royal for the Photoshop fail, making a strange situation even more bizarre.

"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. C," the duchess said in a statement on Kensington Palace's account on X (formerly Twitter).

The photo, said to have been taken in Windsor last week by her husband, Prince William, heir apparent to the British throne, featured Catherine seated in a chair outdoors surrounded by her children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. However, it was clear that it had been edited in certain areas, specifically around Charlotte's hands.

The Associated Press retracted the photo  hours after publishing it.

"While there was no suggestion the photo was fake, AP retracted it because closer inspection revealed the source had manipulated the image in a way that did not meet AP’s photo standards. For instance, the photo shows an inconsistency in the alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left hand," AP said. The Los Angeles Times also removed the image from its website.

A montage of March 11, 2024, British newspapers featuring a photo of Kate Middleton and her kids
A collection of British newspapers from Monday feature the image that was edited by the Princess of Wales and distributed by Kensington Palace. (Alastair Grant / Associated Press)

Internet sleuths spotted more issues, including misalignment on a window in the background and a tile on the floor, as well as apparent inconsistencies around the family's attire. Naturally, the image and Catherine's apology evolved into a viral meme, and others questioned a wide range of issues, including why the photo was posted in the first place and why Catherine wasn't wearing her wedding ring.

"Shout-out to whoever is doing PR ... Because nothing says 'let's put the conspiracy theories to rest' quite like a very badly photoshopped/ai generated photo," one user wrote in the comments section of the palace photo.

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

"I am struggling to believe that the most famous royal family in the world — and the woman who would be queen — fiddled around with photoshop and put out a family pic (designed to quash rumours about her whereabouts) without anyone in the ranks inspecting it. Nah. Not buying it," wrote another.

Catherine's Mother’s Day message came a week after the senior royal was captured in paparazzi photos making her first public outing since December and since undergoing abdominal surgery Jan. 16.

The senior royal was admitted to the London Clinic, Kensington Palace said, for a planned abdominal surgery and successfully underwent the procedure. The palace added, however, that the princess was expected to be hospitalized for 10 to 14 days “before returning home to continue her recovery.” She would return to public duties after Easter — March 31 — based on current medical advice, the palace added.

“The Princess of Wales appreciates the interest this statement will generate,” Kensington Palace said. “She hopes that the public will understand her desire to maintain as much normality for her children as possible; and her wish that her personal medical information remains private."

Despite that, Catherine's “disappearance” has led to rampant gossip about the nature of her ailment and what she's been doing in her time out of public view.

Read more: Kate Middleton spotted after rampant speculation about her post-op whereabouts

Such questions have run wild in Reddit threads, in tabloids around the world and in mainstream news outlets, particularly last month when William cited personal matters as his reason for missing the funeral of his godfather, King Constantine II of Greece. Catherine's announcement about her break from royal duties was further compounded by King Charles III's health issues, including Buckingham Palace's announcement that he was being treated for an undisclosed form of cancer.

Last week, a spokesman reiterated the palace’s stance that there would be no “running commentary” provided on Kate’s health despite internet rumors.

“From our perspective, we were very clear from our statement at the start of this in January that the Princess of Wales planned to be out of public action until after Easter, and that hasn’t changed,” a spokesperson for the family said. "We were always clear we wouldn’t be providing updates when there wasn’t anything new to share. The last thing anyone wants is a running commentary of the Princess of Wales’ recovery. Nothing has changed from that approach in January.”

Sunday's Mother's Day post appeared to present an apt way for the princess to break her silence, thanking British subjects for their "kind wishes and continued support over the last two months." But the accompanying image — with its many photo-editing red flags — ignited anew the discourse about her welfare.

The palace has not yet further commented on the gaffe. And hours after the apology, Catherine was photographed leaving Windsor Castle with Prince William, People said, reporting that she was heading to a private appointment.

Catherine's image was distributed amid a tenuous time — for both the media and the royal family, which has been struggling with discord and scandals.

Read more: Princess Catherine hospitalized after surgery; King Charles set for prostate procedure

"In a way, there was a no win-condition here for her. And if in fact she's dealing with illness, I can't imagine how distressing this is on top of that. I do think expectations from the public have to change too," said Sarah T. Roberts, professor and director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.

Roberts said royal watchers have an insatiable appetite for content, which has been scant since Catherine's last public appearance in December and offered in only piecemeal updates from the palace. Although she was not meant to return to royal duties until after Easter, the palace likely would have faced criticism for any image it used or for skipping her acknowledgment of Mother's Day.

"Pretty much any other move would've been better, but hindsight is 20/20," Roberts said. "Kate Middleton and her husband are youngish people, and they're aware of the internet and understand the way it works, and they should have some better advice maybe around them too. If she was really out there doing the photo herself, that's a bigger problem altogether. These people have media teams, engage in reputation management. It struck a wrong note."

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Although the editing flubs seem "ridiculous or funny"on the surface, Roberts said, they reflect a bigger "crisis of veracity" that the media has been dealing with for years.

"There is perhaps an unspoken expectation that maybe needs to be part of an open conversation about the level of integrity that institutions like the British monarchy and others that want to be taken seriously need to have," Roberts said. "They need to set the tone because there are so many competing outlets that don't have those standards. So if we can't expect veracity from the sources themselves, they're really going to impugn themselves reputationally to the public."

Ananny added: "This is royalty we're talking about, and royalty has always needed visibility and a publicness. It's a requirement of royalty that they be visible and accessible. But social media complicates that because Instagram has a veneer of informality and authenticity, but we also know it's not always real."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.