‘Manipulated’ photo of Kate Middleton pulled by media agencies. Why?

Fascination with the British royal family is nothing new. Globally, the country’s monarchy has sat somewhere between cultural and political obsession, representing the face of Britain and its imperialism, as much as it also fits the mould of twenty-first century, celebrity-centric tabloid news.

There is no better example than the current PR catastrophe revolving around Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, a certain Photoshopped picture, and a hypothesized “disappearance” all over people’s feeds.

On Sunday, as the UK celebrated Mother’s Day, Kensington Palace — the official royal residence and branded social media accounts — unveiled a new portrait of Kate with her three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. The photo, credited as taken by her husband, Prince William, and posted on both Instagram and Twitter/X, was captioned, “Thank you for your kind wishes and continued support over the last two months. Wishing everyone a Happy Mother’s Day.”

Not just a family portrait, this was the first publicly-released photograph of Kate since she underwent scheduled abdominal surgery in January, with her last public appearance being Christmas Day over two months ago.

Questions had began to swirl almost immediately, first from social media users who have already spent months wildly speculating about Kate’s absence from the public eye — but then, from media agencies declaring the picture showed signs of “manipulation”. Since, the Princess has posted on X apologising for the photo causing “confusion” and the original photo post by @KensingtonPalace on X is now accompanied by a Community Note reading: “This photo is believed to be digitally altered and as a result many major news outlets have pulled the image from their reports.”

A screenshot showing the Community Note attached to Kensington Palace's tweet.

This Community Note now sits under @KensingtonPalace’s X post.
Credit: Screenshot: Mashable / X

Why did media agencies pull the picture of Kate Middleton and her kids?

Five major media agencies pulled the photo of the Princess and her children on Sunday: the Associated Press (AP), PA, Getty Images, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse (AFP). All five agencies released a “kill notice” via emails and on their imaging websites, which essentially means they alerted clients to remove the photograph immediately from all platforms and to stop distributing it entirely.

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In its alert, the AP wrote, “At closer inspection, it appears that the source has manipulated the image. Clients please be advised that the following story has been killed and should no longer be used.” The AFP, similarly, cited an “editorial issue” and requested clients to no longer use the image “in any manner.”

The more specific reasons for pulling the photograph are in the details. For one, the Photoshop job, confirmed by the Princess on X as having been done by herself, is messy: the area around Princess Charlotte’s sleeve showed signs of manipulation (and was visibly blurry); both Kate and Charlotte’s hair looked unnatural and vaguely chopped off; and other details like the younger Prince’s hands look equally doctored.

News agencies have strict guidelines around manipulated images, including the AP who emphasize in its statement of values and principles: “The content of a photograph must not be altered in Photoshop or by any other means. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph.”

Several outlets, including the BBC and The New York Times, have since removed the photograph from their original coverage of the image.

How did the Palace respond?

A flurry of conjecture followed the image’s release, along with subsequent debunking. But on Monday morning, the Princess herself released a statement on Twitter/X, apologising for the “confusion” around the photo and admitting to playing around with editing software: “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I had wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused,” reads the statement, signed by C (for Catherine, Kate’s full name).

The Palace faced pressure in the last 24 hours to acknowledge the doctored image and explain what’s really going on. At the time of writing, no other members of the royal family have commented, including the official @RoyalFamily account. The fact that the image was in fact edited raised questions about Kate’s health and circumstances, though many were in line with the tabloid-esque rumours that have circulated since the Princess’ surgery. But what was meant to quell such rumours actually sent them spinning further, and it’s no surprise that a statement was warranted.

What does it all mean?

It seems now that Kate Middleton’s family photo was no more than an error in editing judgement, according to the Palace at least. But if the internet has anything to do with it, the story will go on. Royal reporters, too, have had a lot to say even before the ill-advised photograph was released.

The UK media has a uniquely unhealthy relationship with the royals, and rumours circulated in the papers have been addressed by Kensington Palace itself, in broad terms. In late February, spokespersons for the Palace responded to this conjecture to several outlets, dismissing the “wild conspiracy theories”: “We were very clear from the outset that the Princess of Wales was out until after Easter and Kensington Palace would only be providing updates when something was significant.”

However, as reporter and former Buzzfeed News Royal correspondent Ellie Hall has pointed out, the Palace directly acknowledging these conspiracies is rare in itself. It seems this entirely situation is unprecedented, and people will only have more questions coming — at least until after Easter, when the Princess is set to resume her royal duties.

#KateGate is trending

Needless to say, the saga isn’t over and public scrutiny is at an all-time high. Since, Middleton has been pictured leaving Windsor Castle with Prince William, in a photograph where her face was barely visible, staring out a car window. #KateGate and “Kate Middleton” have been trending on X, where reactions vary from further conspiracy theories to concern about the Princess’ whereabouts. People have questioned the latest photo itself: there are memes (many of them), queries about the red brick wall behind the car (apparently it looks suspicious), and some discourse around Photoshop. What hasn’t been given – and really, never has been for Royals – is privacy.