The Kate Middleton photo scandal is a rare — and consequential — flub
5 mins read

The Kate Middleton photo scandal is a rare — and consequential — flub

Kate Middleton’s botched photo editing job seen around the world is more than just catnip for tabloids and TikTok conspiracy theorists. It’s also the most instructive illustration of the AI-flecked new reality we live in, a maelstrom formed when distrust and established processes converge and create chaos.

It’s hard to know what Middleton, aka the Princess of Wales and future Queen of England, was thinking when she allegedly edited her own photo so sloppily that it’s become front-page news in a bunch of countries. Shortly after the image was shared publicly, the world’s biggest wire agencies, like The Associated Press, Getty, and Reuters, issued retraction alerts — called “kill notices” — instructing media outlets to not use the image or, if they have, to pull it, citing “manipulation.”

The photo was seen by fans as the royal family’s way to signal Middleton is doing well after undergoing “planned abdominal surgery” in January; before this, she had been missing from public appearances for months, fueling tin foil hat theories that something was wrong.

A lot of speculation has centered on why the royal family did this and what they’re hiding (which, to be crystal clear, could be absolutely nothing). What’s more interesting to me are the structures in place for Middleton and her family to shape their public image and what happens when that all comes crashing down.

Kill notices are incredibly rare and unusual. One wire service source told me they could count on one hand the number of kills issued in a year. To give you a sense of scale, AP says it publishes thousands of stories a day and a million pictures a year. Getty Images covers 160,000 events annually. That a kill notice of this magnitude happened is a big deal.

Part of the rarity comes from the fact that wire services have established relationships with the organizations that submit images to them, like Kensington Palace or NASA or the United Nations, for example. AP is not accepting and disseminating images from randos like you and me. The palace knows the editorial rules around what kind of material agencies will accept, making what they did even more brazen and a serious breach of protocol.

Images submitted to agencies are reviewed by editors looking for discrepancies, and in this case, the manipulation was caught only after the image had hit the wires (and the Instagram account of the Prince and Princess of Wales, where the image is still live). Could this case cause editors to apply heightened scrutiny to media submitted by Kensington Palace? Many organizations are probably having these conversations.

Wire services have clear rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not — AP allows minor cropping and color adjustments but disallows the removal of “red eye,” for example. But for everyone else, it’s the Wild West. There’s no vetting process for manipulated images on Instagram, where the doctored picture remains up with no note or disclosure from the palace. As of this writing, a bright red alert appears at the bottom, added by Instagram: “Altered photo/video. The same altered photo was reviewed by independent fact-checkers in another post.”

It’s fair to ask why wire services didn’t catch the red flags earlier — Princess Charlotte’s sweater sleeve disappearing at the cuff is especially glaring. But the fact that wire services pulled the image in unison has brought legitimacy to what otherwise may have bubbled online as simply far-fetched theories. In this case, at least, the retraction from major media organizations holds more weight than amateur social media breakdowns and viral multi-video TikTok investigations.

For the past century, the British royal family has had a near-unparalleled grasp of the power of shaping public perception via images. The doctored photo of Middleton — and subsequent kill notices — is a misfire of historic proportions. The scandal could be seen as a sign of the royal family’s weakening grip on public perception. But it’s perhaps better understood as a reflection of our current epistemological hell.

On TikTok, Twitter, or other platforms, people are free to post whatever they like, no established editorial standards necessary. In the age of generative AI tools — not to mention editing programs like Photoshop that have been around for years — “reality” is tenuous. Some people see Middleton’s poorly photoshopped family picture and decide she’s either in critical condition, in the midst of a divorce, or recovering from a BBL; others comment underneath telling her to “ignore the negativity” and that she’s done nothing wrong. When photos can be tweaked in an instant with plausible deniability, they can be anything the viewer wants them to be.