Kate Middleton photo fallout: News agency says palace is no longer trusted source

Princess Kate was forced to issue an apology over an edited family photo.

Kate Middleton photo fallout: News agency says palace is no longer trusted source
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
March 14, 2024, 12:54 PM

Kensington Palace is no longer considered a trusted source, according to one global news agency, after a photo of Kate, the Princess of Wales, and her children was retracted due to editing concerns.

Phil Chetwynd, global news director at Agence France-Presse, told BBC Radio on Thursday that news agencies around the world called a meeting to address the issue once they realized a photo the palace shared on X on Sunday "clearly violated" their rules, leading them to issue a "kill notice" to publishers around the world.

According to Chetwynd, issuing a "kill notice" for a photograph based on manipulation is a very rare occurrence.

When asked by BBC Radio if the palace would still be trusted as a source, Chetwynd answered no.

"No, absolutely not," he said. "Like with anything, when you're let down by a source, the bar is raised."

He continued, "And we've got, you know, major issues internally as to how we validate that photo. We shouldn't have done it. It violated our guidelines and, therefore, you know, we sent out notes to all our team at the moment to be absolutely super more vigilant about the content coming across our desk, even from what we would call trusted sources."

The photo editing controversy involving Kate is one that has left the public questioning the reliability of the royal family.

PHOTO: A combination of pictures made on March 11, 2024 shows a handout photo released by Kensington Palace on March 10, 2024 of Britain's Catherine, Princess of Wales with her children, alongside a version highlighting several inconsistencies.
A combination of pictures made on March 11, 2024 shows a handout photo released by Kensington Palace on March 10, 2024 of Britain's Catherine, Princess of Wales with her children, alongside a version highlighting several inconsistencies in alignments after it came to light that the handout had been manipulated.
Prince Of Wales/KENSINGTON PALACE/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to the photo controversy, since the start of the new year, Britain's royal family has faced a cancer diagnosis for its 75-year-old monarch, a publicly unexpected surgery and hospitalization for Kate, one of its most popular members.

The two health crises -- King Charles III's diagnosis of an undisclosed type of cancer and Kate's "planned abdominal surgery" in January -- have left the family without two of its most high-profile members to carry on royal engagements and be the faces of the monarchy.

The complete absence of Kate, who is married to Prince William, from the public eye since late December, in particular, has led to a swirl of conspiracy theories online ranging from a secret pregnancy or divorce to physical or mental health breakdowns.

When William and Kate presumably tried to quiet the storm of online theories by releasing a photo on Mother's Day in the U.K. of a smiling Kate surrounded by the couple's three children -- Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte -- the effort backfired completely.

After the photo -- taken by William -- was retracted by several global news agencies over concerns it was "manipulated," Kate issued a public apology, a very rare step for a royal.

"Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing," Kate said in the apology, shared on X, and signed with her initial "C," for Catherine. "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."

Unfortunately for the royal family, the apology seemed to make matters worse, with even more theories erupting online about whether it was really Kate who edited the photo, why she took the blame, and what other photographs shared by the royals have also been heavily edited.

"The reality is, now the conspiracy theories have gone into overdrive," said Robert Jobson, an ABC News royal contributor. "It's clearly proved that all that they've been saying is true. 'Where is Kate? Is this really a photograph at all? If they can mess around with Charlotte's hand, well, how do we know it's even Kate's face?'"

He continued, "If the intention of Kensington Palace was to dampen down all this mad speculation online, well, it hasn't worked."

Most royal experts and visual verification experts alike seem to agree that the editing in Kate's Mother's Day photo seems minor, likely nothing more than an effort by a mom to make herself and her kids look as good as possible.

Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told ABC News his analysis of the photo shows "minor manipulation," and no evidence it is an AI-generated photo.

"I think most likely it is either some bad photoshop to, for example, remove a stain on the sweater, or is the result of on-camera photo compositing that combines multiple photos together to get a photo where everyone is smiling," Farid said. "Either way, I think it is unlikely that this is anything more than a relatively minor photo manipulation."

PHOTO: Prince William, Princess Charlotte, Catherine and Princess of Wales walk away from the church with Prince George of Wales and Prince Louis of Wales after attending  the Royal Family's traditional Christmas Day service in England, Dec. 25, 2023.
Prince William, Princess Charlotte, Catherine and Princess of Wales walk away from the church with Prince George of Wales and Prince Louis of Wales after attending the Royal Family's traditional Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church on the Sandringham Estate in eastern England, Dec. 25, 2023.
Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

But questions remain about how and why the palace got this wrong, and why they are remaining silent in the face of such controversy.

"The palace has got this 100% wrong," Jobson said, adding that he would urge Kensington Palace to release the original, unedited photo. "Put out the original photograph, because if you put out the original photograph, which has got maybe Kate looking in the wrong direction, or Charlotte not paying attention or Louis not smiling, it doesn't matter."

Jobson said the photo editing error by William and Kate is not the first for the royal family. He recalled that in 1999, royal officials released a photo from the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie, the Duchess of Edinburgh, in which William's face had been transposed with a photo that showed him smiling.

"Clearly this has been going on for some time," Jobson said. "But in this day of artificial intelligence, in this day that we the public have really got to trust and rely upon organizations to put out honest and faithful photographs and honest and faithful information if they don't, then that trust is eroded, unfortunately."

Victoria Murphy, also an ABC News royal contributor, described Kate's photo controversy as an unforced error by the palace.

"Editing the image in any way was a particularly silly mistake because this is a time of all times when the palace should have known that people would be heavily scrutinizing it," she said. "Even though I don't think it's the case that the royals intended to hide anything major with these edits, just the fact the picture was edited has led to more conspiracy theories as well as wider public interest debates about trust from public bodies and concerns over fake news."

Contrary to the idea of a big, formal press operation managing the monarchy, the press team for William and Kate is what Murphy described as a "small and close-knit team." She said it was that team, led by William and Kate's press secretaries, that would have led the response to the photo controversy, as well as, in the weeks prior, responded to the growing questions about Kate's well-being.

Jobson echoed that point, noting that it was William and Kate and their team, not other palace officials, who decided to use a photo taken by William, rather than a professional photographer.

PHOTO: Catherine, Princess of Wales attends the Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church, Dec. 25, 2023, in Sandringham, Norfolk.
Catherine, Princess of Wales attends the Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church, Dec. 25, 2023, in Sandringham, Norfolk.
Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

Jobson placed the blame for this latest royal controversy on the Kensington Palace communications team, noting that anything the royal family does is "historic" and a mistake like this is "pretty damning for history."

"I think the most important thing here is, really, that it's not Kate that's done anything wrong. It's not William that's done anything wrong," Jobson said. "They pay a lot of money for professionals to run the communications team, and ultimately they should have had the strength of character to turn and say, 'We cannot put that out because if we do, people are going to start asking questions, not about our integrity of our photographs, but if you put out a fake photograph, how can they believe the information that we are also putting out and releasing about private events?'"

He continued, "It's all about integrity, and integrity is crucial when you're dealing with a serious situation like this where you're representing members of the royal family."

A 'depleted' monarchy

The controversy swirling around Kate has put a spotlight not only on the palace, but also on the monarchy itself.

When Charles became king in 2022, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, criticism about the monarchy's link to colonialism and waning support among young people, according to a YouGov poll, reignited questions about the future of the monarchy and its purpose in modern times.

As those questions continue, the monarchy is trying to move forward without two of its most public figures, and without as many options as in previous years of other royal family members to step in.

Kate's last public appearance was on Christmas Day, and she is not expected to resume public duties until at least after Easter, according to Kensington Palace. William also took time off from public duties to care for Kate earlier this year.

PHOTO: Queen Camilla, King Charles III, Prince William, Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales pose for a photograph ahead of The Diplomatic Reception in the 1844 Room at Buckingham Palace, Dec. 5, 2023, in London.
Queen Camilla, King Charles III, Prince William, Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales pose for a photograph ahead of The Diplomatic Reception in the 1844 Room at Buckingham Palace, Dec. 5, 2023, in London.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

He is now back to work but earlier this month missed a royal engagement due to a "personal matter," which further set off speculation.

Charles, who has not commented publicly on Kate's health or the photo editing controversy, has stepped back from public duties since his cancer diagnosis was revealed in early February.

In his absence, Camilla, the Queen Consort, has stepped up as the head of the royal family, but she too took a short time off from public engagements recently.

Camilla and William led the royal presence Monday at the annual Commonwealth Day service, a stark contrast from just four years ago, when the service marked the last royal engagement for Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex.

At that service in 2020, Queen Elizabeth II was joined by Charles and Camilla, William and Kate and Harry and Meghan, who have since exited their senior royal roles.

PHOTO: Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Prince William, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex attend the Commonwealth Day Service 2020, March 9, 2020, in London.
Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex attend the Commonwealth Day Service 2020, March 9, 2020, in London.
WPA Pool/Getty Images

With Harry and Meghan's departure, William and Kate alone became the faces of the next generation of royals.

"In terms of front-line royals, it's quite a different picture and a far less glamorous picture," Jobson said. "They may not be at crisis point, but they are certainly depleted."