The British media has shown restraint about Princess Kate’s health.  It made no difference.
The British media has shown restraint about Princess Kate’s health.  It made no difference.

Days before Catherine, Princess of Wales, ended wild speculation about her absence from public life by revealing she was battling cancer, a senior royal journalist appeared on British national television and delivered a sharp message to the media: Stop it.

“I think everyone just needs to give her some space,” Roya Nika, royal editor of The Sunday Times of London, told Good Morning Britain. “This is a woman who has been in the public eye since her early 20s and has hardly put a foot wrong. I think we all need to relax a bit.

The idea of ​​an editor at a Rupert Murdoch-owned publication berating other journalists for being impertinent may strike some as a bit rich. After all, the London papers pioneered the glorification of the Windsor family, known for stalking the former Princess of Wales, Diana, and revealing the most microscopic details of her and her children’s private lives.

In the case of Catherine’s recent whereabouts, however, the British press has largely shown an unusual level of restraint.

Yes, they reported the rumor frenzy, but mostly under the guise of berating social media users for spreading conspiracies. When the American publication TMZ obtained a paparazzi photo of Catherine and her mother in a car, London newspapers unanimously refused to publish it.

And after Catherine’s cancer was revealed, the British media were quick to attack their counterparts across the pond, accusing American tabloids and media figures of recklessly expanding the wilder rumours. (It’s worth noting that British libel laws are much stricter than those in the United States.) Piers Morgan, a former tabloid editor himself, has demanded that Stephen Colbert apologize for joking about rumors that Prince William was having an affair.

The boisterous London tabloids often claim the moral high ground, but there are other factors at play. The Royal Family and Fleet Street are a pair of British institutions whose fortunes and fortunes have long been intertwined – and they face similar challenges in the age of new media.

The gatekeepers who once controlled the official flow of information – be it palace press secretaries or tabloid editors – are increasingly powerless against the online tide. When it was first revealed that Catherine had undergone abdominal surgery, Kensington Palace announced that it would not be offering any further updates on her condition. British royal correspondents, who have long-term relationships with the future king and queen to worry about, mostly follow this directive.

But both camps were confused by the rampant misinformation that was spreading on the Internet. The tabloids, once leading royal sensationalism – and still grappling with a long-running phone-hacking scandal – were now helpless to shut him down. And palace officials, unwilling to compromise the princess’s private life, mistakenly believed the rumors would die down.

The result was a narrative driven by online chatter that went beyond the control of traditional gatekeepers.

“I’ve never seen anything like the reaction we’ve had online and the huge conspiracy surrounding this particular story,” Max Foster, CNN’s top London anchor, said in an interview. “There was a point about a week ago when really sensible, smart friends were coming up to me and saying, ‘I think there’s something going on here.'”

He spent hours discussing with CNN executives how to responsibly cover the Catherine rumors without spreading misinformation, a balancing act he called “a real challenge.”

Helen Lewis, a British writer for The Atlantic, also complained that some of her friends “became Kate Middleton real people.” In an essay on Friday, “I Hope You’re All Feeling Terrible Right Now,” Ms. Lewis argued that the situation exposed the frightening power of social media to hijack rational discourse and, she said, force a woman with cancer to reveal a personal diagnosis.

“If you ever wanted proof that the ‘mainstream media’ is less powerful than ever,” she wrote, “this video of Kate Middleton sitting on a bench is it.”

Even British newspapers, however, acknowledged that Kensington Palace officials deserved some of the blame for allowing an information vacuum to develop.

It was the lack of an official explanation for Catherine’s absence that prompted self-styled online sleuths to come up with wild explanations. The cover-up theory was extended after the palace released a fake photo of Catherine and her children.

The royals must “own up to what’s really going on or risk drowning in the quagmire of their own making,” wrote Sarah Vine, the influential Daily Mail columnist, after the photo fiasco.

Still, the whole episode suggested something that might be reassuring to British royalists. “What it revealed in a strange way is how relevant this family still is,” said Eva Wallhower, a British-American who hosts the “Windsors & Losers” podcast about the royals.

“For a while the story has been, ‘Meghan and Harry are gone,’ ‘We have an older king on the throne,’ ‘Young people don’t care about the royal family,'” Ms. Wallhover said in an interview. “The fact that the whole world has started talking about it in the last few weeks shows that they’re still as interesting to us culturally as they ever were.”

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