Princess of Wales apologises for altered image that embarrassed royal family

Photo taken by Prince of Wales first to be issued since Kate's abdominal surgery

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RELATED: How Princess of Wales came a cropper in photo storm

Kate, Princess of Wales has apologised for confusion created by a digitally altered family photograph that was released to mark Mother’s Day.

The image of the princess and her children, taken by the Prince of Wales, was the first to be issued since her abdominal surgery in January.

It was published by Kensington Palace on Sunday, before being withdrawn hours later by international agencies through a so-called kill notice, due to suspicions it had been manipulated. The Press Association recalled the photo on Monday.

Agencies have become increasingly alert to manipulated images due to the proliferation of AI-generated content. Royal commentators said the PR failing could fuel speculation over Kate's health when the royal family was actually trying to dispel such rumours.

In the picture, a smiling Princess of Wales was shown posing with her beaming children Prince George, Prince Louis and Princess Charlotte in Windsor, where the family live.

Kensington Palace said the photo had been taken by her husband, heir to the throne Prince William, last week.

Concerns were raised over a missing part of Princess Charlotte's sleeve and the misaligned edge of her skirt, with speculation including the misaligned positioning of Kate's zip.

There were also peculiarities over the alignment of the Princess of Wales's face, Princess Charlotte's hair, a step in the background and the pattern on Prince George's jumper.

The Princess of Wales, 42, on Monday released a statement on social media to apologise, which said: "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 picture was released to reassure the public amid escalating conspiracy theories online over the state of the princess's health in recent weeks, but the controversy – referred to as "Kategate" and "Sleevegate" – has been labelled an "extraordinary" turn of events.

Royal sources told news agencies the Princess of Wales made "minor adjustments" and the couple wanted to offer an informal picture of their family together for Mother's Day.

"The Wales family spent Mother's Day together and had a wonderful day," the source added.

Kensington Palace, which has said it will not be reissuing the original unedited photograph, has come under growing pressure over the debacle, with the controversy branded "damaging" to public trust of the royal family.

The princess underwent planned abdominal surgery for a non-cancerous but unspecified condition in January, with Kensington Palace saying at the time she would not return to public duties until after Easter.

Her office has said she was recovering well but her absence has led to intense speculation about her health on social media in recent weeks.

Prince William recently pulled out of a memorial service for the late former King Constantine of Greece, where he had been due to give a reading, due to what Kensington Palace called a "personal matter".

'Fuelling speculation'

Royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams told The National the release of the image was “embarrassing” for the royal family.

"The reason that it’s been done is to quash rumours, which of course will be restarted, and also on a worldwide basis," he said. "That’s what the problem has been. Because when William pulled out of the memorial service, what you had afterwards was it became an international [story].

"When the princess does resume royal duties, this will probably be largely forgotten. But for the moment there is so much trolling online and with a lot of undesirable activity, including paparazzi."

He added: "It will fuel speculation, which is the last thing it was meant to do."

Meg Coffey, a media commentator and social media expert, told The National a kill notice was "as bad as it gets".

"A kill notice is stop distribution, remove it from everything you have got it published from, remove it, delete it. That photo is never to be used again," she said.

"And they don’t just issue a kill notice lightly. AP and Reuters are the gold standard. So if they issue a kill notice, it’s bad. It means there is a fundamental issue with this image that breaks ethical standards."

We’re at a scary time in media and the royal family, they hold a really important position. They of all people should know the importance of truth and they should not be releasing manipulated images
Meg Coffey, media commentator

She said news agencies have to be strict due to the advent of AI and recent launch of the new text-to-video tool Sora, meaning that people need to be able to trust what they receive from a source like Reuters.

Ms Coffey said: "We’re at a scary time in media and the royal family, they hold a really important position. They of all people should know the importance of truth and they should not be releasing manipulated images."

"You can’t have a photo that has been manipulated to mark a historical moment of a historical figure."

And when you start doctoring images, it calls into question your credibility, said Ms Coffey.

"There is a lot of questioning about what is going on with her at the moment," she added.

"And from a 'crisis coms' point of view, releasing an image which got a kill notice is not doing anyone any favours when it comes to conspiracy theories."

Public relations and crisis consultant Mark Borkowski called the fiasco a "massive own goal" and said the unedited photograph should be released to regain trust.

He said: "It's plausible she's at home playing with the computer and using an AI tool, but if they're really going to regain any sort of trust they should release the unedited photo, it can't be that bad if they just made a few tweaks.

The controversy is set to overshadow the Commonwealth Day service, one of the key royal events of the year.

The Princess of Wales was seen for the first time since her operation last week, when, according to US news website TMZ, she was pictured near Windsor Castle in the passenger seat of a car.

She was wearing dark sunglasses in a black Audi, which was being driven by her mother Carole Middleton.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 2:57 PM