Why the British Media Has Put Up a ‘United Front’ to Simmer Online Kate Middleton Hysteria

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“Great to See You Again Kate,” bellowed The Sun on its March 19 cover.

The British tabloid newspaper had good reason to shout, having just won a bidding war for a grainy amateur video it asserted was of Kate Middleton “pictured out in public with husband William for the first time since undergoing surgery in January.”

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The “royal world exclusive” hadn’t come cheap. According to sources in the British tabloid industry speaking to Variety, The Daily Mail had been willing to pay more than £100,000 ($126,000) for the video of the royals leaving a farm shop — shot on an iPhone by member of the public through a car windscreen — but ultimately The Sun emerged victorious with a larger, unknown bid.

The footage of Middleton had arrived, The Sun wrote, “amid weeks of vile and bullying online behaviour where wild conspiracy theories have spread unchecked.” In an accompanying comment piece, the paper’s royal photographer wrote that there had been “so many rumours circulated about her on social media — but they can now be put to rest.” Other papers took a similar stance. “Finally, everyone can calm down,” said The Daily Telegraph, citing a “royal source,” while on its cover The Daily Mail declared a still — plastered in The Sun’s watermark — to be the “Image The World Has Been Waiting For.”

Whatever editors had expected, the video didn’t put the rumours to rest. And people didn’t calm down. Not at all.

Following weeks of growing online hysteria about the whereabouts and wellbeing of Middleton, which went into overdrive following the release of the now-infamous doctored Mother’s Day photo, amateur internet sleuths were by now wilfully ignoring The Sun’s demands to “Lay Off Kate” (as per its front page on March 12) and were poring over every minute scrap of detail made available and making their own deductions. For many, the low-resolution image taken in a car park proved nothing: the blurry woman in the photo simply wasn’t her.

But — putting the meticulous inspection of facial contours to one side — why has such a vast chasm erupted between how the British press has been reporting an ever-expanding news story and how it’s been unfolding online. Rather than capitalize on the rampaging conspiracy theories, the U.K. media — often only too happy to publish the thoughts of social media users when it serves them — has effectively circled the wagons around the Prince and Princess, rubbishing online critics or declaring them to be “trolls.”

“It’s very unusual for the British press to act responsibly, especially when it comes to the royals,” notes Andy Tillett, an editor at the New York Post and author of “Royals At War.” “But I do think that the fact that Meghan and Harry’s departure hurt the royal family made the press see the value in championing them.”

Tillett suggests that the “growing pro-royal stance” has intensified in the tabloids. “So they’re being protective of Princess Catherine, because she’s now seen as the figurehead of the U.K.. But since she’s taken an extended break, things have become incredibly chaotic.”

As former Buckingham Palace communications secretary and co-host of the “When it Hits the Fan” podcast Simon Lewis explains, there’s been a love-hate relationship between the British press — particularly the tabloids — and the royal family for generations. “It’s like a Faustian bargain — the royals know they need the media and the media know they need to write about the royals, but they don’t necessarily connect in terms of their objective,” he says. “So when situations like this occur, it exacerbates the sort of tensions that are always there.”

A key factor exacerbating the recent situation is a new openness when it comes to discussing the health of the royals. Whereas the media was previously kept largely in the dark, palace officials separately announced in January — on the same day — that Middleton had undergone “planned abdominal surgery” and that King Charles was to undergo a medical exam for an “enlarged prostrate.” Several weeks later, it was revealed that Charles had been diagnosed with cancer, but he was still seen in public and gave a statement to the public offering his “heartfelt thanks” for the messages of support. By contrast, the radio silence from Middleton’s camp and secrecy over her surgery only poured fuel on the conspiracy fire.

“It’s a very rare scenario where a situation hasn’t been created by the press, but by social media, and the press has been trying to keep up as it obviously can’t ignore the story,” says a source at the BBC. But — as efforts such as The Sun’s various front pages perhaps indicate — it’s been keeping up with a keen eye on stopping the hysteria from spilling over. “There’s been a united front across much of the media — across the commentators, the news pages and the broadcasters — to actually simmer the chaos,” adds the source. “People have accused the press of towing the royal line but honestly, had there been anything to report in terms of actual facts, someone in the U.K. would have done so.”

As one media expert in the U.K. notes, there is a very key fact that many people have widely — and perhaps wilfully —  ignored: That when it was announced that the Princess was having surgery, the statement also said she was “unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter.”

“And unless they was any major reason to give an update, they wouldn’t be giving any updates,” they add. “And nothing has changed.” By and large, it’s been the British press that has sought to remind people of this Easter timeline.

Of course, the Mother’s Day family photo was an update, one intended to calm speculation that ultimately backfired spectacularly and, as the expert notes, “ramped up the crazies.” Indeed, whatever wild theories the doctored image conjured up on social media, the decisions by Kensington Palace over the last two months have been called into question. Alongside the family photo, in world of carefully stage-managed public appearances, had they wanted the royals to be spotted at the farm shop, why didn’t they simply have their own photographer — one with a sharper lens than that of a hastily-deployed cameraphone — there?

“They’re not a slick media operation like the top publicists in Hollywood,” says Tillett of the royals’ media operation, which he describes as “reactive” rather than proactive. “They are prone to complete blunders and aren’t clever enough to be 15 moves ahead of the general public.”

According to The Sun, Middleton may return to public duties in mid-April after her children’s Easter school holidays, a move that should — should — throw an immediate bucket of cold water over much of the fiery online speculation and divert attention elsewhere.

And by then, another royal may be back in the headlines, one the British media has far less respect for than Kate Middleton.

“Scoop,” Netflix’s feature-length dramatization of Prince Andrew’s car-crash BBC interview in 2019, launches April 5.

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