The curious rise of the Kate Middleton truther

The princess’s brief absence from public life has sent the royal-watchers mad.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Topics UK

Few stories have quite captured the attention of social media this past week like the Kate Middleton photoshop ‘scandal’. It has inspired everything from pitiless mockery to crazed conspiracy theories.

The now infamous photo of Kate and her kids, released on Sunday for Mother’s Day, was intended to reassure the public that the Princess of Wales, though absent from public life, is alive and well and happily mothering. It was an attempt to soothe all those fraught royal-watchers who had been anxious for their first glimpse of Kate following her well-publicised abdominal surgery back in January.

But within 24 hours, it was recalled by all the major photo agencies. AP even put out what it called a ‘kill notice’ to halt its distribution, noting that, on ‘closer inspection, the source has manipulated the image’. Experts weighed in to declare the photo ‘suspicious’ and ‘very risky’. As a result, it slopped a big fat dollop of kerosene on the smouldering bin fire of speculation and intrigue that has surrounded the royal family since, well, the abdication.

On one level, of course, it was just a classic British bodge. More an It’s a Royal Knockout fiasco than a serious attempt at Orwellian narrative control. On Monday, Kate fessed up to manipulating the photo. Whether it really was her own amateur photoshop skills, rather than those of the Kensington Palace press office, we may never know. Still, most sane people have accepted that Kate’s version of events is close enough to the truth. Or thereabouts.

The phrasing she used in her apology – ‘Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing’ – has since been put to such glorious satirical effect on social media that to harp on about the ‘damage’ the photo has supposedly done to public trust now seems truculent. If you want to see healthy British scepticism, just copy and paste Kate’s apology into the search form on X.

Certainly, ‘Princess Butterfingers’ is a far more compelling explanation for the farrago than some of the alternative theories you can find online. The fake photo, some say, was an attempt to hide the ‘truth’ that Kate is dead, is in a medically induced coma or is metamorphosing into her final lizard form.

The spread of these rumours is probably not something to worry too much about. The internet is, in many ways, the alcohol of information – both the root of and cure for all the world’s misunderstandings. It is a petri dish that both cultures and then immediately debunks the most grotesque conspiracy theories about everything – from tales of celebrities harvesting blood to claims that Taylor Swift’s love life is a deep-state psy-op. Wild theories rise but then get sifted at lightning speed as their inconsistencies are exposed.

Perhaps the more important question to ask is what created the space for the ‘Kate is dead’ rumours to circulate in the first place? It seems she only needed to spend a few months away from the public eye before the speculation reached fever pitch. We have become so used to having 24-hour access to celebrities – which is what the royals are now – that the vacuum caused by Kate’s short convalescence has, to some at least, become completely intolerable. And thus the Kate Middleton truther movement was born.

There is an obvious precedent here, with the Beatles. Indeed, I’ve often found the Beatles to be a remarkably useful reference point for understanding contemporary British life and its relationship with celebrity.

Of course, one of the defining features of the Beatles was that they mocked the old-world hierarchy and establishment. As well as claiming that his band was ‘bigger than Jesus’, John Lennon once teasingly suggested at a Royal Variety Performance that our calcified royals should ‘rattle their jewellery’, and leave the clapping and dancing to the vigorous young. But our celebrity royal family has far more in common with the Beatles now than it used to.

Harry and Meghan could barely have followed ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ more closely for inspiration. What was Spare, Harry’s autobiography, but ‘The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me’, in book length?

Meanwhile, it has been left to Will and Kate to be the left and right thumb of cheery Paul McCartney. So it was surely only a matter of time before word went around that one of them was secretly dead.

Indeed, the ‘Paul is dead’ story emerged in very similar circumstances to the rumours about Kate. It was at a time when the Beatles were retiring to their studio, out of the public eye, exhausted by endless live performances in front of deafening screams. By the end of 1966, they had gone a full six months without producing some epoch-defining sliver of genius. The last, at that point, was ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that August. To ‘explain’ this long absence, some fans insisted that Paul had been killed in a car crash and then replaced by a lookalike with the help of MI5.

Of course, the idea that anyone but Paul McCartney could have then gone on to write and sing ‘Penny Lane’, let alone mastermind Abbey Road or ‘Hey Jude’, is utterly preposterous. But still, the rumour persisted and there is suspicion that John quite enjoyed stoking it. And once it got going, it proved remarkably contagious, even in that pre-social-media age. If you think nature abhors a vacuum, you should see a celebrity fan club.

My suggestion, therefore, would be that the royal family put rumours and speculation to bed once and for all by releasing another epoch-defining double A-side – Eton College Forever / The Mall, perhaps – and get back into the studio ASAP. Your adoring fans are waiting.

Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.

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