Princess Kate photo ‘manipulated,’ fueling conspiracy theories

LONDON — It was a simple family photo apparently intended to show the world that Kate, the Princess of Wales, was OK.

Instead the image released Sunday has only added fuel to a global firestorm of speculation and conspiracy theories, after it emerged that the picture — Kate’s first since having abdominal surgery in January — had potentially been manipulated.

A belated explanation came Monday with a post on Kensington Palace’s social media channels.

“Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing,” said the post, which was signed “C,” apparently denoting that it was written by Kate, whose full name is Catherine. “I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused.”

Confusion is one word for the preceding 24 hours, in which the internet guessing game ranged from measured analysis to outright conspiratorial conjecture. This had already been rife after Kate took an extended step back from her royal duties following the unspecified surgery.

But the photo, an intended fire blanket, instead acted as gasoline.

“It has been really quite a wild 24 hours here,” Roya Nikkhah, a royal commentator and correspondent with The Sunday Times, told NBC News. “It was supposed to quell all the gossip and rumor and very strange conspiracy theories that have been going around on social media,” she said. “But then people started noticing slight discrepancies in the photographs, things that looked like they’ve been photoshopped.”

At first it was just social media sleuths pointing out apparent discrepancies with the picture. But then four of the world’s largest news agencies — The Associated Press, Reuters, Getty Images and Agence France-Presse — all issued what are known as “kill notices,” an advisory for broadcasters and newspapers not to use the image.

Image: kill notice sent by AP
A “Photo Kill” notice The Associated Press sent to editors.Prince of Wales / Kensington Palace / AP

The picture was posted on William and Kate’s Instagram account to mark Mother’s Day in the U.K. on Sunday and released officially by their residence, Kensington Palace.

It shows Kate posing in a garden with the couple’s three children — Prince Louis, Prince George and Princess Charlotte — and the palace said it was taken by William, the Prince of Wales.

Usually such a photo would attract positive front-page coverage throughout the British press, allowing the royals to get out their intended message in a carefully managed way.

But newspapers that can usually be relied upon to support the royals did not shy away from the controversy Monday morning. “This joyous Mother’s Day snap was meant to be the reassurance we all needed. But has it backfired?” the Daily Mail asked.

Before Kensington Palace’s explanatory social media post, NBC News had requested comment from the household without reply.

An NBC News analysis of the photo suggests at least two inconsistencies where manipulation of the image appears to have occurred.

The first is a misalignment between Charlotte’s cardigan and left wrist, which bears the hallmarks of the “clone stamp” tool featured in Adobe’s hugely popular Photoshop editing software.

This allows users to take part of an image and copy it over to another area, and it is often used to clean up an unwanted detail.

The second apparent inconsistency is behind Louis’ right knee, where there is a break in the line of the wall.

Here it appears the same clone stamp tool might have been used, perhaps an attempt to clean up the young prince’s trouser line. In using this method, the editor might not have noticed the impact it appears to have had on another part of the image. 

The photo’s metadata — code embedded within the picture that gives details of how it was taken — shows that it was captured using an “EFS50mm” lens. This shows that this was not a smartphone photo, but instead one taken with a single-lens reflex camera, or digital SLR, made by the manufacturer Canon.

It also shows the aperture, which is the amount of light let through by the lens, which in this instance would have given the photo a very narrow field of focus.

This would explain why some aspects of the image appear soft and even slightly blurry.

Far from any nefarious plot, photography experts said the photo may simply have been edited to circumvent the challenge of getting three kids to sit still and smile all at the same time.

But the kill notice put out by the photo agencies is nonetheless a rare and serious step.

“When this picture initially dropped in hit all our social media channels, everyone just breathed a sigh of relief because here was Catherine looking beautiful and healthy and happy and clearly recovering well,” NBC News royal contributor Katie Nicholl said.

“But within hours of that image coming out, four international press picture agencies decided to kill that image,” she told NBC’s “TODAY.” “I certainly can’t remember this ever happening in my career as a royal correspondent.”

Some royal observers saw it as another needless public relations misstep by the royal family as it navigates a new era after the death of the widely popular Queen Elizabeth II.

King Charles III was lauded for sharing his cancer diagnosis last month. But many doctors and other health experts faulted him for withholding which type of cancer it was, making it hard for members of the public to follow his example and get themselves checked.

That tension between the modern demand for details and the royals’ tradition of secrecy was apparent, too, with the vacuum of information around Kate’s surgery and withdrawal from view. 

“Royal press management isn’t easy,” Catherine Mayer, author of “Charles: The Heart of a King,” said in a post on X. “But this doesn’t explain serial mistakes in royal comms.”

She said that even releasing the photo of Kate itself, with no other details, was a questionable tactic: “Either you feed demands for information or you don’t.”