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March 11, 2024, 12:07 p.m.

The world’s wire services call out British palace PR for a royally doctored photo

When Photoshopped royal PR meets journalistic standards, something’s got to break. (And for the record, that isn’t a real photo of Kate Middleton mixin’ pixels on an IBM PCjr.)

The British royals — they’re just like you and me! They get nervous before a big speech, they occasionally fall for quacks, and they’re not great at Photoshop.

At least that’s the latest in a series of wouldyabelieveit claims that have pushed conspiracy talk squarely into the online mainstream.

Let’s recap — though Ellie Hall’s piece Thursday did a far better job of that than I will. Princess Catherine — a.k.a. Kate Middleton, future Queen of England, symbol of the royal family’s future — was last verifiably seen in public in December. Since then, she has spent time several weeks hospitalized after what a palace statement said was a “planned abdominal surgery.” Her continued absence from the public eye — and a British press normally chock-a-block with daily royals photos — has triggered all manner of theorizing. Is she in a coma? Angry over an affair and checked out of royal life? Using a body double? Is she…dead?

Whatever the case, the palace PR team probably thought they were helping calm the waters Sunday by releasing a new pic of Kate with her three children, all looking happy and well-scrubbed — a snap taken a week ago by Prince William, no less. She wasn’t holding up a copy of today’s Telegraph, but this would have to do as a proof-of-life photo.

But it didn’t take long for social sleuths to break out their jeweler’s loupes and start analyzing. What’s up with Charlotte’s sleeve? Or Louis’ hands? That stray blur? And why are the trees so green in the middle of an English winter? Was it taken last week or last year?

Still, questions about the photo didn’t penetrate the mainstream media until Sunday evening, when wire services, one after another, alerted their photo clients that the image was not to be trusted — that it had been doctored by the palace in some way.

“We are deleting a post containing an image of the Princess of Wales following a post-publication review,” wrote Reuters. Agence France-Presse said it had “been found to have been manipulated.” The Associated Press retracted it because “closer inspection revealed the source had manipulated the image in a way that did not meet AP’s photo standards.” Britain’s Press Association did the same after “seeking urgent clarification about the image from Kensington Palace” and not receiving it, and Getty joined in too.

Now, “manipulation” of a photo can mean a lot of different things; photojournalists have been debating the question since the days of daguerrotypes. Few would get upset over a harmless crop or a slight adjustment to brightness — but beyond that, things get, shall we say, blurry. In 2015, the prestigious World Press Photo contest gained the wrong sort of attention for tossing 20% of the photos that had made its second-to-last cut for excessive post-processing:

Our contest rules clearly state that the content of the image should not be altered. This year’s jury was very disappointed to discover how careless some photographers had been in post-processing their files for the contest. When this meant a material addition or subtraction in the content of the image, it lead to the images being rejected from the contest.

We believe there were no attempts to deceive or to mislead, but our independent experts found anomalies in a large number of files and presented their findings to the jury. According to the contest rules, only retouching of files that conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed, and the jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards.

It seems some photographers can’t resist the temptation to aesthetically enhance their images during post-processing either by removing small details to “clean up” an image, or sometimes by excessive toning that constitutes a material change to the image. Both types of retouching clearly compromise the integrity of the image. Consequently, the jury rejected 20 percent of those entries that had reached the penultimate round of the contest and were therefore not considered for prizes.

The contest’s current rules state that some amount of post-processing is fine, but color correction that results in “significant changes in hue” or “changes in density, contrast, color and/or saturation levels” that obscure elements is considered manipulation.

Of course, the British royal family is not bound by the strictures of high-end photojournalism. But when they distributed that snapshot through wire services, they exposed it to a journalistic standard which prohibits the sort of manipulation that might be okay in other contexts. And the actions of AP, AFP, et al. took what had been a subject of social media chatter and turned it into a mainstream story — one to which the palace spent hours responding with “no comment.”

It took a full 13 hours after AP’s initial retraction for the palace to issue a statement, mid-morning London time, “explaining” the mixup. “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing,” Kate (?) wrote, apologizing for the hubbub.

Um, okay. So the current line is that William took a photo, handed it off to the Princess of Wales, who then personally opened up Photoshop — or Pixelmator? Affinity Photo? GIMP? — and then dodged and burned and lassoed and cloned it into submission, all before handing it off to the PR shop for global distribution. Right.

Needless to say, the entire episode has not quashed public discussion about the princess’ whereabouts (and whatabouts and howabouts). As ITV put it, it’s “the photo that made everything worse.” At this point, a video of Kate reading the latest BBC headlines would likely be written off as a deepfake.

I have no idea what the real story is here. But as Ellie Hall and others have pointed out, there have been countless opportunities for the palace to end all this speculation, all of them passed up. And their bonkers handling of this photo has only poured gasoline onto the fire.

Like many Nieman Lab writers, I do occasionally experiment with AI-generated photos, like the one above. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the image of Kate Middleton using Photoshop in the 1980s has caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy start to Daylight Saving Time. J

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     March 11, 2024, 12:07 p.m.
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