Kategate: From Conspiracy to Contrition Extraction

Cancer is a stomping bugger of a disease.  It seeks the worm-ridden end, a thief finding its way into your body unasked and willingly helping itself.  This cellular mass army will, in a most tribal way, make off with your remains chance permitting. So, it’s understandable that people speak about it.  Blog, discuss, worry, grieve and gather in the digital house square.  But not all grief and its content are ever the same.

The recent obsession with Catherine, the Princess of Wales, who many still see as Kate Middleton, is a fitful reminder that no one’s business is seemingly everybody’s, especially when it comes to the royals.  When she had abdominal surgery in mid-January, her absence from public life prompted a feverish, fitful obsession, something described with a certain deliciousness by Helen Lewis as “QAnon for White Moms”.

Social media wags and fanatics, evidently finding this royal retreat into silence infuriating, brainstormed their way to the most drearily absurd notions.  If true, virtually none would have made the slightest difference in the war ravaged, climate distempered world.  Had Catherine received a Brazilian butt lift?  Had Prince William made a dash from his marital vows to shack up with the Marchioness of Cholmondeley?

Some of this was aided by an overly keen interest in the release of a photo on March 11 by Kensington Palace for Mother’s Day.  Featuring the princess and her three children, the photo seemed to show signs of tampering, evidenced by blurring and misalignment.  News outlets and wire services, including the Associated Press, retracted the image.  “At closer inspection, it appears that the source has manipulated the image,” came the grave advisory from AP.  “No replacement photo will be sent.”

All this fuss, despite tech behemoths openly encouraging the mendacious sprucing up of family shots.  With a keen, digitally tampering eye, a child’s scowl and scorn can be airbrushed, leaving portraits of family bliss.  The manipulation became yet another opportunity for the fanning of online flames.  As for the princess, she conceded that, “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing.”

At the Spectator, Brendan O’Neill stated the obvious point that both plot and proportion had been lost in the entire Kate Middleton saga.  “There’s a war in Europe and the Middle East, an energy crisis, a lame-duck government waddling to defeat and people waiting five days in A&E to see a nurse, and you’re still yapping about a princess slightly misaligning her daughter’s sleeve while editing a family photo?”

With a purplish spike in conspiracy theories about what the princess was up to, British academics and wonks detected signs of foreign interference, with customary finger pointing at Russian groups.  Here was something everyone could earn their crust from, and Martin Inness of Cardiff University was not going to let it pass, claiming he and his team had identified no fewer than 45 accounts posting about the princess linked to a Russian disinformation operation called Doppelgänger.  “It’s about destabilisation. It’s about undermining trust in institutions: government, monarchy, media – everything.”

With “Kategate” now a raging social media fire, feeding much lazy journalism and the attention-seeking blogosphere, it fell upon Catherine to seize the day and reorient the interest.  The silence, she revealed on March 22, had been occasioned not merely by convalescence but her cancer diagnosis and pursuing a course of “preventative chemotherapy”: “As you can imagine, it has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment.  But most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them.”

The compass rapidly turned.  Naming, shaming and excessive contrition became the order of the day.  The Palace was blamed for its fumbles.  The princess was defended for having suffered silently while being forced into revealing her diagnosis.  “As someone who speculated on this without considering it could be a serious health condition,” political pundit and author Owen Jones effused, “I’m very ashamed to be honest, and all the very best to her.”

There was precedent for such an attitudinal shift.  It resembled, at least in echo, the Diana phenomenon.  The death of the Princess of Wales in August 1997 in a car crash turned her into saintly untouchability, all prior blemishes erased.  Only a few days prior to her demise in Paris with the tawdry playboy Dodi, son of Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, she had been mocked for her fickleness and shallowness.  With her death, the lachrymose glands were heavily exercised.  Competitive grieving was the order of the day, and those not partaking were tarred and feathered.

The difference now is that Catherine had been canny in democratising her condition – a mother, and a young one at that, suffering cancer.  Despite having access to medical care and resources the common citizenry could only dream of, many could relate.  She became the topic of serious, sometimes ludicrous discussion on such light end television programs as Channel 4’s The Last Leg, with all three hosts seeking to milk the tear ducts.  The anchor, Australian comedian Adam Hills, spoke of the day as having been “strange … for all of us” before reflecting on the dying days of his father.

It would have been particularly strange for Hills, as only one week prior, he had begun the show sitting beside a book titled Photoshop for Dummies.  “I’ve never seen our office WhatsApp group get as excited this week by this story.”  He proceeded to bore his audience for a good quarter hour with the usual inanities about “the case of the missing princess”.

In the wash up, Catherine, if not her advisors, should have recounted the words of the late novelist Hilary Mantel, whose “Royal Bodies” (2013) in the London Review of Books said with brutal honesty what royals, especially of a certain type, are good for.  From “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore,” Kate Middleton had become “a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions.”  In time, she would be deemed radiant, the press finding “that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.”  To that can now be added another limb: a contrition extractor, farmer of sympathy and tears.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.