Kate Middleton: What to know about the royal controversy that began with a photo

A member of the British Royal Family has become the focus of renewed media attention over a controversy that stemmed from a photo that, at first, appeared to be an average photo of her and her children.

The controversy over that photo has sparked discussions over several issues, including the issue of photo editing.

Here's what to know about a controversy that has garnered worldwide attention.

What happened?

On March 10, a photo appeared on social media channels of the Prince and Princess of Wales. The photo came along with a message from Kate, the Princess of Wales, wishing everyone a happy Mother's Day.

While Mother's Day is celebrated in May in the U.S., The United Kingdom celebrates its Mother's Day in March. According to a 2011 article published by the BBC, this is due to historical reasons that stemmed from past religious practices.

The photo showed a healthy-looking Kate seated in a chair surrounded by her smiling three children. It was credited to her husband, Prince William, and was said to have been taken earlier in the week in Windsor. The story quickly became a top news story in Britain and the photo had almost 50 million views on the X social media platform by the end of the day.

According to the Associated Press, the photo was the first one released since Kate underwent abdominal surgery in January 2024. The image was published as speculation swirled on social media about the whereabouts of the oft-photographed princess, who hadn’t been seen in public since December.

The AP pulled the photo and several other news organizations did the same on the day it was released. Other major agencies that withdrew the photo included Getty, Reuters, AFP and Britain’s PA.

Why did news organizations pull the photo from circulation?

A picture shows stories in Britains national newspapers, about the altered mothers day photo released by Kensington Palace on March 10, of Britains Catherine, Princess of Wales and her children, in London on March 12, 2024. The Princess of Wales on Monday apologised and admitted to editing an official portrait of her released by the palace that prompted AFP and other agencies to withdraw the altered image. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

A picture shows stories in Britains national newspapers, about the altered mothers day photo released by Kensington Palace on March 10, of Britains Catherine, Princess of Wales and her children, in London on March 12, 2024. The Princess of Wales on M

According to the AP, the photo was pulled from circulation because the image appeared to have been manipulated.

A close study of the image revealed inconsistencies that suggested it had been altered, for instance in the alignment of Princess Charlotte’s left hand with the sleeve of her sweater.

The AP has stated that there was "no suggestion the image was fake," but did state that the news organization "does not use altered or digitally manipulated images."

"AP’s news values and principles explain that minor photo editing, including cropping and toning and color adjustments, are acceptable when necessary for clear and accurate reproduction and should maintain the authentic nature of the photograph," a portion of an article released by the AP reads. "Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning. The removal of 'red eye' from photographs is not permissible."

On Mar. 12, Fox News Digital reported that metadata from the photo revealed the image had been digitally altered multiple times before it was published on the official royal social media platforms.

What happened next?

On March 11, a new statement purportedly written by Kate was posted on social media to address questions surrounding the photo.

"Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused," read a portion of the post.

According to news reports from British television broadcaster ITV, Kensington Palace has said it will not be reissuing the original unedited photograph.

Both online conversation and traditional media in the U.K. were dominated on March 13 by what the Daily Mirror called the "Picture of Chaos" and the Daily Mail labeled a "PR disaster" for the royals. The tabloid Sun, however, leaped to the princess’ defense with a front page that thundered: "Lay off Kate." The tabloid said "social media trolls, idiotic conspiracy theorists and sniping media critics" were bullying the future queen.

What are others saying about the controversial photo?

The statement from Kate did not appear to calm speculation over the controversial photo.

Just hours after the statement from Kate, one person, identified by tabloid website Page Six as a person who works in social media for a UK tabloid newspaper, posited on her social media page that Kate used a photo from a magazine cover years ago, and edited that into the photo that was later pulled by news organizations.

Some, according to UK newspaper Daily Express, focused on the apparent absence of a wedding ring in the photograph. Meanwhile, several social media users also talked about other, more unconventional theories regarding Kate.

A flurry of conspiracy theories has also emerged on various social media sites, with users speculating about the royal's whereabouts and health condition.

Why is this such a big deal?

According to the AP, the UK's royal family is under particular scrutiny because King Charles III has had to cancel public duties while he undergoes treatment for an unspecified form of cancer.

Even without that level of scrutiny, the AP noted that British royals have long had an awkward relationship with the media in Britain, where they are an uneasy hybrid of celebrities and taxpayer-funded public property.

An article published by the AP states that in decades past, the royal family was able to assert control over media coverage of their lives.

An example of such control could be found in one episode of Netflix series The Crown, in which members of the media managed to capture a fight between Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip during a foreign visit. Video of the fight was later given to Queen Elizabeth by a photographer.

That era of deference gave way to the age of celebrity and with it pressure on the royals to be open and likable, glamorous but relatable — all while maintaining the dignity of a 1,000-year-old institution.

For Kate, the AP reports that this incident is a rare misstep for the princess, who has hardly put a foot wrong in her journey from William’s shy ‘commoner’ girlfriend to the glamorous young mother who, more than any royal since Princess Diana, boosted the popularity and appeal of the British monarchy worldwide.

Royal historian Ed Owens said William and Kate "have been the great beneficiaries of social media up to now."

But from now on, "they are going to have to be more honest in terms of their communications strategy," he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)