Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 11 March 2024


The Price of a Very Royal Scandal

On Sunday morning, the world was served an important new photo of Catherine, the Princess of Wales, surrounded by her three happy-looking children. It was a virtuous reminder that baseless speculation about whether there was a sinister reason for her extended public absence, rather than the official “abdominal surgery,” was unhelpful.

The internet pounced on the photo. At first, the questions felt overly judgmental: Why wasn’t she wearing her giant engagement ring? A few hours later, reports of actual fabrication emerged: stretch the photo and Princess Charlotte’s sleeve and Prince Louis’s sweater hem are uneven. Within hours, The Associated Press had retracted the photograph, which had been issued by Kensington Palace. (The princess has since claimed responsibility for the manipulated photo and apologized via a social media post.)

This is how you destroy a brand — with a doctored photograph that promises to fuel the very conspiracies it was meant to extinguish.

There are two issues at play: one, that the royals lied at all (why are they lying?). Two, that they lied so spectacularly poorly. They weren’t caught by an investigative journalist; they were caught by anyone who knows how to pinch an Instagram photo with two fingers and zoom.

It’s fairly well understood that this family — an institution upheld by millions of tax dollars — has always survived by manipulating public trust. But whenever the machine of that manipulation shows, trust weakens. Maybe Catherine really is spending her convalescence on Photoshop altering family photos — but who would believe that now? A modern monarchy cannot lie this sloppily and get away unscathed.

The royals are adamant that they are not celebrities, that they possess an inherited right to superiority. But their foothold has grown so fragile that they no longer have room for error. If the fantasy is based on the idea that royals are better than regular people, the monarchy must not be so careless as to make mistakes any common influencer would know to avoid.

By casually opening themselves up to legitimate accusations of lying, the royals undermine Queen Elizabeth II’s dictum that royals “have to be seen to be believed.” They reveal to the public, which pays for their existence, that the royals’ expectation of public adoration is not an entitlement. It’s that desire to have adoration without visibility that risks their legitimacy.

Should the royals be serious about retaining their inherited power, they must remember that their power is predicated on institutional trust. Their brand is supposed to mean prestige, not careless fakery that invites public scrutiny. These mistakes reveal the chinks in the armor, amassing over time. The public may begin to wonder why an amateurish institution with all its inherited and conscripted wealth warrants public interest, let alone public support.

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