Are there ethical lapses in the Times' story on William's "Indian ancestry"?

Turning a front page story into an advert for Times+ is concerning.

Prince William's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was half Indian, according to the Times' front page today:

It has long been known that Eliza Kewark lived in western India but she is usually described as Armenian. However, analysis of DNA passed down the female line confirms that she was at least half-Indian…

Jim Wilson, a genetics expert at the University of Edinburgh and BritainsDNA, who carried out the tests, said that Eliza’s descendants had an incredibly rare type of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), inherited only from a mother. It has so far been recorded in only 14 other people, 13 Indian and one Nepalese. This DNA will have been inherited by the Duke and Prince Harry but will not be passed on to their children, although it is likely that their descendants will have some of Eliza’s Asian genetic material.

The splash is actually vaguely mis-sold. Although Eliza Kewark was indeed thought of as Armenian, it's not particularly surprising that she would have had Indian ancestors; the Armenian diaspora had been in India for centuries at the time of her birth, and even the most insular communities tend to experience genetic mixing over in that timescale.

Instead, it's interesting that a specific type of mitochondrial DNA, only found in Asian people, has passed all the way down through the maternal line to Harry and William. In a far more concrete way than normal, we can say that they have "Indian DNA"; though in practical terms that is largely meaningless.

But there are two troubling sides to the splash.

The first is the Times' motivation in running it. In the middle of the double page spread which carries the story, readers are exhorted to "Discover your ancient history". The boxout is an advert for BritainsDNA, the source of the story, promoting the company's "cutting-edge technology" which can "help to answer a fundamental question—where do you come from?" Times+ members – people who subscribe to the paper or its website – are offered a free upgrade package if they order a DNA test.

Did the Times decide to run the story on the front page, and then negotiate a deal for their readers? Or were they offered the story on the condition that they ran a readership offer? The firewall between editorial and advertising is typically stronger than this, and when it breaks down, bad judgement can follow.

But that is a one-off concern. There is a wider issue at stake here, which is that the story reveals information about the genetic make-up of someone who has not consented to any DNA tests. Thanks to the fact that mtDNA is exclusively inherited along the maternal line, the company could test two other people with the same maternal heritage as William and Harry, and then run the story on them instead.

Thankfully, this story is relatively trivial. But it feels like spying nonetheless. There's an obvious reason why the Times didn't run the story with Robin Dewhurst and Sarah Drury, the two distant cousins of the princes who provided the actual DNA, on the front page. But our DNA is the most basic data we have. No-one should have to find out what it contains by looking at the front-page of a newspaper.

The Times' story on their website. Photograph: The Times

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.