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.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.