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.

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.