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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Quiz: Can you identify fake news?

The furore around "fake" news shows no sign of abating. Can you spot what's real and what's not?

Hillary Clinton has spoken out today to warn about the fake news epidemic sweeping the world. Clinton went as far as to say that "lives are at risk" from fake news, the day after Pope Francis compared reading fake news to eating poop. (Side note: with real news like that, who needs the fake stuff?)

The sweeping distrust in fake news has caused some confusion, however, as many are unsure about how to actually tell the reals and the fakes apart. Short from seeing whether the logo will scratch off and asking the man from the market where he got it from, how can you really identify fake news? Take our test to see whether you have all the answers.

 

 

In all seriousness, many claim that identifying fake news is a simple matter of checking the source and disbelieving anything "too good to be true". Unfortunately, however, fake news outlets post real stories too, and real news outlets often slip up and publish the fakes. Use fact-checking websites like Snopes to really get to the bottom of a story, and always do a quick Google before you share anything. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.