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22 March 2024updated 23 Mar 2024 9:48am

The royal family has rarely seemed more fragile

Kate Middleton’s cancer diagnosis is an institutional as well as a personal crisis.

By Andrew Marr

On the one side, the swarming, billions-strong army of the bored and endlessly curious, the cyberspace voyeurs. On the other a traditional, deeply flawed, defensive family marked by privilege and tragedy. It was never going to be a fair fight.

The Princess of Wales’ video explanation of her cancer diagnosis couldn’t be faulted for professionalism and directness. It was the best possible response to two weeks of increasingly unhinged speculation after her hospital stay for “major abdominal surgery”.

In cyberspace, it was asserted that she was finally divorcing William after a long affair, the cause of his long feud with Harry; that she was grievously, even fatally, ill but that the palace had decided to try to hide the fact; and much else besides.

Once upon a time, the British royal family could simply slam the gates of “no comment.” The popular press, driven by increasingly brutal market pressures, showed restraint simply because reporters were terrified of having all access severed. But those days are long gone. 

The loop between lonely fantasists in Arizona, who have branded themselves as “Kate Truthers”, and a mainstream media hovering over X, tempted to pick up the latest jaw-slacking theory, seems now unbreakable. In the modern media, there are no reliable hierarchies, no national boundaries, no agreements.

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By allowing images to go out which had been cackhandedly manipulated, Kensington Palace surrendered important moral high ground. No photograph, no blurred glimpse of the living Kate, would be enough to quell the rumours. To quell the madness, the Prince and Princess had no choice.

The Wales’ timing was banally human – the children back from school with time to digest the news of their mother’s illness. They are trying to maintain the line between full disclosure, and a certain frankness. We know there was major surgery but that it was only afterwards that cancer became apparent, and that the chemotherapy is “preventative”. 

We don’t know the stage of the cancer, where it is present, the length of the treatment, or the original operation. I’m afraid, because this is disgusting, that speculation about all of that will simply go on.

But what Kate has achieved is to make it clear that she and her husband remain united; and to win huge public and establishment sympathy for her plight. She is young (42) and we must assume the prognosis is good. But she has joined a family still shadowed by the early death of her husband’s mother and paranoid about intrusion. It is becoming clearer that William is just as complicated a character, just as angry, and just as scarred, as Harry.

The late Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh produced a decades-long outward show of imperturbability and stability. How quickly it has collapsed. Although there is no official news, the stories in royal circles are that the King, although intensely frustrated by his inability to carry out his normal duties, is doing well and has recently had good news on his cancer prognosis.

But this is a smaller and frailer royal family than Britain is used to. It scarcely seems believable that only a decade ago, people were complaining about there being far too many members of it. Kate has become front and centre of its popular appeal – nobody appears more on the front of newspapers and magazines. Her illness, a horrible stroke of bad luck, and very sad on a human level, is also serious for the institution.

[See also: Kate Middleton and the sickness of a nation]

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