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Are we horrible people? Did the public’s voracious need for gossip and drama just force a sick mother of three into reluctantly revealing her cancer diagnosis? Did the wild speculation – about the Princess of Wales’ health, her marriage, and the, uh, paternity of a family friend’s eldest son – torque the stiff upper lip of someone who, despite her years in the public eye, is clearly not impervious to the effects of this chatter? Are we bad? Should we feel bad?

In the days following Catherine’s disclosure that she has cancer, the public experienced a collective “well, shucks” moment (though many likely used a different “s” word) where suddenly, the jokes and memes didn’t seem so funny after all. And then came the public scoldings. In The Atlantic, Helen Lewis wrote a column titled “I Hope You All Feel Terrible Now,” where she argued that Kate Middleton was effectively “bullied” into making a statement because “people felt they had the right to know Kate’s private medical information.” In the U.K., The Sun’s royal editor, Matt Wilkinson, wrote that “it’s time for cruel trolls to apologize to Kate.” Judy Finnigan, writing in the Daily Express, argued that Kate was faced with a Sophie’s choice, where she could either “reveal that she has cancer, or suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous online supposition and slander on a daily, even hourly, basis.”

There was, of course, a third option that Kensington Palace might have considered weeks and months ago: ditching the secrecy and press manipulation that has been reflexive for royal press teams in years past, and simply levelling with the public. That’s not to imply that the public has a right to that information, as Ms. Lewis wrote in The Atlantic – but more so to recognize that we no longer live in the 1950s, when information was so regulated and controlled that doctors could keep the news of the king’s lung cancer from both the public and the king himself. Indeed, Kensington Palace was never going to be able to drop a vague statement about Catherine having “planned abdominal surgery” in January and then have her disappear from public life until April without kicking up some speculation. The press team at Buckingham Palace, which is distinct from the Kensington team, recognized that; they disclosed King Charles’s cancer from the get-go (though a cancer diagnosis for the King of England obviously comes with deeper implications than does one for the wife of the first-in-line).

The Kate photo chaos is a portent of things to come in this disinformation age

There were all sorts of oddities about Kate’s disappearance that acted as a propellant for gossip and rumours. At the start, the palace said Catherine’s abdominal surgery would be followed by a hospital stay of “10 to 14 days,” which sounded like an awfully long time for an otherwise healthy middle-aged woman undergoing a planned surgery. Then, Spanish journalist Concha Calleja reported that Catherine was in a coma – which is not itself unusual, except that the palace went on record to refute the story, which it doesn’t typically do. Then, in late February, William abruptly cancelled an appearance at a memorial for his late godfather, where he was to give an address, due to a “personal matter.”

But the story really exploded with the now-infamous photoshopped image of Catherine and her children released for Mother’s Day in Britain, which the palace tried to subsequently clean up with a message, purportedly from Kate, saying that she was the one who doctored the image. No one believed it. By then, the theories were all over the place: Kate had left after discovering an affair between William and family friend Rose Hanbury (bolstered by late night host Stephen Colbert); Kate’s disappearance was a distraction from the fact King Charles had died (bolstered by Russia); the couple had separated following revelations about illegitimate children (bolstered by people who watched a lot of Maury in its heyday).

It’s conceivable that the secrecy about Kate’s diagnosis was primarily intended to shield her children from some of the more harmful discussions that may have followed her disclosure (though the rumours that emerged to fill the vacuum didn’t exactly make for the best shield). Or perhaps she simply wanted to keep her private medical affairs private, which is her right, even as a public figure. But the reality is that in the absence of information, people will speculate. It’s human nature. So we can either scold the world for being morbidly curious about a very strange disappearance of a public figure, or we can acknowledge reality and recognize that we don’t live in 1951, wish Kate and her family the best, and move on.

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