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The Kate hysteria just got serious

Editor’s Note: This is a version of CNN’s Royal News, a weekly dispatch bringing you the inside track on Britain’s royal family. Sign up here.

The unprecedented frenzy of speculation swirling around Catherine, the Princess of Wales took yet another turn this week after her medical records were reportedly breached.

To recap: The 42-year-old royal stepped away from public life temporarily in January following surgery for a non-cancerous abdominal condition. Despite Kensington Palace making it clear the princess was “unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter,” her absence has generated extraordinary levels of amateur sleuthing on social media.

Journalism industry terms like “handouts” and “kill notices” have entered the vernacular as gossip-lovers have dived head-first down the online royal rabbit hole.

Even when Kate was spotted in public for the first time since her surgery, visiting a farm shop last weekend, the bizarre conspiracy theories about her health and whereabouts continued to circulate unabated – even though they were easily debunked.

And now there are concerns that employees at the hospital where Kate received her treatment may have tried to obtain her private medical records. It was not immediately clear if the alleged data breach was successful, but several British media outlets citing the Daily Mirror tabloid reported on Thursday that up to three staff members were being investigated. The London Clinic has said that “all appropriate investigatory, regulatory and disciplinary steps will be taken,” after the government data privacy watchdog confirmed it was investigating an alleged data breach.

This alleged incident is not the first time Catherine’s medical privacy has been compromised. Previously, while she was pregnant with her first child in 2012, an Australian radio station prank-called the hospital the princess was in and tricked a nurse into revealing her private medical information, which was then broadcast.

For many internet commentators, the intrigue is the palace’s own doing, and the mystery of the missing princess could have been avoided if the institution had a better PR strategy. The argument from keyboard warriors is that the old protocol of “never complain, never explain” doesn’t work any more.

As expected, the palace hasn’t made any official statements in recent days. After all, it said from the beginning it would only provide updates when there was something significant to share. It has also redirected any questions on the possible privacy breach back to the hospital. However, a spokesman for Kensington Palace told CNN that the “princess has been kept updated throughout the process.”

Police officers stand guard outside the London Clinic on January 18, days after the Princess of Wales underwent surgery. - Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images
Police officers stand guard outside the London Clinic on January 18, days after the Princess of Wales underwent surgery. - Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

And herein lies its strategy. Aides know they aren’t looking after a run-of-the-mill celebrity, and the normal rules of fame don’t apply to members of the Windsor clan. The palace doesn’t respond to every rumor that pops up. To do so would legitimize them – and it would never get anything else done. The royals are playing the long game – a strategy they have used for the past 1,000 years – and don’t respond to speculation. But this level of speculation has never been seen before, which is making people question whether their communication strategy is still relevant.

The suggestion that Kate’s privacy has been breached once more has sobered many here in Britain, where public opinion has started to shift again. While many still see the editing of photos as problematic, there is also a growing chorus of well-known voices calling for restraint in the spread of conspiracy theories.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby warned that the online chatter had gotten out of hand and was “extremely unhealthy.”

“We are obsessed with conspiracy, and we have little sense of the humanity of those who are caught in the glare of the news,” he said on Times Radio. “It doesn’t matter who it is, people should be allowed to be ill, have an operation, whatever it is, and to live their lives in peace, without everyone demanding that they prove something every other day.”

Welby continued, “It’s the Web that has made these conspiracy theories, for all kinds of people, run riot. It’s extremely unhealthy. It’s just old-fashioned village gossip that can now go round the world in seconds. We have to turn away from that. Gossiping in that way is wrong.”

The archbishop is not alone in his call for calm. UK opposition leader Keir Starmer said Wednesday that everyone should “butt out” of the princess’ business and “leave her alone” as she recovers.

Meanwhile, former England cricket captain Kevin Pietersen pulled no punches while hitting out at the social chatter. “The conspiracy theories around Kate are absolutely absurd,” he said in a post on X. He added that it “beggars belief that people would be so ridiculous and cruel” and ended by calling for people to “leave her and her beautiful family alone.”  

There are strict privacy laws in the United Kingdom. Under Section 170 of the Data Protection Act 2018, it is an offense for a person to obtain, disclose or procure the personal data of another person without their consent.

In the wake of the alleged attempt, the country’s data privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), restated that all healthcare organizations must keep patient data secure.

Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s deputy commissioner, said “every patient, no matter who they are, has the right to privacy.”

He said breaches were “rare” but that when one does occur “the ICO is here to get to the bottom of when, how and why it happened – and how we can prevent it from happening again.”

The allegation of misconduct has quickly gone up to the highest echelons of government, with UK Health Minister Maria Caulfield on Wednesday describing the seriousness of the alleged incident. She told British broadcaster Sky News there were “very strict rules about which patient notes you can access” and that in the case of such a breach, the ICO “would take enforcement action.”

The latest episode in the royal saga has been eye-opening to many and may perhaps offer a moment of reflection for both the public and the palace.

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