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THE PRODUCERS OF The Crown are probably feeling a little conflicted right now. While the sixth and final season concluded in December, events of the last decade – Harry and Meghan’s estrangement, Prince Andrew’s association with Jeffrey Epstein and alleged sexual activities with then minor Virginia Giuffre – and now, the ongoing Kate Middleton saga, have produced some tantalising story lines that could easily fill out a few more seasons of the Netflix hit.

Scenes featuring Kate, or William, or more likely some Palace crony, clumsily manipulating photos for public consumption would make for great TV. The distinguishing feature of this scandal or ‘Kate-Gate’
– the suffix that all sagas and affairs are eventually assigned – is the absence of information and the scarcity of verified sources.

The Crown’s bread and butter, of course, is the series’ fly-on-the-wall perspective on the machinations of the Royals and the Palace. Their reaction, and likely contempt, for the feverish speculation as to Kate’s whereabouts that’s currently occupying the internet, would be appointment viewing. At the same time, the producers might feel that this is all getting a little too meta, as the series bumps right up against the events of the present day.

And what are those events, exactly? Astoundingly, no one really knows, and the silence surrounding Kate’s continued absence from public life has created a vacuum that has led to wild speculation across TikTok, Reddit, X and elsewhere, inevitably producing some truly bonkers conspiracy theories: Kate is pregnant; William had an affair; William physically abused Kate; Kate has cancer; Kate had plastic surgery (theories range from a tummy tuck to a BBL); Kate is in a coma; Kate has a body double; Kate had an affair; Kate died 18 months ago (hence the body double).

The Palace’s attempt to quash this speculation with a doctored photo only poured fuel on a social media dumpster fire. Kate’s statement on the matter: “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing”, has done little to calm the storm. But while there is no doubt that the Palace has presided over a PR debacle you might call a right Royal fuck-up, this scandal perhaps reveals as much about us, as it does them.

William, who reportedly loathes the media and by now is probably itching to issue a Royal decree levelling the internet, no doubt feels that the Palace’s initial statement that Kate was recovering from abdominal surgery and wouldn’t resume official duties until after Easter should suffice.

Sorry Wills, but that was never going to fly. If he or the Palace believed that, then they have severely and disastrously underestimated the public’s appetite for Royal gossip. They’ve also misjudged ‘us’, the public, as a compliant monolithic mass, rather than the shapeless social-media-led, true-crime-podcast-devouring, Reddit-deep-diving collective monster we actually are. One that no longer sits on the sidelines of scandals but actively participates in them, sometimes even influencing their trajectory – the Palace likely would not have released a doctored photo if it didn’t feel the weight of public pressure to do so.

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While the Royals are the highest profile ‘victims’ of an empowered/weaponised populace, they aren’t the only ones. True crime podcasts are increasingly encouraging amateur sleuthing and speculation on missing persons cases, such as that of Ballarat mother Samantha Murphy. Again, in that case, the absence of reliable information left a vacuum that an engaged online audience felt compelled to fill with its own, sometimes crackpot theories. If you can recall, the disappearance of Melissa Caddick and discovery of her foot in the ocean, was another social media bonanza that led to rampant joining of the dots by digital detectives. There are plenty more if you care to trawl the internet to find them.

But while crime offers us mystery and intrigue and can be irresistibly relatable – imagine if that happened to you or someone you know – for some of us, it can also hit a little too close to home. Like, imagine if that had happened to you or someone you know.

Which is why, above all, celebrity scandals offer the most mouth-wateringly tender meat for concerned citizens. Celebs aren’t real people, they are not ‘one of us’, which means many of us feel we can engage in mean-spirited speculation largely guilt-free.

The internet continues to worry that Kanye West’s Australian girlfriend, Bianca Censori, is being controlled by the artist, with commenters dropping the classic “blink twice if you’re okays” into threads. A Reddit deep dive, meanwhile (if you do this, sanitise your hands and keyboard afterwards), reveals a slew of celeb conspiracy theories, from Harry Styles is secretly bald, to Taylor Swift and Harry Styles committed vehicular manslaughter and leave hints to the crime in their songs, to my current favourite, Stevie Wonder isn’t blind.

A Royal scandal is similarly remote and rarefied as to make speculation seem harmless and good sport. The Royals are essentially celebrities but have a similar communications apparatus to governments, which, in the light of this scandal, they should probably think about outsourcing.

The sometimes ironic use of the suffix ‘gate’ to refer to a scandal – Kate-gate, Slap-gate (Will Smith), Sandpaper-gate (the Australian cricket team cheating scandal) etc – gives a clue to the generally low stakes, digital water cooler nature of these sagas. Yet the gulf, in terms of gravity and importance, between them and Watergate, the scandal that gave rise to the use of the term, has probably never been greater. Watergate occurred behind closed doors, was uncovered by investigative journalists and involved corruption at the highest levels of government. The public, crucially, were mere bystanders, rather than the active participants they are today. In hindsight, it was rather dull.

That’s because the exposure of political malfeasance by investigative journalists – sometimes known as real news – just doesn’t play as well with socially engaged, celebrity-obsessed citizens who would rather have a front-row seat to the action. You can argue that this is digital democracy in action, with concerned citizens taking up the mantle left by a significantly weakened fourth estate.

But until we consistently train our lasers on politicians, CEOs and people who wield real power, rather than obsess over minor celebrity misdemeanours or whether a case of bloating is a ‘bump’, we’re not really fulfilling our mandate by holding anything or anyone of real significance to account.

As for Kate Middleton, if she shows up at a charity event in Tunbridge Wells after Easter and the Palace insists that was the plan all along, we will shrug, a little disappointed that our frenzied speculation was unfounded. But we won’t, as the Palace has encouraged us from the beginning, quietly move on with our lives. Rather, we’ll just scroll to the next juicy item in our very aptly named ‘feed’.


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