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Catherine’s Cancer Disclosure Shows Her Lessons From Previous Media Ordeals

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For more than two months, Catherine, Princess of Wales, had lost control of her story to a spiral of wild, baseless online rumors. On Friday evening, with a stark two-minute, 13-second video, she set out to reclaim it.

To do so, the princess had to deliver the wrenching news that she was battling a life-threatening cancer, the kind of deeply personal disclosure that she and her husband, Prince William, have long resisted.

Catherine, 42, made the decision to record the video herself, three people familiar with the planning process said on Saturday. Earlier, she had decided to post an apology for digitally altering a photograph of herself with her three children, which set off a new round of conspiracy theories after it was released on Mother’s Day in Britain.

“This was pitch perfect from her perspective,” said Peter Hunt, a former royal correspondent at the BBC. “The fact that it was a video was a rebuke to all those questions about her whereabouts.”

In opting to go public this way, Catherine has etched a place for herself in the annals of the British royal family and among the women of the House of Windsor. The video, in its frankness and barely concealed emotion, recalled Queen Elizabeth II’s televised message days after the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

Catherine seemed to be modeling herself on Elizabeth, whose video was intended to douse another media firestorm, over whether she and the royal family had not displayed appropriate grief after Diana’s death. It also set her apart from Diana, who was ultimately a victim of the media currents that swirled around her.

While Catherine did not answer key questions about her illness — what form of cancer? how far has it spread? how long will she be treated with chemotherapy? — the announcement could dispel most of the conspiracy theories that have enveloped her since she underwent abdominal surgery in January.

Like King Charles III, who confirmed last month that he, too, has cancer, the policy of partial disclosure seemed calculated to satisfy a relentlessly curious news media and public, while preserving some measure of privacy. In Catherine’s case, that seemed particularly important, given her three young children.

“They know they can’t control the online world,” Mr. Hunt said. “But they will hope the media will look hard at itself after this and stop recycling this nonsense. They’ll make clear to the papers that they have an expectation of privacy.”

In a briefing on Friday for reporters who cover the royal family, a spokesman for Kensington Palace gave the same answer five times to questions about the nature and extent of Catherine’s cancer, where and how often she was being treated, and why she underwent surgery.

“We will not be sharing any further private medical information,” the spokesman said. “The princess has a right to medical privacy, as we all do.”

Catherine’s hospitalization kicked off a cycle of speculation that was extraordinary even by the standards of the royal family. Her medical condition, whereabouts and relationship with William were endlessly dissected on social media, even making it into the monologue of the American late-night television host Stephen Colbert.

Kensington Palace, where Catherine and William have their offices, struggled to manage the crisis from the start. Its refusal to disclose details about her condition when she entered the hospital created an information vacuum that an online army quickly filled with increasingly outlandish theories.

When the palace distributed the photograph of Catherine, flanked by George, Charlotte and Louis, it was meant to serve as a kind of proof-of-life image. But the plan backfired after The Associated Press, Reuters and other news agencies found evidence that the image had been manipulated.

Far from quelling the speculation, it ignited more rumors, leaving the palace unsettled and stung. At that point, people with knowledge of the process said, Catherine decided to post on her social media account that she had been responsible for editing the photograph, though it was taken by William.

The chaos deepened last week, after a video surfaced of Catherine and William leaving a food shop near their home in Windsor. While these people insisted that the palace did not orchestrate the sighting, officials did not push back on the newspapers that published the images, which was out of character for William, who has pressured papers not to run paparazzi-type photos.

That the couple would have to disclose Catherine’s cancer was never in question, according to one of the people, who advised the palace in recent days and spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons. Allegations last week that staff members at the London Clinic, where Catherine was treated, had tried to gain access to her private medical records were a reminder that it would be nearly impossible to keep that kind of information under wraps indefinitely.

The question was when and how. The communications staff ran through several options, this person said, among them waiting until after Easter. The couple chose Friday because it was the day their children began their school holiday, which meant they would not have to face questions on the playground about their mother’s illness.

Once the date for the disclosure was set, officials discussed whether to issue a written palace statement — like Buckingham Palace did with the cancer diagnosis of Charles — or to have Catherine post the news on the couple’s Instagram and X accounts. But given the fallout from the Mother’s Day photograph, Catherine opted to speak directly to a camera.

Rather than record the video with an internal crew or hire a private company, the palace contacted BBC Studios, the company’s production arm. That was also deliberate, this person said, because it wanted the imprimatur of Britain’s public broadcaster on the video after the photo debacle.

Adding to the complications is staff turnover at Kensington Palace. William’s new private secretary, Ian Patrick, took up his role only two weeks ago. A former British diplomat who served in Bosnia, he worked closely on the process with Lt. Col. Tom White, who began this month as Catherine’s private secretary. He is a former Royal Marines officer who served as an equerry, or aide, to Elizabeth.

Both men worked with Lee Thompson, a former NBC public relations official who is the couple’s communications secretary. They also consulted with several former communications advisers, according to another person briefed by the palace, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons.

For all the drama surrounding the announcement, it will not put questions about Catherine entirely to rest. The palace is still guarding the family’s privacy, refusing to comment on their whereabouts on Saturday, for example.

“William has two crucial aspects as he takes on his destiny as a future king: privacy and control,” Mr. Hunt said. “He had to cede the control to deliver privacy for his wife. But by focusing so much on privacy, they created the information vacuum that resulted in all this white noise and nonsense.”

On Friday at least, Catherine silenced the noise.

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