In 2013, after the birth of Prince George, Kensington Palace released a family photograph taken by Michael Middleton and quietly changed royal history.

The amateur snap of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, their first-born son and their dog was endearingly candid. It also set the tone of a decade of royal coverage: pictures taken by the family, of the family, and sent out under their control.

While the young Prince William made countless walks in front of hundreds of camera lenses, his own children have been photographed under strict conditions, either by their mother or a friendly professional photographer allowed into their world at home.

In most ways it has worked, resulting in a photo album of wholesome images of Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis growing up.

The pictures have all but ended the market for paparazzi snaps, spared the children the pressure of regularly posing for a press photographer, and struck the right balance between their public and private lives.

There has been little cause for complaint. Until now.

As the Royal family faces what can only be called a crisis – the King with cancer, the Princess of Wales recovering from surgery and the Prince of Wales mysteriously missing from an engagement without explanation – a “Photoshop fail” on Mothering Sunday is leaving the palace more exposed than it has been in years.

A doctored picture, pulled from distribution by the world’s major photographic agencies over accusations it had been “manipulated”, has caused chaos.

Showing the Princess of Wales with her three children, it was intended, in part, to reassure the public that she was safe and well, recovering nicely at home just as the palace has always said.

Instead, it has left the unfortunate impression that the conspiracy theorists may have had a point after all.

They may not have evidence for their more outlandish theories, including denied reports that the Princess has been in a coma or jokes about her having cosmetic surgery, but such a slip-up is succour to those who delight in seeing the Royal family on the back foot.

‘Minor adjustments’

Kensington Palace has not yet confirmed specifically how the photograph has been edited, with a confession to “minor adjustments” raising more questions than answers over the extent to which the public can now believe what they see.

A personal statement from the Princess admitted that “like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing”, but does not reveal precisely was changed.

That anyone is even questioning the veracity of the photograph is the stuff of nightmares for the palace in a world where fake news is spinning out of control.

Disturbing questions over the Princess’s health have now become harder to dismiss. Was the photograph really taken this week? Was she really there? Were all the three children smiling so perfectly for the camera?

It has given the perfect opportunity for republicans, critics and social media mischief-makers who delight in the misfortune of the Royal family to make their case.

Omid Scobie, Prince Harry and Meghan’s biographer – now one of the Royal family’s most vocal critics – cited the episode as proof that “it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the public to believe a word (and now photo) they [the palace] share”.

“Gaining that back at this point is an almost impossible task,” he added.

Peter Hunt, former BBC royal correspondent, said the challenge “is that people will now question whether they can be trusted and believed when they next issue a health update”.

In all likelihood, the reality is closer to this: the Princess tweaked and tidied up the image to create the perfect comeback picture, in a high-pressure situation that is unique to this moment and this family.

It is not too much of a leap of the imagination to think of her at home, recuperating at Adelaide Cottage in Windsor with time to study photos taken by her husband before releasing them to a critical world in which the public is ready to spot any small blemish or change.

Public left baffled

But that a baffled public now wonders whether the entire picture has been fabricated should be cause for huge concern.

It speaks not only to a world of AI-generated fakes, in which the press and public must be on higher alert than ever for doctored pictures, but an era where trust in institutions is also at a low.

If the Covid lockdown encouraged greater palace control, allowing aides to vet all videos and pictures of the royals at home, this is the moment to return to a spirit of openness.

If there was ever a case for “lessons being learned” this is it.

A swift and personal apology from the Princess will have gone a long way to smoothing the waters, and the palace is surely duty bound to confirm the steps it is taking to prevent such “manipulation” happening again.

Queen Elizabeth II once said she “had to be seen to be believed”. Perhaps a more useful motto for the new generation: they have to be seen and be believed.

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