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  • Rebecca Burton

Blurring the line between private life and public entertainment.

By Rebecca Burton

Since the Princess of Wales’ stint in hospital in January and her absence from public life following her abdominal surgery, social media and the press have been flooded with rumours about her whereabouts. However, the recent revelation of her cancer diagnosis has cast a dark shadow over weeks of speculation. While this situation was undoubtedly a royal cock-up (pun intended) on the part of the royals, it also reveals the extent to which the line between reality and entertainment has become blurred. The speculation around Kate reflects a worrying trend of real lives being used for entertainment, both on social media and in the press.


The revelation of Kate’s cancer diagnosis has highlighted that online rumours about her, which have been widely used as a source of light-hearted entertainment over the last few weeks, had a tangible emotional impact on a real person. Fair’s fair, some might say. This level of public speculation is the price that the royals must pay for benefitting from taxpayer money. The royals have undeniably been facing increased public scrutiny recently, as they have been embroiled in several well-publicised scandals (who can forget Prince Andrew’s infamous interview?), as well as the controversy surrounding the multi-million-pound bill for the King’s coronation, footed by British taxpayers amid a cost-of-living crisis. In this context, it was perhaps inevitable that the disappearance of one of the most popular royals from public life would draw criticism. 


Any self-respecting democracy should scrutinise those with power and influence, and the royals must be subject to public critique as a consequence of their inherited positions. However, while scrutinising the royals is necessary, turning their lives into a source of entertainment is both unfairly personal and achieves nothing beyond undermining wider debates about the royal family’s role in modern Britain. The online speculation surrounding Kate can hardly be seen as well-informed scrutiny of the monarchy. 


Although conspiracy theories about Kate’s whereabouts originated online, it was reporting in the mainstream media that gave them a sense of legitimacy. The UK’s biggest media companies profited from disparaging the speculation around Kate, while also amplifying rumours by reporting on them. The Sun proudly declared that the public should  ‘Lay off Kate’, but only after publishing countless articles fuelling speculation around her circumstances and detailing every editing mistake in the now-infamous Mother’s Day photo. Many media outlets were quick to blame social media trolls for the speculation following Kate’s cancer announcement, deflecting attention away from the role they themselves played in spreading rumours about her private life.


The press doesn’t just have a responsibility to report in an ethical way, but also to keep the public informed. It’s ridiculous that the newspapers could find nothing better to splash across their front pages, in the run-up to a critical general election and amid multiple devastating world conflicts, than a botched attempt at Photoshop. Not only did the mainstream media's coverage of the saga reduce someone’s real life to the topic of gossip and fanfare, but it also distracted from the issues that should matter most. 


While the press amplified rumours about Kate, the pivotal role social media played in creating a widespread frenzy of public speculation cannot be denied. With the rise of reality TV and the proliferation of influencer content, we are becoming increasingly accustomed to viewing other people’s lives as a form of entertainment. The impersonal nature of social media places a distance between users and the subjects of online discussion, making it incredibly easy to forget that rumours pertain to someone’s real life, and are not just a saga playing out solely for public amusement. Nothing demonstrates the fusion of entertainment with reality better than the online speculation surrounding Kate. There’s something undeniably ironic about Kim Kardashian, who has essentially built her career on selling her personal life as a form of entertainment, joking about Kate’s whereabouts on Instagram, days before her cancer diagnosis was revealed. 


This trend also goes beyond the royals, as the public nature of social media means that anyone can become the subject of online rumours and conspiracy theories. An anonymous victim who accused Russell Brand of sexual assault, highlighted the emotional impact that social media speculation had on her, telling the HuffPost that online discourse about her allegations forced her to relive distressing and traumatic memories. Therefore, the speculation around Kate not only reflects shifting public views about the monarchy, but also a larger trend of people’s lives and struggles being reduced to a topic of online debate.


Like the millions of people currently battling cancer in the UK, the Princess of Wales deserves sympathy during this difficult time. Her revelation is a reminder that the increasingly blurred line between reality and entertainment, facilitated by the unprecedented access to people’s private lives provided by social media and the profiteering of the media industry, has an emotional impact on real people. Scrutinising those with power and influence is an essential element of democracy. However, it’s hard to argue that the speculation surrounding Kate’s whereabouts amounted to a genuine political debate. Instead, the situation highlighted the increasing fusion of fact and entertainment in the social media age, a trend that can impact anyone and should concern us all.


Image: Flickr / Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

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