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Princess Kate's cancer diagnosis highlights balancing act between celebrity and royals' private lives

Royal expert on reaction to Kate's diagnosis
Royal expert's insights on the fallout from Princess Kate's cancer announcement 04:47

The announcement by Catherine, the Princess of Wales, of her cancer diagnosis and treatment has led to a reckoning about how members of the royal family are treated and covered in the media, and about how much privacy they can expect to enjoy as some of the world's most recognizable individuals.

CBS News royal contributor and royal biographer Tina Brown said seeing Kate, as the princess is commonly known, deliver her news in the video announcement released Friday was "absolutely heartbreaking."

"I mean, here was this brave, composed, you know, marvelously dignified young woman, talking about something that was deeply shocking and traumatic for her and her family," said Brown. 

But Brown and other royal insiders say while there has been unfair and even gratuitous speculation over Kate's condition over the last few weeks, there may be lessons for the royal family — and their public relations teams — to take on board as the centuries-old institution continues adapting to our modern world.

Is Princess Kate owed an apology?

Not long after Kate and her husband Prince William's official Kensington Palace residence announced the Princess of Wales' surgery and said she would be recovering privately, with no updates expected, the social media rumor mill went into overdrive.

Despite the declaration that there would be no updates, the royal couple posted a U.K. Mother's Day photo on their official social media pages on March 10 that appeared, at a first glance, to show Kate looking happy and healthy with her children. But Kate was quickly forced to issue an apology of her own, admitting she'd edited the image.

The photo released to quell rumors ended up fueling them, with social media networks abuzz with people suggesting everything from marital problems to a range of unfounded health issues.

"I think that the apologies that are owed are some of these really salacious, horrible things that went on," Brown said. 

"There were a lot of mean things. There were lots and lots of jokes," CBS News' Vladimir Duthiers commented.

Kate, Brown said, had been "ridiculously overwhelmed with all of the trolling and the mad theories and the crazy things that have been said, and she was simply backstage, or struggling with something that was really shocking and upsetting for her and her family."

"I think we have to really cut them some slack about it at this point," Brown said.

Did Kensington Palace get it wrong?

Even for the elite public relations teams on the royal payrolls, this year has brought a series of formidable challenges, and Brown said Kate's health problems coming in unison with William's father King Charles III's own cancer treatment likely added another layer of stress for the family, and may have caused some "chaos."

Latest on King Charles III's diagnosis, Prince Harry reunion 02:49

Brown said William and Kate were initially dealing with the possibility that "they may be king and queen much quicker than they thought — maybe even in the next couple of years if things go wrong — and she has this shocking diagnosis… plus three young children who she has to tell and handle, and at the schoolyard, people are obviously saying, 'What's wrong with your mommy?' All these things. I think that there was genuine chaos behind the scenes as they've been trying to juggle it all."

Brown said if she had been advising Kensington Palace on how to handle the public's insatiable appetite for news about Kate's recovery, she would have suggested showing the world, literally, how the princess was getting on, and she said the decision to share essentially nothing may have been down to William.

"I would like to have seen that happen a lot earlier, actually, and yes, they did make a complete mess of it, but I'm actually really told that some of it was because William really feels he is going to say, 'My family do not have to say anything about their private lives.' So, it's almost as if he's telling… the communications apparatus, 'I don't want to do this.'"

Brown said "there was argument inside" the palace that it should have provided more in the way of updates. She suggested Kate could merely have appeared earlier on, giving "a wave from the window" or some other signal of her recovery, but that wasn't done.

In the absence of information, Brown said, "it created a vacuum in which all these terrible rumors poured."

"The royal family is an incredible, incredibly powerful, tax-funded institution," Duthiers said. "Billions of taxpayer dollars support it. Rather than trying to shame people for wondering where she was and all these botched social media moments, why didn't they use it as a teachable moment about cancer — about empathy — from the jump?"

With all of the challenges currently facing Kate and William, Brown observed, "We can't really judge, because what they're dealing with is so incredible."

How much privacy should the royals get?

"Members of the royal family understand that they have a public role, but they also feel that there is a private side to their lives. That's their relationships, that's their family, and absolutely that's their health," said CBS News royal contributor Julian Payne, who previously served as communications director for then-Prince Charles. "They understand that there is interest there, but they will absolutely want to control how they share that information on their own terms, and I don't think anybody, certainly in the U.K., begrudges them that approach."

He said that while other kinds of celebrities may understand intense media interest "is integral to the work that they do, for the royal family, I don't think they view it that same way."

The royals, whom Payne noted are born or married into their roles, rather than seeking them out, "like to be able to have a line where they do have a private life. They are under such scrutiny all the time that it is really important that they are able to occasionally shut the door and say, 'Now I'm going back to my own private time."

Will this change the way the royals share information?

"I think that the members of the family and the institution itself learn all the time," Payne told CBS News on Monday. "They evolve all the time, and I am absolutely sure that these incredibly difficult last couple of months will give them pause about how they go about sharing information, how long they can maintain that privacy for."

"I think it's absolutely right that they seek to protect their private issues around their health, around their relationships, but they do understand that the world is changing and there is more and more interest in people's private lives," he said, adding that William, Kate and the rest of their family "are going to have to work hard to continue to protect that space."

"I think this is what's so interesting about what we're seeing now — is it still possible to hold the line between your public role and a private life? And I am absolutely sure that if you ask the family, they would say, 'Yes, it is.' They understand the interest, but they also understand that they have a right to privacy, especially around things like their health and well-being."

This article has been updated to correct the attribution of two quotes from CBS News' Vladimir Duthiers.

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