When fame and medical privacy clash: Kate and other crises of confidentiality | Catherine, Princess of Wales

Medical records are meant to be sacred, the preserve of the dedicated professionals treating a patient, but the Princess of Wales is not the first to find herself at the centre of allegations that they have been plundered for gossip.

The former prime minister Gordon Brown told the Leveson inquiry into media conduct that he believed a story in the Sun about his son Fraser’s diagnosis with cystic fibrosis in 2006 could only have come from leaked medical records.

Brown, who had previously lost a daughter, said he and his wife had felt forced to issue a statement confirming their then four-month-old’s condition, after being approached by the newspaper – and had subsequently received an apology from NHS Fife.

The Sun denied the story came from medical records, insisting the source was the father of another patient. Brown called this “fiction”.

In the US, there have been a series of public cases in which employees of hospitals have been disciplined for accessing stars’ health data, whether to satisfy their personal curiosity, or the appetite of the media for the smallest detail.

In 2008, at least 13 employees at UCLA medical centre in Los Angeles were fired, and another six suspended, for accessing the pop star Britney Spears’s records, while she was being treated in its psychiatric unit.

The following year, the California health watchdog fined the Bellflower hospital $250,000 for failing to prevent more than 20 staff staff prying into the records of Nadya Suleman, who became known as “Octomum” after giving birth to octuplets.

In the UK, such well-publicised breaches are rare, though it is impossible to know how many public figures’ health conditions may have been unearthed in a similar way to Fraser Brown’s, with a newspaper presenting what the former prime minister called a “fait accompli”.

Sometimes, the surprise has been more in the medical concerns public figures have been able to keep quiet, rather than those that have leaked.

The former home secretary David Blunkett claimed in his diaries that Tony Blair had kept quiet the fact that he had suffered from a heart condition for 15 years, before being hospitalised in 2003 – something Downing Street denied.

When Boris Johnson was suffering from Covid in April 2020, he and his aides initially appeared reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness of his condition, until he was admitted to hospital.

Johnson’s upbeat video messages were a model of transparency when compared with the approach of some of his predecessors, however. Winston Churchill suffered an acute stroke in 1953 that incapacitated him for two months, but his condition was hushed up with the support of the press – despite the clear public interest in the news.

When Churchill’s personal doctor, Lord Moran, published an account of the former premier’s illnesses in 1966, after his death, many colleagues were scandalised at what they saw as a breach of confidence, however.

Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden, was also dogged by health problems, after a botched gall bladder operation. Some historians believe the continuing complications Eden suffered and the drugs he was prescribed, may have been a factor in the chain of decision-making that led to the Suez crisis. Again, the public were largely kept in the dark.

The royal family have also traditionally been fierce guardians of their medical history, although Princess Diana broke that taboo by speaking publicly about her struggle with bulimia.

Occasionally, the breaching of public figures’ privacy can be the result of a blunder, rather than conspiracy. The Sun on Sunday reported in 2016 that medical papers relating to the king and Diana had been found in a filing cabinet in an industrial estate in Bridgend.

In contrast to the handling of Fraser Brown’s case, the paper sent a reporter to return the records to Clarence House.

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