By Anna Tomforde –
LONDON — Prince Harry kept well out of sight Friday as nude photographs showing him frolicking with girls in a Las Vegas hotel were for the first time published in Britain.
The decision by the mass-circulation Sun newspaper to splash one of the compromising pictures on its front page — against the declared wishes of the royal palace — unleashed a fierce debate about the press, media freedom, privacy and the Internet.
While critics said publication of the images in the Murdoch-owned newspaper was motivated by “profit,” others argued that the issues of press freedom and legitimate public interest were at stake.
The pictures first emerged on U.S. celebrity gossip website TMZ on Wednesday. But British media refrained from publication on Thursday, following a warning regarding privacy rules from the main press watchdog, issued at the request of the royal family.
However, the two pictures — apparently taken by mobile phone in the prince’s hotel suite during a game of “strip billiards” — aroused global curiosity, and were reported to have been called up 300 million times on websites.
The Sun, describing Friday’s issue as a “souvenir printed edition,” said the decision to publish was based on the issue of press freedom alone.
“Heir it is!” said the banner headline in an allusion to the 27-year-old army officer’s ranking of third-in-line to the throne.
The photograph published beneath shows the prince wearing just a necklace and a wristband, with his hands around his genitals as a seemingly naked woman stands close behind him.
Another, published on the inside pages, shows him bear-hugging a woman who is also naked, with the prince’s bare bottom facing the camera.
British media reports said Friday that “several girls” had been snapping away on their mobiles in Harry’s hotel suite, following a raunchy poolside party, and that more photographs could follow.
The pictures, taken a week ago, have come as an acute embarrassment for Harry and the royal family after the popularity of the royals in Britain appeared to have been boosted by a series of events, including: the 2011 wedding of Harry’s brother, William, to Kate Middleton; the 60th throne anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II; and the royal family’s successful role in the recent Olympic Games.
Harry, whose “playboy prince” antics have caused trouble for the royals before, was given a “serious talking to” by his father, Prince Charles, after his return from the U.S., British media said Friday.
The Sun, while declaring itself to be a supporter of Harry and the royal family, said the incident had become a test case for press freedom in Britain:
“This is about the ludicrous situation where a picture can be seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world on the internet, but can’t be seen in the nation’s favourite paper read by 8 million people every day.”
“This is about our readers getting involved in discussion with the man who’s third in line to the throne, it’s as simple as that. The photos have potential implications for the prince’s image representing Britain around the world.”
But media lawyer Mark Lewis, who has represented a number of victims of Britain’s long-running phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch newspapers, said there were no public interest issues, privacy or press freedom involved.
“This is ultimately all about profit,” said Lewis. Former Labour government minister John Prescott agreed: “It is not about privacy. It is about money, money, money,” he said.
St James’ Palace, in an initial reaction, said: “We have made our views on Prince Harry’s privacy known. Newspapers regulate themselves, so the publication of the photographs is ultimately a decision for editors to make.”
However, informed sources said an official complaint about the Sun’s decision from the palace was likely.
Privacy lawyer Chris Hutchings said Friday that the Sun had taken a “calculated risk” in publishing the photos.
“Whether the prince takes (legal) action may depend on whether it is better from a reputational perspective to attempt to draw a line under the matter instead of encouraging further scrutiny,” said Hutchings.