British tabloid The Sun announced on Thursday that it plans to publish photographs of a vacationing Prince Harry in the nude, making it the first mainstream British paper to do so.
The pictures of the prince, showing him naked in a hotel suite while he was on vacation last week in Las Vegas, were widely available on the Internet after website TMZ published them Tuesday. But British newspapers initially declined to publish them.
David Dinsmore, managing editor of The Sun, said Thursday that his group "thought long and hard about this," but ultimately decided to publish the images because news consumers could access them elsewhere.
"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 favorite paper read by 8 million people every day," he said.
The Sun said it will publish the images in Friday's edition.
Dinsmore also said that The Sun is "a responsible paper and it works closely with the royal family" and that "we take heed of their wishes."
"We're also big fans of Prince Harry. He does a huge amount of work for this country and for the military and for the image of both of those institutions," Dinsmore said. "We are not against him letting his hair down once in a while. For us, this is about the freedom of the press."
The hesitation to publish such photos, even those of royals, is somewhat new to British papers. Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, have all been caught up in tabloid scandals – with or without embarrassing photos to accompany them.
But things changed in the past 18 months, with the discovery of the full scale of a media phone-hacking scandal (initially revealed by the hacking of Prince William and Prince Harry's mobile phones). This forced the closure of the News of the World tabloid and prompted an inquiry into British press standards, led by Lord Justice Leveson Inquiry.
After months of evidence, Lord Leveson is deciding whether to recommend new rules governing the conduct of the UK media. Until his report is ready, analysts have said, editors don't want to take too many chances.
In a blog for the Huffington Post this week, Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of The Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, said the dilemma over whether to use the Prince Harry photographs was "nothing to do with journalistic merit, nothing to do with the merits of the story, nothing to do with legal issues, nothing even to do with journalistic ethics...
"The decisions are being reached on the basis of: 'What will Lord Leveson think?' And that is shocking, it is outrageous, it is a disgraceful affront to free speech."
Some commentators also have suggested that part of the reason for the British media's hesitation is the fact that, in the wake of a series of good news stories including Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, the royals' stock is higher now than it has been in decades.
Writing in the New Statesman, Steven Baxter claimed the papers were refusing to use the pictures not out of "fear of regulators but fear of their own readers," adding that Prince Harry and his kin "are celebrities, like others, but untouchable ones."
Pending any changes in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, British newspaper editors are bound by the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practice, which says that "everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life," and that "it is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent."
There are exceptions for cases "in the public interest."
Reacting to the Sun's decision Thursday, Mark Stephens, a British media lawyer, said he wasn't convinced the Prince Harry pictures rose to that level.
"Sun to publish Prince Harry pics. So what's the public interest? Or is it just a blatant publicity stunt?" Stephens posted to Twitter.
Former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, referring to The Sun's owner Rupert Murdoch, tweeted Thursday that "tonight's decision by @rupertmurdoch to allow The Sun to print the private Harry photos shows his contempt for the PCC, Leveson & the law."