British tabloid runs nude Prince Harry photos, bares censorship concerns
The British tabloid The Sun, explaining its decision to publish the Prince Harry photos, said it used the images to make a nobler point: How could such pictures be "only a mouse click away" on the Web, yet be barred from print?
The Washington Post
LONDON — Rupert Murdoch's flagship British tabloid proved Friday that there is, in fact, nowhere The Sun doesn't shine.
Explicitly defying the wishes of Buckingham Palace, The Sun published the now-infamous nude photos of Prince Harry that were taken during a romp in Las Vegas, becoming the first British media outlet to do so. In running with photos already a sensation on the Internet but that the rest of the British media self-censored from its pages and airwaves, The Sun ratcheted up the intense debate over members of the royal family as accountable public figures and freedom of the press in the digital age.
By publishing the photos, The Sun took a legal risk in a nation where privacy laws are stricter than in the United States, while potentially opening the door to demands for tighter rules in a country that is home to one of the globe's most aggressive media cultures.
Its decision comes at a time when the breathless tabloids are under an uncomfortable spotlight from an independent inquiry into rampant illegal newsgathering techniques that blew up last year after revelations of phone hacking at Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World.
After an eight-month inquiry led by British Judge Brian Leveson, who aired instance after instance of media wrongdoing, the tabloids of Britain appeared to be entering an era of caution. That relative sense of prudence remarkably held for 48 hours after the U.S. website TMZ published images of a nude Prince Harry, the third in line to the British throne and whose antics in younger years had delighted an earlier generation of tabloid readers.
Even as websites and newspapers around the world ran with the photos, making them easily accessible to any Briton with a computer or mobile device, Buckingham Palace vowed legal action against any British outlet to run them. It led to an extraordinary display of restraint, with the home press feverishly covering the incident — even running replicas of the photos using stand ins and look-alikes — but stopping short of baring the heir's derrière.
Enter The Sun, Britain's largest paper by circulation and known for merging a Conservative Party bent with topless models on Page 3.
The accompanying headline — "HEIR IT IS" — was cheeky. But the tabloid nevertheless asserted it used the images to make a nobler point: How could such pictures, the paper reasoned, be "only a mouse click away" on the Web, yet be barred from print?
More important, the threat of legal action, The Sun contended, was tying the hands of the British media in covering a news story in the public interest. As a benefactor of public funds who represented the nation on recent international trips and at the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics, the actions of Prince Harry should, the paper said, without question be within the public's right to know. A ban on the photos, the paper suggested, was tantamount to censorship in an open democracy.
Privacy vs. public interest
The Sun's move illustrated the impact of the Internet on the global news cycle, though legal experts say the paper potentially exposed itself to court action. Additional, it possibly violated a voluntary code of conduct with Britain's media watchdog in which it pledged not to publish photos that infringe on personal privacy without permission.
European privacy laws are stricter than those in the United States: In 2008, for example, News of the World was hit with a $100,000 fine for publishing racy group-sex photos involving former Formula One chief Max Mosley.
However, the Sun can, and is, arguing that publication fits the definition of the public interest, for which legal exceptions are made. The House of Windsor declined to say whether it would file suit.
"The photos have potential implications for the Prince's image representing Britain around the world," The Sun said in an editorial. "There are questions over his security during the Las Vegas holiday. Questions about whether his position in the Army might be affected. Further, we believe Harry has compromised his own privacy."
The nation's power structure appeared divided on the Sun's decision. Some insisted it was evidence that tabloids, and particularly Murdoch, had yet to learn a lesson. John Prescott, former deputy prime minister and a phone-hacking victim, tweeted that the move showed "contempt" for British privacy laws, adding: "This isn't in the public interest. It's in Murdoch's self-interest."
Max Clifford, one of Britain's best-known communications consultants who famously places stories and photos in British tabloids, said he had refused photos from the Las Vegas party offered to him separately by two American women. He called the images "an intrusion of privacy."
Harry "wasn't doing anything disgusting or disgraceful; he wasn't taking heavy drugs, with underage girls," he said.
In the wake of the Leveson inquiry, he said, there has been a seismic shift in the culture of Fleet Street. "Newspaper editors are very frightened of bringing out all kinds of things," Clifford said.
Others contended that is why The Sun's decision should be celebrated.
"The Press Complaints Commission totally overstepped their bounds by going to the U.K. press ... and telling them not to publish these photographs," Louise Mensch, a Conservative member of House of Commons, told the BBC.
Although the commission received about 150 complaints Friday about the paper's publication of the photos, The Sun, echoing the sentiments of most Britons, laid out its position — in what it deemed a "souvenir edition" — that it was not passing moral judgment on Harry.
Indeed, few have taken the prince's partying very seriously, and the incident did not appear to be putting a dent in the high popularity of the royal family.
Rather, concern has centered largely on the lack of judgment he and his security detail showed in allowing such photographs to be taken and leaked. Otherwise, many in London seemed to be embracing an attaboy mentality toward Harry.
"The real scandal would be if you went all the way to Las Vegas and you didn't misbehave in some trivial way," London Mayor Boris Johnson told the BBC.