The biggest paper in Britain, The Sun, defied legal threats from the royal family and a media-wide blackout on Friday when it published the naked pictures of Prince Harry that have been seen around the world. The decision fueled an ongoing debate about press freedom that has engulfed the country's newspapers.
Though the pictures of the prince misbehaving in Las Vegas were widely available online, warnings from the royal family and from the country's Press Complaints Commission, which regulates the newspaper industry, had led every single Fleet Street title to avoid printing them. To do so, the PCC warned, would risk invading Harry's privacy.
UK readers were treated to the odd sight of Sun employees posing naked on the front page in place of the real pictures on Thursday. (Editors were criticized for using a 21-year-old female intern in the picture.) By the evening, though, the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper had changed its mind and charged ahead.
In a front page editorial, the Sun made the case for the "public interest" of the pictures, in an attempt to meet the standards that guide decisions on the flow of certain information in the British press.
"The photos have potential implications for the Prince's image representing Britain around the world," the editors wrote. "There are questions over his security during the Las Vegas holiday. Questions as to whether his position in the Army might be affected. Further, we believe Harry has compromised his own privacy."
David Dinsmore, the Sun's managing editor, addressed the controversy in a web video. He echoed arguments that have been floating around since the pictures surfaced -- that the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into media ethics has created an unhealthy chilling effect on press freedom. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Sun is part of the most damaged media empire in the country; a crusade for tabloid independence could help the paper change the conversation away from misdeeds at Murdoch's titles.
"We've thought long and hard about this," Dinsmore said in the video. "The Sun is a responsible paper ... for us, this is about the freedom of the press. 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."
The decision reverberated all the way to the BBC, where Louise Mensch, an MP who sits on the parliamentary committee overseeing the media, and Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, argued about the move. Mensch said there was a "clear and demonstrable public interest" in publication, citing some of the same reasons as the Sun. Blackhurst dismissed this.
"I don't really need lessons in press freedom and morality from The Sun," he said. "... I took the view that these were private photographs ... the idea that this is of public interest is really spurious."
The royal family issued a statement as well. "We have made our views on Prince Harry's privacy known," a spokesman said. "Newspapers regulate themselves, so the publication of the photographs is ultimately a decision for editors to make."
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