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-famous 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 the photos, which are already a sensation on the Internet but which the rest of the British media self-censored from its pages and airwaves, the Sun ratcheted up the intense debate here not only over the royal family as accountable public figures but also freedom of the press in the digital age.
After Britain's Prince Harry decided to bare all in a Las Vegas hotel room, Rupert Murdoch decided to run the photos against the wishes of the royal family.
By publishing the photos, the Sun took a legal risk in a nation where privacy laws are stricter than in the United States, while also 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 of old Fleet Street are under an uncomfortable spotlight from an independent inquiry into rampant illegal news-gathering techniques, which 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. Web site TMZ published nearly nude images of Prince Harry, the third in line to the British throne and whose inane antics in younger years had delighted an earlier generation of tabloid readers.
Even as Web sites 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 media feverishly covering the incident — even running replicas of the photos using stand ins and look-alikes — but stopping short of baring the heir’s derriere.
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, just like the photo of Harry’s posterior, was cheeky. But the tabloid nevertheless asserted that 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 even at the Closing Ceremonies 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.