A copy of The Sun newspaper featuring a picture of a naked Prince Harry is seen in a shop in London August 24, 2012. The tabloid on Friday published photographs of Prince Harry naked in Las Vegas, becoming the first British publication to defy a request from the royal family's lawyers. (TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

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.

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.

In the 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. Additionally, 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.”

At the very least, the incident shows just how difficult it has become for Britain’s media to find its footing after the phone-hacking scandal, in which thousands of public figures and average citizens saw their privacy violated by journalists.

Divisive decision

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 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 exactly 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. She added: “We cannot have a situation where the press as a bloc is so scared of the Leveson inquiry that they refuse to print things that are in the public interest.”

Although the commission received about 850 complaints Friday about the paper’s publication of the photos, the Sun, echoing the sentiments of most Britons, laid out its position that it was not passing moral judgment on Harry. There has been some limited criticism here of the prince’s romp, stirring up flashbacks of the controversy in 2005 when he was photographed wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party. But for the most part, 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 here seemed to be embracing an attaboy mentality to the antics.

“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.