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.