The third in line to the United Kingdom throne, Prince Harry of Wales, got photographed nude in a Las Vegas hotel room with an unnamed young woman. It's a pretty straightforward royals scandal: behavior just transgressive enough to merit wall-to-wall media coverage, yet harmless enough that we can enjoy it guilt-free. But British readers won't be enjoying the photos in their country's famously raucous newspapers, every single one of which has bowed to the royal palace's request to not publish the pictures.
But this sort of story is such catnip for the British tabloid media, the red-haired personification of its very raîson d'être -- "the media has been enthralled by the love life of the single prince," Reuters explained -- that one of them just couldn't resist. The Sun asked two of its staffers to pose nude, recreating the naked-prince image for the tabloid's cover, which is seen by an estimated 7.6 million daily readers and countless newsstand passers-by.
Standing in for Prince Harry is Sun photo editor Harry Miller -- the tabloid cover cheerily advertises "BANNED PHOTO POSED BY SUN'S OWN HARRY" -- and, as the anonymous young woman, a 21-year-old staffer named Sophie Henderson, whom the paper says is there "on work experience." In case it's not clear what that means, Henderson's LinkedIn page lists her as a Sun fashion intern.
A print-only article in The Sun explains, according to the Guardian, that Miller and Henderson "dropped everything to recreate the Prince's pose -- after the Palace asked us not to print the real Vegas snaps," and were "happy to strip." The paper later issued a statement, signed by Miller and Henderson, stating, "For anyone worried about whether we were forced against our will to strip off, we are pleased to be able to set the record straight. Please be assured, there is no cover-up at Wapping. It was a bit of harmless fun and we were delighted to have played our part in making the readers laugh."
Putting aside the ethical and potentially legal questions about having an intern pose semi-nude for publication, it's hard not to ask why. If The Sun was willing to go to such great trouble, and expose itself to such risk, why not just go ahead and publish the actual photos?
The answer, assuming the stunt itself wasn't the point, may have to do with both the U.K.'s somewhat tighter media restrictions and this particular moment in the British media industry. The royal palace, in asking outlets not to print the photos, firmly suggested doing so could be considered an infringement on Harry's privacy. According to U.K. media law, a photo taken of someone in private without their consent requires a "public interest" justification to run. And the paper has to actively demonstrate as much: "Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent," the law reads.
That "public interest" definition can be broad -- Peter Barron, the editor of a small British paper, explained that the 2005 photos of Harry dressed in a Nazi costume could be justified as evidence of "misjudgment" by a public official -- but probably not broad enough for this one. And the U.K. media appears to be a bit more cautious these days, some say due to the ongoing "Leveson Inquiry" into media ethics and standards, which the government launched in response to the News of the World phone hacking scandal. The Huffington Postcalls this evidence of "a dangerous new climate of fear in the U.K. media." This seems a little strong, but others seem to agree the Leveson Inquiry, along with the public backlash against the News of the World's abuses, has had a "chilling effect" on the typically brash U.K. media.
"With national newspapers reeling from the News International phone-hacking scandal, the implications of the Leveson Inquiry, and a warning from the Palace that there would be a complaint to the [Press Complaints Commission], no one was prepared to take a chance," Barron wrote. "The public mood, fuelled by what the News of the World did, has acted as a deterrent."
It's almost enough to give you hope that maybe, just maybe, the British media has finally learned some restraint, has heard what the A.P. calls the "celebrities, politicians, and crime victims who said their lives had been turned upside down by press intrusion." Until, that is, you see that, for at least this one mega-tabloid, exercising restraint means having an editor and a college-aged intern pose nude together for the cover.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.