Prince Harry Becomes the Butt of Jokes, Raises Serious Issues for U.K. Media

A naked Prince tests the new spirit of press restraint after the hacking scandal that shuttered Murdoch's "News of the World"

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British daily newspapers in London show the front-page headlines and stories regarding nude pictures of Britain's Prince Harry on Aug. 23, 2012

It’s not so hard to get to the bottom of the controversy roiling the British media. Type Prince Harry into any search engine, and you’ll find yourself one or two clicks from a low-definition image of one of the Windsor family’s prominent assets. In recent years Prince Henry Charles Albert David, third in line to the British throne and a lieutenant in the Household Cavalry, has gained respect and a considerable cadre of admirers. He’s served in Afghanistan, built up a Lesotho-based voluntary organization dedicated to assisting children orphaned by AIDS and performed an increasing number of royal duties with charm and apparent enthusiasm. True, he has not always covered himself in glory — there was the crass choice of fancy dress costume, the teenage toking — but he has always covered himself. At least, until now.

Blurry snaps of the pink-skinned blue blood at the tail end of a game of “strip billiards” in a Las Vegas hotel room first published on the U.S. gossip website TMZ on Aug. 21 gave the world its first sight of the Prince in his birthday suit since Princess Diana emerged from the hospital cradling her newborn son in 1984. In one image, the royal, wearing only a necklace, cups the portion of the male anatomy known colloquially as the crown jewels; in the second, he moons the unseen camera as he embraces a naked female. The photographs are the stuff of paparazzi dreams, guaranteed to set tabloid picture editors hyperventilating with their A-list star and R-rated content. Across the globe, websites relegated worthier subjects to give them pride of place and newsrooms resounded to cries of “hold the front page!”

(MORE: Prince Harry: Naked Photos Surface Online)

In Britain, alone, the response was muted. Tabloid editors were just as keen as their counterparts in other countries to splash on Harry’s hijinks, but their ardor to do so was tempered by an intervention from palace aides, who warned the industry self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), that publication would constitute an infringement of princely privacy. The PCC is living on borrowed time after its efficacy at policing its own ranks was called into question by its complacent response to allegations of hacking and bribery at Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid News of the World. Lord Justice Leveson, who headed an eponymous inquiry into the scandal, is expected to deliver a report later this year that will determine a new architecture for press regulation in Britain. There is widespread acknowledgment within the industry that the old system is flawed, but this is matched by widespread fears that a new system may stifle legitimate investigation. Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth, delivering the keynote MacTaggart address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on Aug. 23, declared “the right outcome … must be the fierce protection of a free press and light-touch media regulation.” Editors are anxious to prove a capacity for self-regulation and self-restraint that the exploits of the Murdoch press and Britain’s wider media culture called into question.

And so a bum note in the Queen’s harmonious Diamond Jubilee year has become a test case in a much bigger story, about the changing relationships between the British press and the institutions it covers. With the Vegas photos already so widely circulated, some commentators have criticized Harry for not turning the other cheek, as it were, to let British media join in the fun. But Harry, his brother William and their aides were among the first victims of hacking to prove their case against the News of the World, back in 2007. The princes’ mother died with the paparazzi in pursuit, and their formative years were spent as tabloid quarry. There’s understandably little appetite for appeasement in royal circles.

Initially the Sun, the News of the World’s surviving sibling, fell into line with the rest of the U.K.’s mainstream press by refraining from running the photos. Its front page on Aug. 23 unveiled a creative response to the new era of editorial caution, drafting one of its picture editors, Harry Miller, and, in a broad interpretation of what work experience might reasonably be expected to entail, Sophie Henderson, a 21-year-old intern, to recreate the naked poses. “Harry Grabs the Crown Jewels,” proclaimed its banner headline. But later that same day, the newspaper performed a U-turn, a maneuver one of its legendary former editors described as a “reverse ferret,” trumpeting its decision to “publish the naked pictures of Prince Harry that have swept the world.” “This is about our readers getting involved in the discussion with the man who is third in line to the throne. It’s as simple as that,” explained Sun managing editor David Dinsmore in a video on the red-top’s website.

With or without visuals, the story seems unlikely to subject the royals to what the Queen once memorably termed an annus horribilis, even if the term anus horribilis is trending on Twitter. Harry has become the butt of jokes, but they’re largely affectionate. Yet the royals and the tabloids are locked in parallel struggles for survival, no longer certain of the fealty of the masses and their role in modern Britain. Both institutions have been laid bare by recent events. Which may explain why neither camp is laughing with the rest of us.

MORE: Top 10 Royal Family Gaffes