Was it wrong to dodge the naked truth over Harry?

While web users gawped at an unclothed prince, not one British paper used the image yesterday. By Adam Sherwin

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The Independent Online

On one side ranged St James's Palace, the Press Complaints Commission and the shadow of Lord Leveson, busy drawing up recommendations on the future regulation of newspapers.

On the other lay the most talked-about pictures in the world: juicy images of the party-loving third-in-line to the throne, stark naked, promising a summer windfall guaranteed to rack up web hits and boost tabloid sales. But where editors would once have cried "publish and be damned" and argued their case in court, on this occasion they reluctantly bowed to legal warnings not to publish pictures of a naked Prince Harry.

This outward display of responsibility, designed to safeguard the industry's long-term future, came at a price. The tabloids condemned a "farcical" situation which allowed web users around the world to view images which were denied to British print readers. The pictures of Harry, clutching his groin area during a game of "strip billiards" and bear-hugging a girl from behind during a party in his Las Vegas hotel suite, spread virally on social media after being published by the US TMZ gossip website – prompting agonised debate in tabloid newsrooms.

Harbottle & Lewis, Prince Charles' lawyers, issued a note via the Press Complaints Commission, warning editors that the pictures should not be published as they were taken on "an entirely private occasion" where Harry had a "reasonable expectation of privacy".

With Lord Leveson compiling recommendations on a new system of press regulation, executives are fearful of any controversy over privacy which might nudge the judge towards proposing a statutory regime. US networks ran versions of the pictures on news bulletins and they appeared on the websites of the LA Times and Time. Still, the naked Prince was on the front of Ireland's Evening Herald. "We carried the Prince Harry pictures out of a duty to our readers," Ian Mallon, the paper's deputy editor, claimed.

"This was, rightly or wrongly, the most talked-about image in the world," added Mr Mallon, who said the Leveson Inquiry into press standards had left editors "cowed".

Insiders suggested the cautious approach, likely to play well with legislators when they consider Leveson's report, would outweigh the short-term gain from publishing pictures over which exclusivity had disappeared.

The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Mirror are understood to have still explored a "public interest" defence which could over-ride the UK privacy stipulations. Those newspapers were losing millions of website views, a crucial source of advertising revenue, by failing to run the pictures.

Since Harry's round-the-clock protection team had allowed him to get into a compromising situation, which could have left the Prince open to blackmail, the Mail and the Mirror asked whether the security issues raised might justify publication. The Sun came closest to publishing the pictures, sources say, but would have done so in hailing Harry as a laddish rogue.

By coincidence, The Sun editor Dominic Mohan, and Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor-in-chief, were both on holiday, although their deputies were in contact. In place of the original pictures, The Sun "mocked-up" the images on its front page, asking a 21-year-old undertaking work experience on the fashion desk, Sophie Henderson, to strip and pose with picture editor Harry Miller. A caption said the pair were "happy to strip" but the image, after initially appearing on the paper's website, was removed. Henderson tweeted: "lol 5 mins of fame #cringin".

The paper said the intern had not been placed under any pressure to strip for the camera and the picture had been published online "in error". The papers, denied their picture boon, vented their anger at St James's Palace. The Mail wrote: "Farcically, British websites, newspapers and television stations were prevented from reproducing them after Prince Charles instructed lawyers to threaten legal action for infringing Prince Harry's privacy." The Daily Mirror said: "Censoring them [the pictures] in Britain is ludicrous when everyone else is peering at an unclothed Prince. And it won't save Harry's blushes."

It was an "extraordinary" decision not to publish, said Professor Tim Luckhurst of the University of Kent's Centre for Journalism. "Newspapers want to demonstrate impeccable behaviour on privacy. But there was a powerful public interest defence for publishing. These were not paparazzi pictures, they were in the public domain. Did Harry have a legitimate expectation of privacy given he invited these girls to his suite and allowed pictures to be taken? Self-evidently readers wanted to see those pictures. In the past the editors of the Sun, Mirror and Daily Mail would have run them."

In a leader, The Daily Telegraph criticised the Prince for "playing sleazy games with naked girls in hotel rooms, and being idiotic enough to allow the proceedings to be photographed".