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Frolics in the sun, a bride betrayed, and the end of a honeymoon with the press

WHEN HER camera shutter clicked on a boisterous sunny afternoon almost 11 years ago, Kara Noble could not have known that she was setting the fuse on a time bomb.

The "innocent" shot of an unknown PR girl frolicking with her exuberant boss in the back of a car finally exploded yesterday. The backlash to The Sun's publication of the topless photograph of Sophie Rhys-Jones a matter of weeks before her royal wedding was unprecedented in both its speed and ferocity.

"Premeditated cruelty," was the scathing verdict from Buckingham Palace while Downing Street issued a veiled threat that "(press) freedom comes with responsibility".

Ms Rhys-Jones's friends immediately leapt to her defence, painting a picture of a "betrayed" bride-to-be, while Ms Noble was vilified by former colleagues as a purveyor of "dirt" and sacked from her highly paid job as a radio disc jockey.

The rest of the tabloid press, many of whom are believed to have competed in a lengthy bidding frenzy for the picture, added their own sanctimonious condemnations

It was a reaction that Ms Noble was clearly not expecting when she accepted a reputed pounds 40,000, a modest sum by tabloid standards, for the old prints. The deal followed her being "hounded to death" over them, said one tabloid insider.

Yesterday she was said to be on holiday. But a friend who spoke to her after she was sacked said: "She is understandably upset ... she feels that she has done nothing wrong. As far as she is concerned it is a harmless, fun picture."

The offending snap was taken during a 1988 business trip to Spain, when Ms Rhys-Jones, then 23, had been working as a public relations executive for Capital Radio. She joined Chris Tarrant, the station's most celebrated DJ, Ms Noble, then his co-presenter, and the show's former producer Keith Pringle in Malaga.

They set off in a car, with Pringle driving and the ever-buoyant Tarrant tickling Ms Rhys-Jones. Suddenly he pulled up her bikini top and Ms Noble, despite later insisting she was "shocked", snapped the moment for posterity.

For years the picture was pinned to the notice board in Ms Noble's Capital Radio office, alongside many other candid shots.

"When the engagement was announced Kara took it down; no doubt she realised what it was worth," said one insider.

Ms Rhys-Jones, by now an accomplished PR person, also realised the detrimental value of such a photograph.

"She was aware skeletons from the past might come back to haunt her. She approached her friends and former acquaintances with letters and phone calls asking them not to co-operate with any press profiles or programmes on television or the media," a friend said.

Ms Noble by this time had parted, some say acrimoniously, from Tarrant and transferred to Heart 106.2 FM on a pounds 100,000 salary.

Ms Rhys-Jones' former employer Brian MacLaurin said yesterday: "As recently as two months ago Kara Noble gave Sophie Rhys-Jones a personal guarantee that this picture, taken in private among friends, would not find its way into the public domain."

Ironically it was Chris Tarrant who finally confirmed their existence. Asked about them by The Sun in March, he replied: "Sophie shouldn't worry too much. From what I recall it isn't exactly X-rated stuff."

Ms Noble's Portobello home was promptly besieged by reporters, offering big money for the picture. It was at this point that Heart 106.2 FM stepped in. Keen to protect Ms Noble as well as Miss Rhys-Jones, who had not only opened the station but was actively involved in its promotion, they offered to buy the offending print in return for a few hundred pounds to charity.

"The tabloids were camping out outside Kara's home so we offered her a nominal sum for the pictures. We were going to transfer them to Sophie," said Jo-Anna Milloy, a Heart spokeswoman. Ms Noble turned down the offer.

Yesterday a Sun insider insisted the paper had been competing against a pounds 50,000 bid from the News of the World as well as similar approaches from the Daily Mail and the Mirror. All yesterday denied involvement in the bidding. Eventually, Sue Evison, one of The Sun's most senior journalists, won the prize for a smaller sum.

Under the banner headline Sophie Topless, the tabloid placed the surprisingly inoffensive picture on its symbolic Page Three. More than just another royal exclusive, for Sophie Rhys-Jones it was the end of her honeymoon with the press, before the wedding had even taken place.

If there was one thing she must have learnt from the late Diana, Princess of Wales, it is that no matter how much savvy you develop, you are no match for the might of the tabloids.

The swift handling of the affair, in fact, shows that Miss Rhys-Jones - a woman who has stood straight faced besides Mr Blobby and spent years dealing with Britain's media - has not lost her touch. In the end it was Ms Noble who suffered the brunt of the backlash.

Her former colleague, Chris Tarrant, issued an angry statement on his show saying: "How will you ever be able to look Sophie in the face again?". Her co-presenter Jonathan "Jono" Coleman added he was "disappointed and shocked". She was sacked by Heart for "bringing the station into disrepute."

The Sun's rivals were yesterday congratulating themselves for the scoop they hadn't run. Robin Esser, executive director of the Daily Mail, said: "Obviously everyone knew about them but he would never publish a picture of this nature in the Daily Mail."

The Cast

Chris Tarrant:

One of the highest paid presenters in broad- casting. Famous for his irreverent morning show on Capital Radio, hosted the popular Who Wants To Be A Millionaire show on ITV.

Kara Noble: Became Chris Tarrant's weather girl in 1987. Walked out and joined Heart 106.2FM on a reputed pounds 100,000 per year salary.

David Yelland: Sun editor from 1998. Front pages included William Hague as a dead parrot, and Tony Blair "the most dangerous man in Europe".

Prince Edward: Apparently had known of the photos, taken before he and Sophie met.