Richard Desmond, the British newspaper owner, announced last night that he was taking steps to close the joint venture that runs the Irish Daily Star, after the newspaper published pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge sunbathing topless.
Mr Desmond made the surprise announcement when the Irish newspaper, which he part owns, became the second publication to run the images, after the French magazine Closer.
"I am very angry at the decision to publish the photographs and am taking immediate steps to close the joint venture," Mr Desmond said. "The decision to publish these pictures has no justification whatever and Northern & Shell condemns it in the strongest possible terms."
This sudden move was believed to be an attempt to protect himself and his British newspapers from any commercial damage.
Mr Desmond's partners in the paper, the Irish newspaper group Independent News and Media (INM), said the decision to republish the pictures was "regrettable and in poor taste". A spokesman for INM "had no prior knowledge of the decision to publish".
On Friday, a spokesman for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge said the couple are to sue the French celebrity magazine for a "grotesque and totally unjustifiable breach of privacy".
The decision by the Irish paper to risk legal action came as Chi, an Italian magazine owned, like Closer, by Silvio Berlusconi, announced its intention to run 26 pages of pictures tomorrow. The willingness of publications to risk breaking editorial codes of conduct, and even the law, exposes the calculated commercial decision being taken in newsrooms: that revenues generated by printing the pictures will outweigh the cost of any legal reparations.
A royal spokesman condemned the Irish Daily Star's decision, saying: "There can be no motivation for this action other than greed." However, she declined to say whether the royal couple will take further legal action against any other publication that runs the images. "We will not be commenting on potential legal action ... save to say that all proportionate responses will be kept under review. Any such publication would serve no purpose other than to cause further, entirely unjustifiable upset to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge."
Gareth Morgan, the editor of Mr Desmond's UK Daily Star Sunday, moved quickly to quash fears his paper might also publish the images. "This decision has no merit morally," he said. "We have no involvement. They've made a frankly horrible decision."
But Mike O'Kane, the editor of the Irish Daily Star, said he was "taken aback" by the reaction. "The duchess would be no different to any other celeb pics we would get in, for example Rihanna or Lady Gaga," he said. "She's not the future queen of Ireland so really the only place this is causing fury seems to be in the UK."
The decision strikes at the heart of the dilemma that Lord Leveson currently faces: the difference between the public interest and what is of interest to the public. On Friday there had been 2 million Google searches for Kate Middleton in the US alone, underlining the enormous public interest in the images.
"Of course people are going to be interested in this," said Mr O'Kane. "She's married into the Royal Family, she's one of the most photographed people in the world, and she decides to partially disrobe on a balcony where it can be seen from a public road and she's stunned now, or the palace are annoyed, that people are interested in this."
Séamus Dooley, the Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, expressed concern for the employees of the Irish Daily Star. He said the Desmond announcement had stunned Irish staff and readers. "The Irish Daily Star has always been marketed as an Irish title free of UK interference in editorial matters. The editor took a controversial decision on this issue just as he and his predecessors have done in the past, without reference to the owners. I do not understand why this particular decision is being treated any differently.
Ingrid Seward, the editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine, also appeared to blame the duchess for bringing the scandal upon herself by posing topless within zoom-lens range of a public road. "Quite simply, this ghastly situation should never have happened," she wrote. "And only two people could have stopped it. The Duke and Duchess themselves."
Some questioned whether royal protection officers were to blame, asking how a paparazzo could have got so close to the future king and queen. Ken Wharfe, a former bodyguard of Diana, Princess of Wales, said: "If a photographer can poke a lens through some greenery and take these type of pictures then a gunman with a high-powered weapon and telescopic sight could have done far worse." The vantage point on the public road from which the images are thought to have been taken is at least 1,000 yards from the villa's swimming pool terrace.
The publication of the images has dredged up memories of the duke's mother, who was hounded by photographers. The 2008 inquiry into her death in a car crash in Paris found she had been unlawfully killed due to the behaviour of paparazzi. After her death in 1997, British newspapers agreed to respect the privacy of the young princes. However, some editors now argue that the growth of the internet means it's unrealistic for them not to publish what their readers can look up with seconds. The Royal Family rarely takes legal action over libel or press intrusion, and the announcement they are to on this occasion shows the extent of the young couple's fury and upset. Sir Christopher Meyer, a former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, said they had no choice but to sue so as to deter others.
Additional reporting by Sam Creighton and Chloe Hamilton
Royals and the lens
The publication of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge in France is the latest in a depressingly long history of similar stories.
Twenty years ago, Sarah Ferguson was pictured lying topless on a sun-lounger in France having her toes sucked by her Texan financial adviser, John Bryan.
The images ended up in Paris Match, and the duchess sued, winning an £84,000 payout. In 1994, Prince Charles suffered a similar ignominy, when he was pictured naked at the window of a room in a friend's chateau near Avignon after a swim, a towelling robe thrown over his shoulder.
Then there were the pictures of Princess Diana kissing Dodi Fayed during a holiday in France in 1997. Princess Margaret memorably took a dim view of royals who were caught in embarrassing positions by paparazzi, saying: "We've got plenty of houses. If you don't want to be seen and photographed, you don't have to be."