John O'Farrell: The internet rushes in where the tabloids now fear to tread

When the print media are on the defensive, editors need to pick their fights very carefully

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I am looking forward to the Royal Doulton figurine. "In exquisite hand-painted porcelain, our craftsmen have lovingly re-created the famous image of Prince Harry in the buff, embracing some naked bint he'd just met in a Vegas hotel." Only The Sun will run adverts for the statuette. Everyone else will have to seek it out on the internet.

This week could turn out to be a pivotal moment in the troubled story of our newspapers, as they compete against the instant and unregulated free-for-all of the net. A couple of years ago, the blurred images of a naked prince "cavorting" and "romping" (sorry, these verbs are compulsory) would have been plastered all over every tabloid. But post-Leveson, no paper chose (or dared) to publish them. Only a day and a half after everyone had seen the pictures online did The Sun decide to make a moral stand on the principle of "press freedom" and "the public interest". If you thought Prince Harry's buttocks were an unpleasant sight, they were nowhere near as distasteful as the bare-faced cheek of The Sun's managing editor, exposed for all to see as a naked hypocrite, as he romped from studio to studio, claiming that he was giving his readers "the opportunity to join the debate". At least Prince Harry kept his balls to himself.

What was almost more cringeworthy was the parade of royal apologists, emphasising that these sorts of larks are completely normal for a young man like Harry. I mean, who can honestly say that they haven't at some time or other played naked billiards with a group of young female strangers in a $5,000-a-night Las Vegas hotel room? Which of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that when we were 27, we didn't splash around in the swimming pool of a Vegas nightclub and then invite lots of young girls in bikinis up to our room for naked drinking games?

The point here is that Prince Harry has been incredibly unlucky. What were the chances of one of those strangers having a mobile phone that cunningly hid a built-in secret camera? Why, it's like something out of James Bond! And then to be able to "upload" the snaps on to this new-fangled world-wide-web thing; the chances of that must be a million to one.

What did the royal minders think was going to happen when Prince Harry announced he fancied a break in Las Vegas? Did Charles think that his son was going to Vegas to study the city's famous organic farming communities and traditional architecture?

Prince Harry was said to be full of remorse as he returned home to explain himself. "It seems I can't win; I'm in trouble when I'm naked. I'm in trouble when I'm clothed."

"Yes, but that was a Nazi uniform, Harry."

I have to confess that I struggle to join the supportive chuckles about the healthy fun that this wonderful, red-blooded young man thoroughly deserves after all the hard work he did watching the Olympics from the best seats. First, he is 27, not 19; and second, it is quite possible that Harry could be our head of state one day. The Queen's father was a younger brother, as was the last Henry to be king. Did Princess Margaret ever get drunk and embarrass the Royal Family? OK, bad example, but if we are going to continue having a monarchy (which is a big "if"), it sort of depends on the main players carrying themselves with a certain amount of dignity.

And I would tentatively suggest that the photo on the front page of yesterday's Sun was not the best way for Harry to stop his grandfather from being sent straight back to hospital. Unless, of course, the whole thing was an elaborate stunt to try to get naked billiards recognised as a new Olympic sport. That would put beach volleyball in the shade.

In Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2, the shocking behaviour of the wayward Prince Hal is a source of great worry to his ageing father. "Tell me else, could such low desires… such bare, such lewd, such barren pleasures… Accompany the greatness of thy blood/And hold their level with thy princely heart?" he asks. "And verily, was thou so pissed that thou forgot about mobile phones and the bloody internet?"

Most British newspapers made the judgement that because the photos were taken in a private room without the knowledge of the subject, then the privacy of that individual should be respected. They made the important distinction between the public interest and stuff the public is interested in. That is a positive step forward from the days when his brother's phone was hacked or his mother was snapped by a hidden camera in her private gym. But 36 hours after being put on hold to Rupert Murdoch's office, The Sun finally got permission to print and be damned.

They did so in defiance of the PCC and a plea for privacy from St James's Palace at the very time when Lord Justice Leveson was writing his report. And for what? A fantastically spurious argument about press freedom. Yes, the right to see Prince Harry's arse in print when you have already seen it on your computer surely represents one of the fundamental liberties upon which democracy is built. They also adopted the perverse stance that they had a duty to publish the pictures precisely because they were already so easily available on the web. Well, so are race-hate sites and hard-core pornography but you don't see that in The Sun. The Daily Star, maybe.

At a time when the print media are on the defensive, editors need to pick their fights very carefully. The Sun betrayed the collective responsibility of the press for a privacy not worth exposing. Real press freedoms might be lost because one paper was so cavalier.

But by printing the pictures so long after they had been widely circulated on the internet, The Sun was also demonstrating the tabloids' helplessness against the new medium that's rapidly replacing them. In the 21st century, a funny picture or a bit of salacious gossip is tweeted around the world before the editor of The Sun has even arrived at the office. So if newspapers are to have a future, they will have to offer something that cannot be accessed for free on the web. Maybe we will need to trust them and respect them and value their considered analysis and expertise. The Sun is not the model that springs to mind. News International made its millions selling us stuff we can now get for free elsewhere. Prince Harry might be naked on the front of his newspaper, but Rupert Murdoch is now the emperor who has no clothes.

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