Some commentators suggest Prince Harry's Jack-the-Lad image means the latest scandal will do him little or no harm.

Story highlights

Publication of naked photos of Britain's Prince Harry leave UK media in a quandary

Scandal-hit newspapers are wary of sailing too close to the wind after Leveson Inquiry

"Unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places": Editor's code of conduct

Pictures are widely available on the internet, but UK papers have yet to publish them

London CNN  — 

From movie stars and business moguls to politicians and pop stars, the British press has never shied away from picturing famous figures in compromising positions.

Until now, that is.

Once upon a time, grainy shots of celebrities flashing their birthday suits or falling out of skimpy outfits were the stock-in trade of titles like The Sun and The Daily Mail.

And the royal family was by no means immune: Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, have all been caught up in tabloid scandals – with or without embarrassing photos to accompany them – in the past.

But offered the chance to splash images of Prince Harry cavorting in the nude with a naked woman during a trip to Las Vegas across their front pages this week, the UK’s papers have hesitated, apparently genuinely puzzled as to whether to “publish and be damned.”

So what has changed?

The British media landscape has altered beyond recognition since the death of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, killed in a car crash as she fled a crowd of photographers in Paris 15 years ago.

The shock of that accident provoked an immediate backlash against both the paparazzi, and the tabloids that bought their pictures. But its impact was not a lasting one: Within months, the papers were back to their old tricks, and the punters were happy to pay for them.

Photos of naked Prince Harry published

The real watershed has come in the last 18 months, with the discovery of the full scale of the phone-hacking scandal (initially revealed by the hacking of Prince William and Prince Harry’s mobile phones), which forced the closure of the News of the World, and prompted the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Following months of evidence detailing the dirty tricks and devastation wrought by some members of the gutter press, Lord Leveson is currently deciding whether to recommend new rules and regulations, governing the conduct of the UK media. Until his report is ready, analysts believe, editors simply don’t want to upset the applecart.

Anonymous Fleet Street columnist Fleet Street Fox wrote in her blog that newspapers have been “painted into a corner, with one eye on their budgets which mean they need to avoid unnecessary court costs, and another on the line they don’t want to cross before that report is written, just in case they make things any worse.”

Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of The Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, tweeted that the pictures were the “perfect example of how #Leveson has cowed our media… Rest of world discussing pix no-one dares show you here.”

In a blog for the Huffington Post, Wallis said the dilemma over whether to use the Prince Harry photographs was “nothing to do with journalistic merit, nothing to do with the merits of the story, nothing to do with legal issues, nothing even to do with journalistic ethics…

“The decisions are being reached on the basis of: ‘What will Lord Leveson think?’ And that is shocking, it is outrageous, it is a disgraceful affront to free speech.”

Political blogger Guido Fawkes – whose site was one of the few in the UK to run the pictures in defiance of requests from the palace – wrote that “the old media have been scared into submission by the Leveson Inquiry.”

Much of the debate over whether to run the pictures or not centers on the question of privacy: Despite his very public role, Prince Harry was on a private visit to the U.S., and the photographs were taken in his hotel suite.

Pending any changes in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, British newspaper editors are bound by the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice, which insists that “everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life,” and that “it is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent.”

There is a get-out clause, in the shape of exceptions for cases “in the public interest.”

In the past, the fact that the prince was supposed to be being watched over by a very large and very expensive security team at the time the pictures were taken would certainly have been enough to ensure their publication.

Royal correspondent Robert Jobson said that team of minders had questions to answer: “Why didn’t royal bodyguards ask anyone going into Harry’s suite to handover their phones for security,” he tweeted. “Would prevent all this.”

But long-time royal expert Dickie Arbiter said both Prince Harry and his entourage should have known they could not expect what went on in Vegas to stay in Vegas.

“Privacy when you’re Prince Harry and globe-trotting doesn’t exist,” he tweeted. “It was a private trip but he’s a loose canon [sic] and shouldn’t be left alone.”

Embarrassing pics could harm a soldier’s career several ways

Some commentators also suggest part of the reason for the British media’s hesitation is the fact that, in the wake of a series of good news stories including the Diamond Jubilee, the royals’ stock is higher now than it has been in decades.

Writing in the New Statesman, Steven Baxter claimed the papers were refusing to use the pictures not out of “fear of regulators but fear of their own readers,” adding that Prince Harry and his kin “are celebrities, like others, but untouchable ones.”

And Jules Stenson, former features editor of the News of the World, said Harry’s popularity – which endures largely because of his Jack-the-Lad image, not in spite of it – means he is unlikely to suffer any lasting damage from the incident.

“Public love Harry & we shouldn’t forget his bravery in serving,” Stenson tweeted. “But big gaffe. We’ll forgive him cos we like him & he puts his life on line for us (albeit in [a] protected way).”

Whether or not the UK tabloids decide to publish the photos in their print editions, the fact remains that they are freely available – anyone who wants to see them simply needs to search the internet.

The old rules no longer apply, and how Britain’s “old media” deal with this challenge may set the tone for a long time to come.

A tale of two brothers

As journalist and royal watcher Phil Dampier tweeted: “The whole world will be seeing - and laughing at these pictures - so will British papers run them? This is a massive watershed moment, both for the royals and the British press post phone hacking scandal.”

It seems the front covers of Thursday’s papers may show the direction that Fleet Street is heading in – even if they don’t reveal the bare buttocks of a British royal.

Read more: Nude Harry photos: How tabloids lost their sting