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22 August 2012

Readers are the real reason British papers won’t publish the naked Prince Harry photos

The stock of the royal family is at such a high that newspapers fear a reader backlash more than the regulators.

By Steven Baxter

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Now, thanks to the miracle of modern connectivity, we can have a peep at Prince Harry’s dangly bits from the comfort of our own laptops, should we so desire.

The justification for the photos – has the Prince embarrassed his family, by playing “strip billards”? How many other soldiers get a couple of months off to watch the Olympics then swan around whale suites in Las Vegas? What is strip billiards anyway? – is a figleaf no better than the cupped hands of the Prince himself as he struggles to contain his dignity.

The simple truth is, the blurry phone photos of Harry’s shame make money because we’re curious. Nothing more, nothing less. There might be pubic interest, but no public interest. Ahem.

One man who will be able to sympathise with Harry Windsor is his old chap, the Prince of Wales. For back in 1994, it was Prince Charles who’d been snapped letting his heir down (ho ho) by a paparazzo with a long lens. Described as “hunky” and “like Michelangelo’s David”, the Prince came out of the affair with his reputation unsullied, and if anything, enhanced.

The grainy photos were published in German tabloid Bild first, but made it across to Britain, where a a strategically placed set of, er, crown jewels, spared Chuck’s blushes. You can still find them with a couple of clicks today, though I’d have a long think if you’re going to leave that search history on your work PC.

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Those were different times, though: the royals were in a slump of popularity; long-lens photos were seen as fair game, in the wake of the “toe-sucking” shots that had embarrassed the former Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson; and, perhaps most importantly, Princess Diana was yet to be killed after fleeing photographers in Paris.

Now, it’s not the verminous paparazzi who are most likely to obtain a nudey scoop but friends and hangers-on taking surreptitious snaps using camera phones – or even the subjects themselves unwisely leaving risqué photos on their hardware, as Christina Hendricks and Scarlett Johannson have recently discovered.

In a post-hacking media landscape, how will the tabloids react to the opportunity to show off very nearly all of the nation’s favourite red-top? So far, no-one has blinked. They’ve all mentioned the pictures, but they’ve been coy about showing them, even with strategically placed billiard balls. No news website has even dared link to TMZ.

Perhaps it has something to do with the Leveson Inquiry. The statement of the Mail’s online editor Martin Clarke, for example, says that operators like the Mail are going to struggle if they are hamstrung by a regulatory framework, while other sites (such as TMZ) aren’t. There could be a sense in which our “old news” dinosaurs are worried about the ramifications of publishing, whereas new media bloggers (for example, the one who promotes himself so much that I needn’t detain you by mentioning his name) can happily go ahead, publish and be damned.

I’d say, though, that if British papers did step back from publishing pictures of Harry in the buff, it wouldn’t be fear of regulators but fear of their own readers that might prevent them from doing so. The stock of the royal family is at a high, and young royals like Harry Windsor are more popular than ever before. They are celebrities, like others, but untouchable ones.

It might seem a brave new era, this world in which you can peek at a prince’s penis, but in reality it’s not so different from the world experienced by Harry’s dad. All that has changed is the popularity of the royal family – which might explain, better than any chilling effect of Leveson, why our old media are so coy about showing you the photos that everyone’s talking about.