LONDON (Reuters) - Almost exactly 20 years ago, Sarah Ferguson, then wife of Britain’s Prince Andrew, was pictured topless on the front page of a British newspaper, having her toes sucked by a wealthy U.S. businessman by the pool of a French villa.
Ignoring any concerns about privacy, the Daily Mirror ran 18 paparazzi long-range photos of the Duchess of York, who was estranged from but still married to Queen Elizabeth’s second son, and other papers eagerly followed up with similar snaps.
Fast forward to the present day, and pictures of the queen’s grandson Prince Harry cavorting naked with a nude young woman appeared on a U.S. gossip website and subsequently across the world, with one notable exception - Britain.
Reeling from a judge-led inquiry into press ethics which has publicly revealed the “dark arts” of once-feared British tabloids, not one newspaper dared risk upsetting the authorities by printing the “private” photos of Harry.
Former editors and media commentators said the dissection of newspapers’ unsavory tactics, and evidence from those who said their lives had been ruined by them to Judge Brian Leveson and his team of lawyers, had effectively neutered the British press.
Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World Sunday tabloid, said he would have run the pictures of the third-in-line to the British throne before the inquiry, but not now.
“The problem is, in this post-Leveson era where newspapers are simply terrified of their own shadow, they daren’t do things that most of the country, if they saw it in the paper, would think ‘well that’s a bit of a laugh,’” he told BBC TV.
His old tabloid, Britain’s top-selling Sunday paper which thrived on stories of scandal and gossip about the royals, was closed last summer by Murdoch amid public anger that its journalists had hacked into the voicemails of people from celebrities to victims of crime.
The furor spurred Prime Minister David Cameron to launch the Leveson inquiry and many of the paper’s former staff now face criminal charges - Wallis himself is on police bail.
Brian Cathcart, professor of Journalism at Kingston University and a founder of the Hacked Off group which led the campaign for a judicial inquiry, said he was delighted the newspapers had not run the pictures.
But rather than a “Leveson Effect”, Cathcart said he would refer to it as the “Dowler Effect” in reference to the murdered schoolgirl whose phone was hacked by the News of the World, sparking the public outcry.
“One of the things that Dowler changed was the public started to think about what goes into these papers and what can be justified and what can’t,” he told Reuters, adding that he too thought the papers would have published the photos prior to the hacking scandal.
“The press code says it is unacceptable to take pictures of people in places where they have a legitimate expectation of privacy. And if it’s unacceptable to photograph someone, then it’s unacceptable to reproduce them.”
Unlike the Sarah Ferguson photos, secretly taken at distance, the pictures of Prince Harry were captured on a mobile phone by one of the guests he had invited up to his hotel suite at a Las Vegas hotel.
One grainy snap showed Harry, third in line to the British throne, covering up his genitals with his hands while an apparently naked woman hides behind his back. The other pictured the naked 27-year-old clinging to a nude woman from behind.
The story was splashed across the front pages of British papers, although none carried the photos first published by the TMZ website and now widely available on the internet after they spread like wildfire across social media sites.
Murdoch’s Sun tabloid came closest by carrying a mocked up photo using their features picture editor and an intern in place of Harry, son of heir-to-the throne Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, and the unnamed woman.
Others chose to focus on the determination of royal aides to stop publication of the photos by going to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the industry’s self-regulatory body.
“We sent a letter to the PCC pointing out that the pictures were taken in private in a private hotel room,” a spokeswoman for Harry said.
The Daily Mail seethed in its page one story: “Farcically, British websites, newspapers and television stations were prevented from reproducing them after Prince Charles instructed lawyers to threaten legal action for infringing Prince Harry’s privacy.”
The PCC said it had contacted editors with the concerns, something it said it did for individuals on a regular basis.
“It’s then up to editors themselves to exert judgement,” a PCC spokesman said. “There’s always been very good buy-in from the industry with complying with what’s been requested.”
In the old days, a newspaper might have ignored the PCC’s guidance, printed the pictures anyway and then dug in to defend the decision in court.
But with Leveson’s conclusions still up in the air, it’s a risk editors appear to have decided was no longer worth taking. Newspapers have pleaded with Leveson and the government that they will listen to the PCC in future and do not need a new regulator with stronger powers.
A columnist for the Daily Mirror, today far more cautious than its 1992 equivalent, said royal officials needed to be like the prince himself and “chill out”.
Royal author Robert Jobson, a journalist who wrote an account of Harry’s stint in Afghanistan, said Britons would start to wonder what was the point of a newspaper if it could not print what was freely available on the internet.
“If they’re not going to use (the pictures), you’re going to have to start questioning if people are going to stop buying them,” he told Reuters. “If you look at the sales figures, that’s what’s happening really.”
Justice Leveson will set out his plans for media regulation towards the end of the year and is likely to recommend even tougher guidelines and penalties.
As for Harry himself, he is now back in Britain awaiting deployment as an Apache helicopter pilot in the army.
“It is a testament to his sheer likeability that Britain will most likely greet his latest, literal revelations with a grin and an indulgent shrug,” the Times newspaper said in its editorial. “If he’s still naked at 50, things may be different.”
Additional reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Peter Graff