Media mogul claims lack of free press in UK to justify publishing Las Vegas photographs freely available on the internet
Rupert Murdoch has defended the decision of the Sun to publish pictures of a naked Prince Harry in Las Vegas, saying it was necessary to make a point about the lack of “free press” in Britain.
His comments were made on Twitter, as the row over the pictures, published on Friday, continued to escalate with an intervention from the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who said the Sun was wrong to publish.
Murdoch, however, believes the British blackout was a mistake in light of widespread availability of the images on the internet and in international newspapers and told his Twitter followers the paper had to take a stance.
Showing no signs of retreating from a dust-up with regulators in Britain, the media mogul tweeted : “Needed to demonstrate no such thing as free press in the UK. Internet makes mockery of these issues. 1st amendment please.“
But he later urged people to give Prince Harry “a break” over his antics in Las Vegas. “Prince Harry. Give him a break. He may be on the public payroll one way or another, but the public loves him, even to enjoy Las Vegas.”
Murdoch made his stance public after more than 850 complaints were made to the Press Complaints Commission on Friday about an alleged invasion of privacy.
Publication of the images will be seen as a bid to re-establish the Sun’s brand as a brash paper which will dare to take on the establishment despite the threat of statutory regulation from the Leveson inquiry into press ethics.
The Sun’s decision to publish was widely seen as a defiant act, coming just 48 hours after Prince Charles’s personal solicitors, Harbottle & Lewis, issued a letter to newspapers warning them there was no justification for publication in English law.
Initially the paper had complied with Prince Charles’s wishes and on Thursday it got its features picture editor and an intern to strip off and pose in a mocked-up photo of the prince and the unknown woman with him in the Las Vegas hotel room.
On Friday it did an about-turn, claiming the fact that the pictures were widely available on the internet made a mockery of British papers.It claimed the Palace was trying to “muzzle” the British press and there was a “clear public interest” in publishing the photographs “in order for the debate around them to be fully informed”.
Hunt said he did not believe the Sun was acting in the public interest but said it wasn’t his place to tell editors what to do. Speaking to BBC News, he said: “Personally I cannot see what the public interest was in publishing those.
“But we have a free press and I don’t think it is right for politicians to tell newspaper editors what they can and cannot publish. That must be a matter for the newspaper editors.
“I just hope that people won’t remember this, but they will remember the amazing good work that Prince Harry has done.”
He added: “We can agree with what someone like Mr Murdoch does or you can disagree with it. But in the end it is not for politicians to tell editors what to publish. As I understand it even Buckingham Palace have said that editors have a right to publish what they want to and that is a matter for editors.”
The publication comes at a sensitive time, ahead of what is expected to be a highly critical report by Lord Justice Leveson into press ethics following the public inquiry which was launched following the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World.
Journalists on the Sun and other tabloids believe Leveson has already had a taming effect on the British media and say if the News of the World was still around it would have served up as many titillating pictures of Harry as possible for Sunday breakfasts.
News International has refused to comment on the speculation that Murdoch personally sanctioned publication but insiders say executives wanted to fire a warning shot across Leveson’s bows.
One executive said if it hadn’t published the photos, the “line in the sand would be drawn in the wrong place” in terms of the boundaries of privacy.
Sources at the Leveson inquiry say Lord Justice Leveson will have noted the issues surrounding publication but it was “unlikely” that the appeals court judge would be summoning anyone from the paper to explain themselves.
There has been mixed reaction to the publication of the pictures – the Daily Mail published an editorial in full support of the paper even though it decided against publication itself.
However, media lawyers are less convinced. Christopher Hutchings of Hamlins law firm said the Sun’s decision was commercially motivated. “It has calculated that the risk of legal action and financial penalties is outweighed by the increase in circulation which will be generated by publication,” he said.
Louise Mensch, the soon-to-quit Tory MP and a supporter of Rupert Murdoch, has said the publication was in the public interest as Prince Harry receives money from the civil list and his royal protection squad are funded by the taxpayer.
Opposing publication, Lord Prescott attacked the Sun for publishing the pictures, saying it proved that self-regulation of the press is dead.