By Stephen Mangan and Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch's Sun tabloid on Friday became the first British newspaper to defy the royal family by printing pictures of Prince Harry cavorting naked in Las Vegas, stoking a debate about what papers can print in the name of press freedom.
While newspapers across the globe have published the images of Queen Elizabeth's grandson naked with an unnamed woman after they appeared on a U.S. gossip website on Wednesday, the British media had decided not to do so until this point.
Instead they had agreed to comply, some more reluctantly than others, with a request from lawyers acting for the royal family to respect the privacy of the prince, who is 27 and single.
But the Sun decided to break ranks on Friday, publishing a photo over much of its front page of the naked prince covering his genitals with his hands while an unclothed woman hides behind his back in his Las Vegas hotel room.
The top-selling tabloid, part of the British arm of Murdoch's News Corp, said the grainy pictures were freely available on the Internet and the issue had become one of "the freedom of the press".
"This is about the ludicrous situation where a picture can be seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world on the Internet but can't be seen in the nation's favorite paper," said David Dinsmore, managing editor of the Sun.
Since the pictures appeared on the TMZ website, British papers and broadcasters have been grappling with the question of whether to print the photos, taken during the prince's private holiday while on leave from his job as an army helicopter pilot.
In its TV news bulletins, the BBC showed the Sun's front page with the photo blacked out, as did Sky TV's website, while the Times website pixilated Harry's picture.
Harry's office had contacted the Press Complaints Commission, the industry's self-regulatory body, to advise that printing the grainy pictures would intrude on the prince's privacy, in breach of the editors' code of practice.
Commentators said British newspapers, their reputations severely damaged by a phone-hacking scandal centered on Murdoch's News of the World tabloid and by a subsequent judicial inquiry into press ethics, had been too scared to ignore that view.
Kelvin MacKenzie, a former editor of the Sun, said Murdoch himself would have had to approve the decision to change tack.
The media tycoon, who shut the News of the World over revelations staff had illegally accessed voicemails of celebrities, politicians and crime victims, has seen his own reputation tarnished and has been ostracized by leading British politicians who once courted his favor.
"A picture like that can't have been published without Rupert Murdoch getting involved," MacKenzie told BBC TV.
"The issues are too large and too controversial and I salute Rupert for not being cowed by, effectively, the establishment."
The Sun said that as Harry is third in line to the throne, there was a genuine public interest in publishing the photos as they raised questions about his security and his personal image, a view backed by some arguing for the rights of a free press.
Critics said that was a thin excuse and the paper was trying to make money at an individual's expense, echoing similar claims that have been made repeatedly at the public inquiry.
"Ultimately profit took precedence over good taste," said Mark Lewis, a lawyer who represents the family of Milly Dowler, a murdered schoolgirl whose phone was hacked by News of the World journalists.
"The photos are to sell more papers - any pretence at a debate on press freedom is humbug. Lots of images are on the internet that don't get in the papers."
Chris Blackhurst, editor of the broadsheet Independent, said his decision not to publish the photos was not based on royal pressure or because of fallout from the judicial inquiry led by judge Brian Leveson.
"The idea that there's a public interest is really spurious," he told BBC radio. "Frankly, what danger was he in? They weren't wearing any clothes, nobody's carrying any weapons, the whole thing's ludicrous."
A spokeswoman for Harry - younger son of heir to the throne Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana - said they had made their views on the prince's privacy clear and it was ultimately a decision for editors.
She refused to say whether any official complaint would be made to the PCC.
Such a move would pile pressure on the regulator, strongly criticized over its failure to address the phone-hacking scandal and facing reform or even abolition when Leveson gives his recommendations in the next few months.
(Additional reporting and writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Tim Pearce)