LONDON – By letting his top-selling U.K. tabloid run photos of a naked Prince Harry cavorting in a Las Vegas hotel room, some say media mogul Rupert Murdoch was warning Britain's establishment that he could still shake things up.
British officialdom has largely turned its back on Murdoch because of the phone-hacking scandal that has badly tainted his media empire over the past year. So even though Murdoch's The Sun newspaper framed its decision to publish the nude pictures as a defense of press freedom, some observers saw the move as a feisty message from the tycoon.
"Not only was The Sun showing Harry's bottom, Murdoch was mooning the Establishment," said journalist Jane Merrick, whose article in The Independent on Sunday alleged that Murdoch personally ordered the paper to run the photos in a phone call with Tom Mockridge, the chief of his British newspaper unit, News International.
Murdoch, once assiduously courted by lawmakers across the British political spectrum, has seen his clout wither after his company was exposed as having hacked into the phones of hundreds of people to score scoops.
Allegations of bribery, corruption, computer hacking, and obstruction of justice are being investigated, and the scandal has prompted a judge-led media ethics inquiry that could propose sweeping changes to how Britain's press is policed — potentially subjecting newspapers to government regulation.
If The Sun was cowed, it didn't show it Friday, when it published the pictures of Harry along with a lengthy public interest justification claiming that the "the photos have potential implications for the Prince's image representing Britain around the world."
A picture of the unclad royal — clutching an unidentified woman — had already been bouncing back and forth across the Internet for the better part of two days. Newspapers around the world ran the pictures, but with the prominent exception of The Sun, British media largely held its fire.
News International has declined to comment on what role, if any, the 81-year-old Murdoch played in the decision to run the photos, but the mogul's Twitter posts suggested that, at the very least, he'd been following the issue closely.
In a message to a user who congratulated him on The Sun's challenge to the royal family, Murdoch said he "needed to demonstrate (that there is) no such thing as free press in UK."
"Internet makes mockery of these issues," he said, adding that Britain could use some First Amendment-style legislation.
But the mogul also extended an olive branch to the royals, telling his followers to give the prince "a break."
"He may be on the public payroll one way or another, but the public loves him," Murdoch wrote.