LONDON – The prince has no clothes — but most British newspapers aren't running the pictures.
The country's scandal-loving tabloids devoted many pages Thursday to the story of Prince Harry's naked romp in a Las Vegas hotel suite.
While all initially heeded a warning from royal officials that printing the images would infringe on the prince's privacy, The Sun tabloid said late Thursday it would publish the images in Friday's edition — making it the first British paper to put a naked Harry on display.
The pictures will run with the headline "Heir it is!"
The Sun, Britain's bestselling daily paper, had creatively avoided splashing a naked Harry on its Thursday front page by getting a staff member named Harry and a 21-year-old female intern to recreate the naked pose under the headline "Harry grabs the crown jewels."
The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid said it had decided to run the images because the issue has become about freedom of the press.
"We've thought long and hard about this," managing editor David Dinsmore said, adding that the paper works closely with the royal family and takes heed of their wishes.
Dinsmore said the decision isn't because the paper is against Harry "letting his hair down."
"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."
Ireland's Evening Herald ran the stark-naked prince on its front page Thursday, but the British newspapers had made do with pictures of holiday Harry in bathing trunks and fedora hat.
Bob Satchwell, head of industry group the Society of Editors, said papers were merely complying with editors' voluntary Code of Practice, which declares "it is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent."
But other media-watchers said a scandal that erupted a year ago over phone-hacking and other tabloid wrongdoing had tamed Britain's once-rambunctious press.
Newspapers were exposed to a trial of public opinion as Judge Brian Leveson's media ethics inquiry heard from celebrities, politicians and crime victims who said their lives had been turned upside down by press intrusion.
The scandal has killed one tabloid, the News of the World — shut down by owner Rupert Murdoch after revelations about its illegal eavesdropping — and tarnished the entire British media.
With the inquiry considering whether to impose stricter limits on press freedom, many feel the tabloids are staying away from kiss-and-tells and celebrity scoops that they once would have relished.
Neil Wallis, a former News of the World executive editor, said fallout from the hacking scandal had left newspapers "terrified of their own shadow."
"In this post-Leveson era ... they daren't do things that most of the country, if they saw it in the newspaper, would think 'that's a bit of a laugh,'" Wallis told the BBC.
While newspapers including The Sun and the Daily Mirror proclaimed that the naked photos had been "banned," that is not strictly true.
Several media organizations around the world ran the two naked photos of the prince, which are being sold, according to British media reports, for about 10,000 pounds ($16,000).
British outlets refrained, after receiving a warning Wednesday from palace officials.
Prince Harry's office confirmed it had contacted the Press Complaints Commission, an industry watchdog, which in turn advised newspapers not to publish the pictures.
Any paper that ran them risks being chastised by the commission, which can demand a newspaper publish an apology, but has no power to issue fines.
They could also potentially be open to an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit from the prince.
A letter to the watchdog from royal law firm Harbottle and Lewis warned that royal officials "entirely reserve their rights as to any future steps that they may take should publication take place."
Once, editors might have risked it, arguing that publishing the images was in the public interest because Harry is a public — and publicly funded — figure.
Satchwell acknowledged there was a risk Leveson's inquiry could chill press freedom. But he said newspapers were simply behaving responsibly over Harry.
"Of course freedom of the press is vitally, vitally important," he said. "But just because you can publish something doesn't mean that you should."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless