Pictures of Prince Harry naked in a hotel room in Las Vegas have harked back to the days when he was seen more often emerging disheveled from nightclubs than behaving with decorum at official functions.
But thanks to a media fearful of ethical scrutiny and a public enamored of Harry's emergence as one of the royal family’s most valuable assets – dedicated, hard working, with an easygoing charm – the British reaction to Harry's redux of his "playboy prince" youth has been comparatively muted.
The two grainy images of Harry, almost certainly taken on a camera phone on Aug. 17, perhaps by a member of the prince’s entourage, first appeared on Los Angeles-based gossip website TMZ, before spreading to a number of other websites and newspapers.
According to TMZ, Harry and his friends had invited unidentified women from the hotel bar up to their VIP suite, where they played a strip game at a pool table.
“It’s a dichotomy of an image: One minute he’s looking smart next to the Queen, the next he’s naked in a hotel suite,” says Robert Jobson, author of the prince’s biography, Harry’s War.
“I think he’s been a bit let down by his security detail and he should have been more cautious. But that’s the kind of guy he is: a trusting, gregarious, open kind of chap.”
He added that as Prince Harry, third in line to the throne, grew older the British public’s toleration of such behavior would diminish. “No one begrudges a young, single guy a bit of fun, especially before deployment, but he’s pushing thirty now and he does have responsibilities.”
Harry is due to be deployed in Afghanistan later this year.
A more restricted press?
The story has hit the headlines in Britain, causing the usual interest and mirth among the British public. But following a warning by St. James’s Palace to the Press Complaints Commission that publication of the pictures would intrude upon the prince’s privacy – constituting a breach of the editors’ code of practice – tabloids here have desisted from printing the pictures themselves, great though that temptation must be.
Tabloid journalists, however, have been quick to suggest that it was no code of ethics but rather a move towards press restrictions that has deprived British papers of the lucrative front-page shots.
Former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis told the BBC’s Newsnight program last night that the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and practices had “neutered” the media and that had the inquiry not taken place, he would have published the pictures.
“The situation is fun. It's a good, classic newspaper situation,” he said.
"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 newspaper, would think ‘that's a bit of a laugh.’ There would be no harm done and they would not think any worse of either the paper or of Prince Harry."
Prince Harry impressed many with his insistence upon serving in Afghanistan, despite security concerns, making him the first royal in a quarter of a century to serve in a war zone. Since he returned, he has retrained as a pilot skillful enough to fly the military’s most powerful attack helicopter, the Apache.
Earlier this year he showed he possessed some diplomatic skill – and a lot of charm – on his first official foreign tour on behalf of the Queen. Later, he was asked to become an official Olympic Team GB Ambassador. He stood in for the Queen at the closing ceremony of the London Games in front of an audience of billions.
His charity work has also earned him some kudos. In May, he received the Atlantic Council's 2012 award for distinguished humanitarian leadership, in recognition of his charitable work supporting service personnel.
But what really makes Prince Harry popular with the British public is his warm, easygoing manner and sense of fun. Prince Harry has raced against Usain Bolt and this week challenged Olympian Ryan Lochte to a swimming match. He is happy to dance and sing at the drop of a hat, and has an easy rapport with people from all backgrounds.
Which is why this latest escapade, embarrassing though it will be in the short-term, probably won’t do his reputation any lasting damage.
The British have a fondness for life-and-and-soul-of-the-party bad boys. Playing strip billiards at an expensive hotel is – unfortunately or not – what Britain has come to expect of its rich kids. And the tradition of debauched male royals is centuries-long.
“I don’t think it will damage his reputation”, says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. “I think the army will give him a rap over the knuckles for behaving like an overpaid footballer, but I don’t think it will do him any harm at all.”