The naked Prince Harry affair - how unlike the life of a truly free press

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 4:21am

Amid the froth of reports about a naked prince playing billiards with a naked woman in Las Vegas is a reminder of one of the grimmest days in Britain's history.

This week's decision by British newspapers to heed the warning of palace flunkeys against publishing the offending photos was not their finest moment. Only The Sun published something on the day, but by using two of its employees to recreate the moment. One of the stand-ins was an intern, which is more dishonourable than defying the royal family. Imagine - obliging a young woman to be photographed naked if she wants to know what's good for her career. I wonder what her family thinks about that. Be assured it's certainly not how we treat the interns on this newspaper.

The decision not to publish the originals when the pictures were already all over the internet seems like a knee-jerk throwback to the early 1930s, when the Prince of Wales began an affair with a 34-year-old married American. Over the next few years, as we now know, Mrs Ernest Simpson consolidated her hold on the prince's attentions, and the affair continued until after his coronation in June 1936.

Newspaper staff were "ordered on pain of dismissal not to write or print anything that would alert the public to what was going on", as John Simpson writes in his excellent study, Unreliable Sources. However, readers abroad, particularly those in the US, knew exactly what was going on and were not at all surprised by the constitutional crisis that took Britons by surprise just at the time when another world war was looming on the horizon. Simpson's chapter on this episode is titled "Abdication", but I bet it refers to the manner in which an ostensibly free press dealt with its responsibilities, rather than the king's decision to call it quits.

Alex Lo is on leave