Analysis: Sun’s Prince Harry mockup was act of naked exploitation

No interns were harmed in the making of this image (via Shutterstock

The British press has gone big on Prince Harry and his Las Vegas indiscretions.

Harry’s actions, while rash, seem entirely in keeping with how former public-school Army officers behave on holiday. Given his royal status, perhaps it’s easy to understand the intense interest in seeing his crown jewels (a phrase that has surely been worn to threads this week).

But there is another story here that should be of real concern to the news industry. Before the Sun mustered the courage to defy the Palace in publishing the real snaps, which it finally did today, it splashed with a cheeky mock-up of the naked pictures. Hardly surprising, you might think, for the home of the Page 3 girl.

The Sun has a duty of care to its staff, and particularly to interns, and this extends to not encouraging young journalists to do things they might later regret.

Prince Harry was substituted for a dedicated Sun staffer – but cuddling up to him was Sophie Henderson, 21, currently an intern at the paper.

The Sun has denied that it pressured the young woman to pose in these shots. ‘There is no suggestion that she [Henderson] is in any way unhappy’ a spokeswoman told the Guardian. ‘It was a bit of harmless fun,’ she added.

But was it?

You can’t help wondering about the impact it might have on Sophie’s career prospects: while red-top editors may be impressed by such a gung-ho attitude, many newsrooms are more conservative places.

The Sun should not have asked her to strip, even if she was happy to do so. Even if it was her idea, in fact. And it’s not hard to imagine how hard it could be for an intern to say no to a mighty news editor. The Sun has a duty of care to its staff, and particularly to interns, and this extends to not encouraging young journalists to do things they might later regret.

The maltreatment of interns is a widespread phenomenon. But in the creative industries it finds its zenith.

Years ago I was asked by the BBC to research a possible film by the director Peter Kosminsky, charting how the newsroom culture of the British tabloid press corroded young reporters’ idealism.

I spoke to dozens of journalists about their early experiences in newsrooms. The picture that emerged was of a sad and desperate time. Competition to get a good gig is intense. Fine if you have a starred first from Cambridge, but most wannabe reporters have to just ‘suck it up’.

I heard of young women asked to pose in bikinis with snakes, or go on a health-damaging diet, or going on a blind date.

Two things emerged.

Without exception, none of them now viewed the things they had done in their first, tentative steps into reporting as noble. They were ashamed or embarrassed of having so clearly compromised their own integrity. Even if at the time they had rationalised it as ‘harmless fun’.

Second, they were all moulded by what they had done. Whether they were aware of it or not, they had let go of something when they accepted that first humiliation. It informed the things that followed.

And for those journalists, the slide into gutter practices that have tainted how many people view journalists – stealing photos of dead relatives from unguarded living rooms, or rooting through celebrities’ bins – started there. Of the journalists I interviewed, it was only the ones who had agreed to do whatever ridiculous thing was asked of them who had ended up using such tactics.

It was the journalists who had the courage to refuse who had more interesting and rewarding careers – as well as having emerged with their dignity intact.

Murdoch would have us believe he is profoundly humbled by the antics of the News of the World and to a lesser extent the Sun. And yet the deep-rooted culture of compromise in exchange for an eye-catching headline clearly lives on at News International. It was encouraged in its journalists from day one – and clearly still is.