London (CNN) -- Tabloid The Sun on Friday became the first mainstream British newspaper to publish photographs of a vacationing Prince Harry in the nude.
The pictures of the prince, showing him naked in a hotel suite while he was on vacation last week in Las Vegas, were widely available on the Internet after website TMZ published them Tuesday. But British newspapers initially declined to publish them.
The Sun's front page, headlined "Heir it is!" -- a play on Harry's status as third in line to the throne -- shows the 27-year-old prince naked except for a watch and necklace, protecting his modesty with his cupped hands.
A second image widely circulated online, which shows Harry hugging a woman from behind next to a pool table, both of them naked, is also printed in the paper, with a large crown superimposed across his bottom.
The newspaper defends its decision to go ahead with publishing the image as being in the interests of a free press.
"The Sun is NOT making any moral judgement about Harry's nude frolics with girls in a Las Vegas hotel. Far from it. He often sails close to the wind for a Royal - but he's 27, single and a soldier. We like him," the story reads.
"We are publishing the photos because we think Sun readers have a right to see them."
There is "a clear public interest" in making the image available to everyone, regardless of whether they have internet access, so they can join the debate on his behavior, the newspaper argues.
The tabloid is Britain's biggest daily paper in terms of circulation.
A spokeswoman for the Press Complaints Commission, the UK press watchdog, said that it had not yet received a complaint from the Palace in regards to The Sun's publication of the photographs.
Royal officials had urged the UK media not to breach the prince's privacy by publishing the pictures.
A spokeswoman for St. James' Palace said editors are at liberty to make their own decisions.
"We have made our views on Prince Harry's privacy known. Newspaper regulate themselves, so the publication of the photographs is ultimately a decision for editors to make," the palace said. "We have no further comment to make, either on the publication of the photos or on the story itself, concerning Prince Harry's private holiday in Las Vegas."
David Dinsmore, managing editor of The Sun, said Thursday that his group "thought long and hard about this," but ultimately decided to publish the images because news consumers could access them elsewhere.
"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 read by 8 million people every day," he said.
Dinsmore also said that The Sun is "a responsible paper and it works closely with the royal family" and that "we take heed of their wishes."
"We're also big fans of Prince Harry. He does a huge amount of work for this country and for the military and for the image of both of those institutions," Dinsmore said. "We are not against him letting his hair down once in a while. For us, this is about the freedom of the press."
Sky News' managing editor, Peter Lowe, wrote in a blog post Thursday that the satellite broadcaster, which is also part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. empire, did not intend to publish because it accepts that Harry "has a reasonable expectation of privacy" while in a hotel room on vacation.
"Clearly millions of people want to see what the third-in-line to the throne looks like in his birthday suit, judging by the clicks on the websites that are showing them," he writes.
"But just because people have a voyeuristic interest in looking at the pictures, it doesn't mean Sky News needs to show them either online or on TV.
"They serve no purpose for our audience and seeing the precise contours of the royal body exposed in all their glory is not in the public interest, even if the public is interested."
The BBC, Britain's publicly-funded broadcaster, also said it did not plan to publish the grainy images -- and it broadcast footage of The Sun's front page with the photo of the naked prince backed out.
"We decided at the very start that there was no public interest in showing the pictures," a spokesman said.
The hesitation to publish such photos, even those of royals, is somewhat new to British papers. Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, have all been caught up in tabloid scandals -- with or without embarrassing photos to accompany them.
But things changed in the past 18 months, with the discovery of the full scale of a media phone-hacking scandal. This forced the closure of the News of the World tabloid and prompted an inquiry into British press standards, led by Lord Justice Leveson.
After months of evidence, Lord Leveson is deciding whether to recommend new rules governing the conduct of the UK media. Until his report is ready, analysts have said, editors don't want to take too many chances.
In a blog for the Huffington Post this week, Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of The Sun and the now-defunct News of the World, said the dilemma over whether to use the Prince Harry photographs was "nothing to do with journalistic merit, nothing to do with the merits of the story, nothing to do with legal issues, nothing even to do with journalistic ethics...
"The decisions are being reached on the basis of: 'What will Lord Leveson think?' And that is shocking, it is outrageous, it is a disgraceful affront to free speech."
Some commentators also have suggested that part of the reason for the British media's hesitation is the fact that, in the wake of a series of good news stories including Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, the royals' stock is higher now than it has been in decades.
Writing in the New Statesman, Steven Baxter claimed the papers were refusing to use the pictures not out of "fear of regulators but fear of their own readers," adding that Prince Harry and his kin "are celebrities, like others, but untouchable ones."
Pending any changes in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, British newspaper editors are bound by the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practice, which says that "everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life," and that "it is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent."
There are exceptions for cases "in the public interest."
Reacting to the Sun's decision Thursday, Mark Stephens, a British media lawyer, said he wasn't convinced the Prince Harry pictures rose to that level.
"Sun to publish Prince Harry pics. So what's the public interest? Or is it just a blatant publicity stunt?" Stephens posted to Twitter.
Former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, referring to The Sun's owner Rupert Murdoch, tweeted Thursday that "tonight's decision by @rupertmurdoch to allow The Sun to print the private Harry photos shows his contempt for the PCC, Leveson & the law."
CNN's Jo Shelley contributed to this report.