LONDON  - Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid The Sun published nude photographs of Prince Harry on Friday, claiming it defied royal orders not to print them in defence of press freedom.

A grainy image of the 27-year-old prince, cavorting naked with a female friend in a Las Vegas hotel suite, appeared on the front page with the headline, “Heir it is!”

British newspapers had on Thursday obeyed the royal family’s request not to print the pictures of the third in line to the throne, which first surfaced Wednesday on the US gossip website TMZ before spreading virally online.

But The Sun broke ranks on Friday, saying it was “ludicrous” that British newspapers were not allowed to print photographs which had already been seen by millions on the Internet and in foreign newspapers.

The Sun’s managing editor David Dinsmore said the tabloid - Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper - had “thought long and hard” before publishing the pictures of Harry.

“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 favourite paper read by eight million people every day,” Dinsmore said.

“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,” he added. “We are not against him letting his hair down once in a while. For us this is about the freedom of the press.”

Royal officials had argued that printing the pictures would breach Harry’s privacy, and they contacted Britain’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC) watchdog to request that newspapers not publish them.