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British Tabloids Face Pressure Over Page 3
Lucy Holmes finally lost patience with Britain’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun, when she bought it to read about the Olympics last summer and discovered that the biggest picture of a woman inside was not a triumphant athlete but a young model wearing just her underpants, captioned “Emily from Warrington.”
Suddenly enraged by something that has been a constant feature of British life since 1970, she created the No More Page 3 campaign, dedicated to persuading The Sun to drop the topless images of young women on Page 3.
Francine Hoenderkamp decided to set up Turn Your Back on Page 3, another protest group, when she grew weary of her boyfriend ogling The Sun’s models and suggesting that she have plastic surgery on her breasts. Earlier this year, she submitted evidence on sexism in media to the Leveson inquiry into the conduct of the British press.
Ms. Holmes finds it hard to explain why bare breasts are still integral to The Sun, which is bought by 2.7 million people every day, remarking with genuine bemusement: “Boobs are not news.”
“Men don’t actually need to see young women’s nipples in order to learn about the news. Every man I’ve ever met has managed to get through The Six O’Clock News without them. And really if there was a desperate need for a nipple, well… we have the Internet now,” she argues on her campaign blog. “Page 3 has created a ‘Cor, look at the tits on that’ culture that I think is really problematic.”
Ms. Holmes says she is “not versed in feminist campaigning,” but for the past four months, she has all but abandoned her previous work as an actor and writer, pouring her energy instead into composing passionate letters and video appeals to The Sun’s editor, Dominic Mohan, attempting to persuade him that it is time to stop publishing topless images. She has had no reply but is gathering much support from elsewhere, and she now has more than 61,000 petition signatures.
She may consider herself lucky to have had no response. Previous campaigners against Page 3 have been subjected to sharp attacks from the tabloid. When the British politician Clare Short spoke out against it in the 1980s, she was described by The Sun as “fat,” “ugly” and “jealous of beautiful women.” When another senior Labour politician, Harriet Harman, proposed legislation to ban Page 3 in 2010, she was dismissed by the paper as a “harridan” and a “feminist fanatic.”
But there is a new energy in the campaign against Page 3 in Britain.
Partly this stems from growing impatience with the way women are portrayed in the media. A recent Women in Journalism study revealed that pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge and her sister Pippa Middleton were among the most regular images of women on British front pages, that 78 percent of all front-page articles were written by men, and 84 percent of front-page articles were mainly about men.
Partly it is fueled by a sense that Page 3 is an embarrassing anachronism, a throwback to an era of lewd seaside postcards, a time when the leering comedian Benny Hill was considered funny, a time when the endlessly popular “Carry On” film series thrived on contriving to make its female stars fall out of their bikinis and were celebrated indulgently as a core part of British culture, a time when there was much confusion over what was innocent, tongue-in-cheek sauciness and what was crude misogyny. The appeal of that genre is rapidly fading amid the soul-searching under way in Britain over the Jimmy Savile scandal (the late BBC host who is suspected of having sexually accosted or abused as many as 450 people, mainly girls) and the sense that people have turned a blind eye to everyday sleaze in the media for too long.
Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson concluded that the future of Page 3 was beyond the remit of his report but appeared sympathetic to the campaigners’ arguments. “Some Page 3 tabloids apply a demeaning and sexualizing lens beyond those who choose to appear in their pages with breasts exposed: Even the most accomplished and professional women are reduced to the sum of their body parts,” his report states.
Mr. Mohan made a “spirited defense” of Page 3 during the inquiry, describing it as “neither harmful nor offensive.” Others, Sir Brian notes, “argue that Page 3 is simply an anomaly: out of place in the 21st century where a woman is just as likely as a man to purchase (or edit) a tabloid newspaper, or lead the country.” Sidestepping a debate over whether a free press should be “entitled to be tasteless and indecent,” he concluded that any new regulator of the British press should have the power to accept complaints from women’s groups (rather than being instructed only to respond to complaints from individuals).
Ms. Hoenderkamp, of Turn Your Back on Page 3, was delighted by Sir Brian’s attention to the issue. “I thought we were going to be ignored,” she said.
But Ms. Holmes was disappointed that his conclusions were not more strident on this issue. She is trying to take heart from recent developments in Germany, where on International Women’s Day this year, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper Bild, stopped publishing topless models on the front page.
Meanwhile, she has a proposal for Mr. Mohan. “If you really want to celebrate the wonder and beauty of breasts, you should print a daily picture of a woman breast-feeding,” she suggests.