THE campaign to end the practice of publishing pictures of naked women in Britain’s tabloids has a motto. “No More Page 3,” it declares. “Because boobs aren’t news.”
In the past week, however, boobs – specifically the ones that feature on the third page of Britain’s most popular tabloid – have indeed been news, after Karen Mason, a Twitter user with less than 150 followers, tweeted the Sun’s owner Rupert Murdoch to demand the 43-year-old “institution” be abolished. Much to everyone’s surprise, not least Mason’s own, Murdoch replied to her, declaring: “You maybe right, don’t know but considering. Perhaps halfway house with glamorous fashionistas.”
Brushing aside the fact that the 81-year-old media mogul doesn’t know his mays from his “maybe”s this is, so to speak, big boobs news. As much a part of British culture for the past 43 years as builders’ tea and queuing politely, Page 3 has always staunchly defended its right to publish daily pictures of topless women in a national newspaper.
Just last year Dominic Mohan, the editor of the Sun, declared at the Leveson Inquiry that Page 3 women are “good role models”, who are “very healthy”, defending the use of semi-naked women on one of the paper’s most prominent pages because it promoted “natural beauty”.
But while it is true that the girls used on the page are far from the wan-looking waifs who populate the fashion pages of glossy women’s magazines, it is the message their half-naked bodies send out that concerns campaigners.
“The main purpose of our campaign is to question the appropriateness of having soft porn images in a newspaper,” says Angela Tower, a spokesperson for No More Page 3, which was launched last year.
“The impression we get from our supporters is that it gives the wrong message to young women. We worry about what it says about a woman’s place in society. It normalises pornography and objectifies women.”
Feelings on the matter run high. An online “Take the Bare Boobs Out of the Sun” petition has more than 64,000 signatures, including those of Jennifer Saunders, Alastair Campbell and Lauren Laverne, while a campaign initiative to target Lego, which had a commercial partnership with the Sun last year, resulted in an image of a topless Lego model going viral.
“We won’t stop until it’s gone,” says Tower.
But are they over-reacting? Isn’t Page 3 just a harmless tradition, as tame as a picture of David Beckham in his undies (and let’s face it, the tabloids print plenty of those too)? Or is it an out-of-date sexist tradition that demeans women and has no place in the modern world?
Beverley Goodway, the Page 3 photographer who spent more than 63,000 hours in a studio photographing models such as Jordan, Sam Fox, Melinda Messenger and Linda Lusardi, has always maintained that its primary focus is not that the model is topless.
“She has to have the figure but she also needs to glow,” he said on the Page’s 40th anniversary. “She needs a radiance which partly comes from lighting and partly from her feeling right in that situation. I’ve always said the sexy thing about Page 3 isn’t that she’s got her top off, it’s the look in her eyes.”
Zoe McConnell, a former Page 3 girl turned photographer who successfully defeated the motion “This house believes Page 3 is unacceptable in the 21st Century” at the Oxford University Union in 2008, agreed.
“I really want people to know the truth about Page 3, not least that it is almost an all-female crew,” she said at the time. Responding to one student who asked what she thought about children picking up the paper and seeing topless images she said: “I’m sure children are used to seeing bodies on the beach. And I’m sure they will see the body as natural unless they have the misfortune to grow up in a very strict home.” She also claimed she’d be happy to see any daughter of her own go into Page 3 modelling.
When Page 3 was launched in 1970, it was such a hit that almost every other tabloid attempted to emulate it, seeing the growth market in making a picture of a topless woman part of the working man’s day. In the early days it launched the careers of Jilly Johnson, Lusardi and Samantha Fox, all of whom went on to become household names, and by the 1980s, it had become part of popular culture. Princess Diana, on a visit to Coventry in 1985, enquired of a group of factory workers: “What would you normally be doing now – having a cup of tea and reading Page 3?”
The following year, Labour MP Claire Short launched an unsuccessful campaign in the House of Commons to have topless modelling banned from newspapers grumbling, when it failed, that “if you mention breasts, 50 Tory MPs all giggle and fall over”. When she attempted the same thing in 2004, the Sun responded by superimposing her face on to a Page 3 model’s body and accused her of being “fat and jealous”.
Yet there have been compromises. The paper stopped publishing Page 3 on Saturdays because it is a family day, and the day of the week the paper is most likely to pop through the letterbox. Today, Page 3 also features “news in briefs”, a small speech bubble above the picture in which the model in question opines on the issues of the day, from fiscal autonomy to shale gas fracking. It is meant to be funny, but it is a move many campaigners abhor because it seems to poke fun at the idea that the women featured could be bright enough to hold these opinions in the first place.
“The notion that someone who looks sexy is also devoid of a brain is not on,” Dr Brooke Magnanti, a former call girl and author of The Sex Myth, said recently. “Some of these women doubtless couldn’t care less about politics and the prevailing issues of the day, but I bet many of them do.”
But on the issue of their continued existence, the Page 3 girls are strangely silent. No less than six of them, including Lusardi and Lucy Pinder, were contacted for this article and asked if they wanted to contribute to the debate. None did. Its arguably most successful name was particularly terse. “This is not something that interests Samantha,” Fox’s agent flounced in an email.
Fox has clearly left Page 3 in the past and moved on to other things. The No More Page 3 campaign will be hoping that Murdoch does too.