Comment: Has the Sun’s page 3 jape backfired?

THE SUN crows about hoodwinking its rivals, but has its jape backfired, with the case for topless Page 3 models more threadbare than ever, asks Dani Garavelli

Picture: Nils Jorgensen/Rex
Picture: Nils Jorgensen/Rex

WOT a cracking jape. Not since its infamous “Freddie Starr Ate my Hamster” front page has the Sun caused such side-splitting hilarity, at least within the ranks of its own newspaper. First it allowed everyone – its readers, other publications, the No More Page 3 campaigners – to believe it had ditched the topless models that have been its hallmark and a feminist bugbear for 45 years. And then – get this – it only went and brought them back in a blitz of breast-related wordplay and innuendo. “We’ve had a mammary lapse,” it guffawed, as it presented the winking Nicole, 22, and her ample bust. Then it doubled up in helpless laughter like a schoolboy smitten by his own wit.

The joke was, of course, double-edged, aimed both at those uppity, po-faced campaigners, who believe Page 3 objectifies women, and those uppity, po-faced broadsheets and broadcasters, who have sneered at the phone-hacking and other alleged practices that have landed the Sun in court. One of the said broadsheets – and this is where the joke gets a bit meta – is its stablemate the Times, which broke the story of Page 3’s demise, apparently oblivious to the possibility it was a pawn in the Sun’s game. To the campaigners, the paper’s stunt said: “Don’t think for one minute that a bunch of feminists is going to tell us what to do,” a point the head of PR, Dylan Sharpe, rammed home a little too forcefully, when he tweeted pictures of semi-naked Nicole to a number of prominent women. To other newspapers, it said: “You think you’re so superior, but you don’t even bother to check your own stories,” which was a bit disingenuous given that – despite repeated requests – it had refused to answer inquiries on its latest policy vis-a-vis exposed bosoms.

Picture: Getty

•|Topless woman on Sun’s Page 3 ends speculation|link to article}

That’s if what happened was a stunt. There are those who suspect the events of last week were more cock-up than cunning plan. The Sun had hoped to quietly phase Page 3 out, they say, but the move attracted so much attention from triumphalist campaigners and the anti-censorship brigade, it felt obliged to bring it back. Whatever, aided by the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, the newspaper managed to spin the U-turn as a political gesture. As Je Suis Page 3 – a hijacking of the Je Suis Charlie slogan – started appearing here and there on social media, it seized the opportunity to present itself, not as an anachronism peddling the prejudices of a bygone era, but as a crusader taking a stand against left-wing ideologues.

No matter that No More Page 3 hasn’t called for a ban on topless photos; no matter that at the heart of its campaign is a politely worded petition asking editor David Dinsmore to scrap the long-running feature, the Sun’s conceit of itself as both a mischievous Puck sowing confusion and chaos and an upholder of people’s civil rights has found some resonance amongst those on the libertarian side of the so-called culture war.

‘self-regarding puritans’

Campaigners from OBJECT and Turn Your Back On Page 3 protest. Picture: Getty

“Well-played” and “top trolling” were the Twitter reactions from those who celebrated the way the Sun had hacked off “self-regarding puritans”. But, somewhat inevitably, the newspaper’s actions also brought the misogynists out of the woodwork. The Sun’s apparent decision to drop its topless models brought the usual onslaught of insults and rape threats.

Yet, for all that, the campaigners ­believe they have gained more from the debacle than the Sun. “I think the Sun wanted to mess with us, but I don’t know how it could feel it has humiliated us,” says No More Page 3 campaigner ­Ceris Aston. “It has brought us the kind of publicity money can’t buy and given us a chance to explain exactly why it is we believe these images are damaging. Their head of PR has been outstanding. All the signatures we got yesterday – we’re thanking Dylan for those.”

Scottish feminist Talat Yaqoob said the “stunt” was a sign the No More Page 3 campaign was getting under its skin. “It was an attempt at mockery which backfired spectacularly given that within 24 hours, 13,000 new people had signed up to the campaign and across the UK people were shaking their heads at the Sun’s immaturity.”

The word that most readily springs to mind when considering the Sun’s behaviour is “hubris”. The newspaper is, after all, still mired in misconduct allegations. There are court cases ongoing. Even as those involved in the “mammary lapse” spread were clutching their stomachs in mirth, a judge was announcing that former News Of The World editor Andy Coulson – already convicted of phone hacking – would face retrial for allegedly paying for a royal phone directory.

Yet, in the minutes after the front page dropped, the Sun’s managing editor Stig Abell – a former director of the Press Complaints Commission – pompously tweeted a quote from Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” Then, the following day, Sharpe issued an “apology” that was remarkable for its blend of self-importance and self-pity. Having told of the huge backlash to his message – “by 10am I had gained 500 followers, a hate campaign and a parody account” – he went on to bleat about the way he’s been judged a c*** on the basis of one tweet: if a boast masquerading as humility is a humblebrag, then this must be a contritewhine, an exercise in victimhood masquerading as atonement.

For the No More Page 3 campaign, the Sun’s topless photographs encapsulate everything that is wrong with the media’s representation of women, which is heavy on celebrities and light on those who have made it to the top in business, science and sport. Though proponents continue to insist there is no proven link between soft porn images and violence against women, the campaigners point to research which shows the objectification of any group of people has an impact on how they are treated.

‘As you grow older you develop a level of toughness’

SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter still smarts when she recalls workmen yelling “show us your tits” at her when she was just 14 years old. “I was in my school uniform and I remember thinking that should protect me because it was clear I was a child,” she says. “As you grow older you develop a level of toughness, but an awful lot of young girls haven’t got a shell. They are very vulnerable.”

The Sun and its supporters (female as well as male) believe Page 3 is benign, a harmless celebration of the female form, but Hunter reckons those who don’t see a problem are suffering from a failure of empathy. “Some men don’t understand that women who take a position on Page 3, it’s not necessarily a principled position, it’s because of what has happened to them or their friends. I certainly feel [the topless photographs] validate the idea you have a right to judge any woman walking down the road, that you have the right to make comments.”

“Obviously, today it’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s far worse things on the internet that kids can come across quite easily, but it’s still blatant sexism and the objectifying of women. It’s like the ­Benny Hill show and you think: ‘Shouldn’t we have moved on by now?’”

There are many accusations levelled at those who campaign against Page 3. One is that they are wasting their time on something trivial when they could be taking on more pressing issues, such as domestic abuse or female genital mutilation. Another is that they are snobs who view working class men as incapable of distinguishing between images in a newspaper and real life.

But – post-Charlie Hebdo – it is the issue of freedom of speech that has been most fiercely debated. Before the Sun’s U-turn, journalist Brendan O’Neill complained it had taken less than a fortnight for Britain’s political and media classes to go from saying: “Je Suis Charlie” to “celebrating the crushing of words and images they don’t like.”

Veered towards the misogynistic

“No, there’s no comparison between two men using Kalashnikovs to murder ten people who worked on an allegedly offensive magazine and gender-studies graduates using prudish petitions to pressure the Sun to ditch its pics of half-naked women,” he said before going on to make one.

But for all its pretensions of nobility, the Sun’s defence of its right to show topless models has always veered towards the misogynistic. You don’t have to have a very long memory to recall how it turned against Clare Short when she spoke out on the issue. Describing her as jealous, fat and ugly, it superimposed her face on top of a model’s body and said turning her into a Page 3 girl would be “mission impossible”.

Even when the newspaper is not engaging in misogyny itself, it could be accused of fuelling other people’s. Under a “Je Suis Page 3” headline, Toby Young said that for feminists such as Stella Creasy, opposing Page 3 was “an expression of… their compressed-lipped disapproval of men who take pleasure in gazing at the naked female form”. That’s not a million miles from calling them frigid. And Young is at the less extreme end of the spectrum; in the last few days, No More Page 3 campaigners have been called sluts and bitches and told they deserve to die slow, painful deaths.

Aston says: “Over the course of the campaign we have encountered all the arguments: that we are classist, that we are trying to prevent Page 3 models from exercising their personal choice and that we are against freedom of speech.

Very aggressive misogynistic abuse

“More recently we have encountered a lot of very aggressive misogynistic abuse including suggestions we are on the side of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists. What they don’t seem to realise is that the aggression, the abuse, the doxing, is all a way of shutting down free speech.” Later Aston texts to say one of the campaigners has contacted the police because a rape threat has been made against her.

“Using the Charlie Hebdo case as argument for the so-called free speech of Page 3 is an insult to every life that was lost in Paris,” says Yaqoob. “We seem to be conflating free speech with the right to offend and the right to belittle women. The Sun newspaper using free speech as a platform is ludicrously ironic given they’re embroiled in the hacking scandal and are happy to use humiliation tactics to silence the free speech of women campaigners such as Harriet Harman and Clare Short.”

By deliberately messing with the campaigners’ heads, some say, the Sun has proved their point: that it views women with contempt. Despite this, spirits in the No More Page 3 campaign are high. Aston insists that – though they did celebrate their “victory” – they were always suspicious, and that the campaign would have continued anyway as the newspaper was still running photographs of women in bikinis. “One thing that broke my heart a little was that, when it looked as though Page 3 had gone, the Girl Guides made a graphic which said, ‘Young women have shown their voices can make a difference,’ and then it turned out to be a joke.

“However, we are in a much better position than we were a week ago. People around the world know who we are, people in the UK are signing the petition at a rate of knots, and they are getting angry. While Page 3 as a tradition and an institution might not have hit them, the way the Sun has mocked and derided people who were trying to make a difference really has.”

Aston says No More Page 3 will press on in the face of such “playground-style” behaviour. “As one my friends said: ‘We have all had our pigtails tugged and our bra straps pinged before – we know how to deal with it.’” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1