Helen, 28, has some thoughts on Page 3

Women's groups appear at the Leveson inquiry to talk about media sexism.

Woe betide any woman who dares complain about sexism in the media. When Clare Short first protested about Page 3 girls in 1986, she was monstered -- and The Sun was still harassing her a decade and a half later when the subject came up again. In 2003, she recounted in her autobiography, the paper mocked up pictures of her as "a very fat page 3 girl" and sent what it would probably refer to as "scantily clad lovelies" to the house she shared with her 84-year-old mother. "It is hard not to conclude that The Sun sets out to frighten anyone who might dare to agree that such pictures should be removed from newspapers," she wrote.

Nearly another decade on, and representatives from four women's groups appeared at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards and ethics to talk about how much things had changed. (Joke!)

Their testimony made for depressing viewing: Page 3 girls are cutesy cheesecake compared with the "upskirt shots" and "nipple slips" that hordes of photographers follow young women round in the hope of capturing for today's papers and celebrity websites.

Google (if you dare) the final edition of the Daily Sport from April, where the entire front page is taken up with a borderline gynaecological view of Cheryl Cole taken by the paper's "dwarf paparazzo" Pete. The Sport might have gone the way of the dodo but its approach to female celebrity genitalia (ie to be as close as possible to them, preferably with a wide-angle lens) lives on in a dozen celebrity websites with charming names such as Drunken Stepfather.

The Daily Mail's website, meanwhile, is a vast, teetering edifice of wardrobe malfunctions and women "flaunting their bikini bodies", even as the paper itself gets its chastity belt in a twist over "X Factor raunch" and Irene Adler in the nip on Sherlock.

Of course, it's not just a few jaunty nipples: it's a pervasive press culture where women are routinely naked, their bodies pored over, found wanting, and put up for grabs as a subject for public discussion. You can't escape by dressing sensibly: only this week, a photograph of Theresa May in a sober skirt and jacket was reproduced alongside an article which wondered how she could be taken seriously while going for a "cover girl look".

One of the most astonishing lines to come out of Leveson was that the evidence offered - from British papers, available at your friendly local newsagent alongside the fruit pastilles - was censored by the inquiry lawyers, so explicit were its depictions of women. You certainly wouldn't want to open that front page of the Sport on your monitor at work -- it's so NSFW I haven't linked to it -- so god knows how parents felt hustling their children past it on the news stand.

One of the suggestions made, by Anna Van Heeswijk of Object, was that the papers should observe some form of watershed, in the same way that broadcasters do (almost all British newspapers and magazines get very f***ing queasy about bad language, after all).

While there might need to be allowances made for images with significant news value - I'm thinking of the pictures of a dead Colonel Gaddafi, which proved the tyrant was toppled - there's a germ of a good idea there: and although the Sun might squeal, how could the Mail object? Or, as the supremely patronising News in Briefs column might put it: "Helen, 28, from London, thinks that if you're going to complain about tits on telly, you shouldn't be allowed to use them to flog your paper."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.