The sinister campaign against Page 3

At worst, campaigners are engaging in exactly the same sort of sexual policing and censorship that The Sun does. The answer is more nudity, not less, says Martin Robbins.

The British public regards The Sun as one of the least trustworthy sources of news in the country while buying it more than any other newspaper. In this respect, The Sun sits on an evolutionary line that can be traced from early magicians to modern day reality television like The Only Way Is Essex: light entertainment in which the obvious bullshit simply adds to the charm.

Sex and degradation are other elements linking these art forms, evolving similarly in each case. It was only in the 20th century that the ‘glamorous assistant’ trope became cliché in magic, and soon acts routinely depicted the routine abuse or humiliation of a female assistant by a male magician – sawing her in half, for example. Big Brother began in 2001 with fairly normal people, but by the mid-Nothings it – and the countless imitators it spawned – was becoming sexier and more degrading as each year passed.

On the question of whether individual acts or programs are ‘sexist’ your mileage may vary, but taken as a whole the magic community reeks of what Hayley Morgan described as “overwhelming machismo”, a culture often guilty of “boxing women into an over-sexualised, under-valued subordinate position.” The same can be applied to reality TV, in which ‘characters’ are carefully edited into their roles.  Reality stars and magician’s assistants may not feel particularly exploited or humiliated themselves; but they’re part of a tradition that relentlessly encourages audiences to mock or pity certain groups of people, be they women, wannabes, people with mental health issues, or the meticulously vajazzled.

Tim Ireland has written at length about the Sun’s flagship norkfest, neatly tracing how the page became more cynical under the editorship of Rebekah Wade. The ‘saucy postcard’ captions of the past – captions that at least made some reference to the girl’s own personality or life – were replaced with bizarrely incongruous editorial comment - the ‘News in Briefs’. One infamous caption has ‘Danni’ responding to the discovery of the Higgs Boson with: “I’ve often wondered how quarks and other sub-atomic particles gain mass” – the ‘joke’ being that a woman with big boobs would know anything about physics. Other captions promote crude propaganda, turning the women into mere editorial avatars: “The axe should fall next on those silly politically-correct council jobs,” Natasha, 21, allegedly opines. It’s these dehumanising subtexts of mockery and puppetry that make Page 3 so sinister.

In magic, reality television or tabloid culture, the sex itself isn’t really the problem. There are sexy feminist entertainers in magic, film and theatre, feminist porn producers, and sex-positive groups within feminism. The danger comes from the prevailing culture – a context in which women must be a certain type or play a particular role. Tabloids aren’t misogynistic because they publish pictures of exposed flesh, they’re misogynistic because they relentlessly attack, punish, humiliate and belittle women – whether famous or not – for any aspect of their behaviour, appearance or sexuality that deviates from an incredibly rigid and narrow set of standards. The most disturbing thing about Page 3 isn’t the fact that there are naked breasts on it; it’s that every pair of naked breasts looks the same, expresses the same opinions, and exists in a context where the owners of naked breasts are casually belittled and dehumanised.

All of this brings me to Lucy Holmes’s recently-launched petition, asking The Sun to scrap Page 3. The petition says nothing about the problems with Page 3 I’ve raised above, fixating instead on the nipples. “George Alagiah doesn’t say, ‘And now let’s look at Courtney, 21, from Warrington’s bare breasts,’ in the middle of the 6 O’ Clock News, does he, Dominic?” reads the text, continuing: “Philip and Holly don’t flash up pictures of Danni, 19, from Plymouth, in just her pants and a necklace, on This Morning, do they, Dominic?” It goes on to inform the hapless Dominic (Mohan, The Sun’s editor): “you shouldn’t show the naked breasts of young women in your widely read ‘family’ newspaper.”

It’s worth pointing out that the belief that bare boobs are family-wrecking weapons of child corruption is not a particularly helpful one, and fuels exactly the sort of mood that makes it difficult for mothers to breast-feed in public places. That aside, both comparisons seem misguided. The Sun is more adult comic than family newspaper, as Liam Mullone pointed out in HuffPo (“Tits please, I’m a liberal”): “Boobs are not news, but then neither is anything else in a paper comprised entirely of hearsay, gossip and trenchant opinion.”

Meanwhile This Morning is a show that has recently featured both the world’s biggest penis (no, not Schofield, behave) and the world’s biggest breasts. Like many such shows, it’s presented by a grey-haired 50-year old man accompanied by a glamorous woman 20 years his junior; in this case a former lingerie model who is a regular fixture in FHM’s ‘100 Sexiest Women’ list, and who celebrated winning a ‘best celebrity cleavage’ award last spring. Whatever your views on this, it’s hard to understand the logic of holding breakfast TV shows up as some sort of feminist standard for The Sun to meet.

But then this petition isn’t really about misogyny at all, it’s rooted in the same desire for sexual hegemony we see in anti-porn campaigns, or Naomi Wolf’s latest literary clusterfuck, or – ironically – in The Sun itself: the idea that there exists one sexuality superior to all others, and that it’s this sexuality we should all should aspire too. For the woman who started this petition, that’s ‘beautiful sex’, a concept she explains in a manifesto posted on her blog, “How to Start a Sexual Revolution” . It’s possibly the first manifesto that invokes Lenin in the pursuit of better sex.

“I don’t think sex is beautiful at the moment,” Holmes rudely declares, before doing some searches on That Internet and regurgitating some Daily Mail sound-bites about how our precious innocent children are being corrupted by porn. Holmes finds a facial cumshot and a ‘cute chubby girl’ masturbating and a lady giving a blowjob and declares that these images are ‘ugly’. It doesn’t seem to occur to Holmes that what she considers beautiful (“loving union culminating in waves of bliss”), or what I consider beautiful (angry Scrabble followed by several hours of whisky and punishment), may not be what everybody else considers beautiful. As Hayley Stevens puts it:

“It’s naive to suggest that sex should be beautiful because sex is a personal thing and what works for one doesn’t always work for another – to suggest that those who prefer rough or dominant sex are doing an ugly thing is really uninformed and perpetuates a damaging stigma against those who act on their sexual desires that happen to involve such activities. Some people like to be dominated, some like to play rough, some like to be humiliated. Others don’t. As long as all involved are consenting adults there isn’t a problem.”

Live and let live I say, but this isn’t enough for Holmes. She describes: “a 13 minute video of a lady in lap dancer shoes, who could really have done with brushing her tongue, giving a man a blowjob while he kindly holds her head held down”. The gratuitous implications of dirtiness and submission to violence feel a lot like slut-shaming, and as Hayley Stevens points out these attitudes are written all over the petition and the comments left by its 42,000 signatories (at the time of writing). Many of the comments and sound-bites could have come straight out of the campaign against online porn, or the tragically ill-informed sexualisation debate. The politician Lynne Featherstone even linked Page 3 specifically to domestic violence, an extremely unhelpful assertion to make without evidence, and one that suggests nudity rather than misogyny is the issue.

That’s hardly surprising, because the only reason to pick Page 3 as a target - while ignoring far more misogynistic content on pages 1, 2, 4, 5, or indeed the entire Mail Online "sidebar of shame"- is the nudity. In this respect, the petition has hijacked a legitimate concern – misogyny – to get support for a morally-conservative campaign against adult publishing, sucking in careless celebrity supporters along the way.

Nudity is not automatically misogyny, nor is the appreciation of beauty or sexuality. The female body is not something to be ashamed of or to fear - it doesn’t corrupt men as rape apologists or anti-porn campaigners would claim, nor does it damage the minds of children. Removing the nudity from Page 3 would not in any way decrease the misogyny on that page, or in the paper as a whole. At best, misguided attempts to censor nudity distract from the real battle that must be fought, to challenge a tabloid culture in which misogyny oozes from every page. At worst, campaigners are engaging in exactly the same sort of sexual policing and censorship that The Sun does: one side attacking non-conformists, the other belittling the choices of ‘sluts’.  

Personally I can’t stand Page 3, but I say the answer is more nudity in newspapers, not less. Put more boobs on Page 3, and add some cocks too. Show people of every size, shape, colour, gender and sexuality; let them speak in their own voice, and celebrate them all. That, rather than self-censorship of adult-oriented content, would be a progressive tabloid revolution worth fighting for. 

Delicious buns. Photo: KHRawlings/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories