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.

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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.