Good riddance to News in Briefs, the nastiest part of Page 3

The Sun has ditched its "joke" that attractive, topless women can't possibly have opinions on politics.

Only 20 per cent of the Sun’s bylines go to women and as of yesterday, there’s one fewer column inch staked out for female voices: let us bow our boobs and solemnly remove our tops in honour of page 3’s News in Briefs, which is no more.

Still, don’t let your chest be depressed for too long. This would be a much harder loss for women’s journalism if the Page 3 girls had actually written the News that appeared by their Briefs – but obviously and insultingly, they didn’t.

The naughty nibs started in 2003, when Rebekah Brooks took over as editor of the Sun. Before her ascension, she was reportedly an opponent of Page 3, so maybe the introduction of a jaunty speech bubble containing a short commentary on current affairs was a way of patching over Page 3’s incongruity.

At the beginning, News in Briefs was just a naked echo of the paper’s editorial line. Ruth “hailed yesterday’s court appearance by Saddam Hussein”. Kate “was devastated to hear David Blunkett had quit”.

 

 

 

There’s a theory in anti-pornography circles that violent imagery in erotica is especially concerning because men are most suggestible when tumescent. If there’s any truth in that (and it certainly hasn’t been proven), News in Briefs is a spectacularly cynical example of propaganda, leading millions of man to wank themselves into an orgiastic condition of right-wingery.

But really that’s not the problem with News in Briefs, which for my money has long been the nastiest part of Page 3. The comic disjunct of this section has always been in the assumed unlikeliness of a pretty, smiling, topless woman expressing the opinion attributed to her. The kind of girl who can get a man hard, says the logic of this joke, is the kind of girl who’s soft in the head.

Over time, that joke was cultivated to baroque standards. Over her various appearances in 2010, Peta (23 from Essex) volunteered informed opinions about the price of gold, myoglobin, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Theodore de Banville.

 

 

The fact that these weren’t really Peta’s opinions doesn’t mean she’s stupid. There are some requirements for a Page 3 girl – most importantly, being under 25 and having big, unaugmented breasts. It isn’t necessary to be dumb.

But redtop journalists are notoriously more educated than the audience they write for, or in this case, the individual they were writing as. There’s something distinctly distasteful about using that advantage to make a sneering joke at a nude woman’s expense.

 

 

It’s a joke that plenty of people enjoyed, though, including the well-educated men of the Conservative party. According to Paul Waugh of Politics Home, when the Tory “Breakfast Club” met each morning, the newest member would be called on to read each day’s News in Briefs, in (oh my lol-wracked sides) the voice of the Page 3 girl.

On Monday, our democratic representatives could have enjoyed ventriloquising Kelly’s ventriloquised thoughts on Andy Murray’s Wimbledon chances: “As Muhammad Ali observed, ‘Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach into the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win.’”

But on Tuesday, there was nothing but space next to Lacey, and on page3.com today, India from Reading sits beside an unpopulated box where the News in Briefs would once have been. The joke is up.

That doesn’t mean page 3 is on the way out. The new editor, David Dinsmore, confirmed this morning on LBC that hanging on to the girls in defiance of campaigners is a point of pride for the Sun, and if Brooks didn’t have the will to axe them, it’s hard to imagine an editor who will.

But the end of News in Briefs is reason for a tiny feminist cheer on its own. The Sun still gives more room to docile-looking girls with nice racks than to grown-up women with something to say, but it’s no longer snickering at the very idea of something smart emerging from a pretty mouth. 

 

With thanks to Tim Ireland for the scans of historic Page 3 girls.

The final Page 3 News in Briefs.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.