As the industry suffers, press outlets of all stripes are turning to sexist filler and side-boob close ups to sell their wares. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Laurie Penny on page three: the real threat to young women’s health and happiness

David Cameron is wrong to try and ban pornography online when the casual objectification of women continues as a decoy for vicious xenophobia and social conservatism in the mainstream media.

David Cameron is confused about pornography. The coalition government has just moved to impose mandatory filtering on the distribution of online smut, putting measures in place to ban certain search terms and impose an “opt-in” filter on explicit content. When challenged, however, about page three of the Sun – the topless softcore wank-matter that’s still distributed daily in Britain’s most-read newspaper – the Prime Minister was loath to support a ban. “On this one,” he argued, “I think it’s probably better to leave it to the consumer rather than regulate.”
 
This may or may not have anything to do with Cameron’s career-defining hesitancy to challenge Rupert Murdoch under any circumstances. Yet the fact remains that, according to the Conservatives, boobs on the internet are “toxic” for children, but soft porn all over the paper, where little boys and girls can easily find it and see their parents reading it, is just fine.
 
Page three has never just been about page three. Rather, it is a litmus test for whether or not one supports the objectification of young women as part of the cultural discourse – and what you think should be done about it. For some campaigners, page three is a symbol of everything wrong with our “sexualised” society; others are prepared to go to rather extreme lengths to defend an institution they claim is “traditional”, which means “archaic and sexist”, and “just a bit of fun”, which means “fun for men at women’s expense”.
 
I am not of the school of feminism which believes that the answer to the ubiquity of sexist imagery is to slap bans on everything we don’t like. I do not support David Cameron’s porn ban. I believe that it is extremely difficult to achieve radical ends by conservative means, and that censorship is invariably conservative. I also believe that giving this government, or any government, the power to monitor and control how we use the internet is a very risky proposition – because we’ve already seen, in the past few months, how such powers can be abused. I do, however, support the campaign against topless models on page three, and there are specific reasons why.
 
I have nothing against boobs before breakfast. I see my own most mornings in the mirror and I have yet to be traumatised into a tornado of abject self-objectification. Nor do I wish to deprive hard-working glamour models of a living: in its proper context, my main problem with softcore porn is the lack of mainstream provision for anyone who isn’t primarily attracted to slender young white women with submissive smiles. No, my problem with page three is a professional one. I have an interest, as a journalist, in working in an industry that does not rely on the ritual objectification of women to sell news content.
 
As the profit margins of the news industry disintegrate, press outlets of all stripes are turning to sexist filler content and sideboob close-ups to sell their wares – and ameliorate the appearance of their worst excesses elsewhere in their pages. What’s most abhorrent about page three is that it mitigates the xenophobic, hawkishly right-wing content of the rest of the paper. The problem with the Sun is not just page three, but pages one, two and four to 28, and the insertion of a bit of jolly soft porn into the mix puts a sexy smile on social conservatism. Sexism, from objectification to body-shaming to reactionary dissection of women’s life choices, is the strategy that tabloids have chosen to keep their profit margins healthy in an age where the internet threatens their business model.
 
As a young woman working in a media industry that remains, despite recent improvements, deeply sexist, I have had more dealings than I anticipated with the news economy of misogyny. It’s about what role women play in the press, both as journalists and, more frequently, as the subjects of reports, adverts and the vast amount of page-filler that falls somewhere in between. Women are there to sell papers, particularly young women, particularly young, white, attractive women between the ages of 16 and 30 who may or may not have experienced a recent wardrobe malfunction. The other things that sell papers include shaming celebrities for having the “wrong” body shape, endless coverage of famous women’s “weight battles”, and female columnists castigating one another for being too pretty, or not pretty enough, or too maternal, or not maternal enough.
 
On 12 July, the musician Amanda Palmer responded to the Daily Mail’s shocked coverage of her Glastonbury nipple-slip by stripping buck naked and singing a song about the newspaper that managed to find a rhyme for “misogynist pile of twats”. (Lyrics: “I’m tired of these baby bumps, vag flashes, muffintops/Where are the newsworthy cocks?”) I happened to be in the audience, and can confirm that it was the only possible response to a tabloid culture that treats women’s bodies as newsworthy commodities whose actual owners can expect a barrage of slut-shaming should they choose to take control of them.
 
Or at least that’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been jumping up and down in glee and squealing incoherently at the time. In Tabloid World, airbrushed soft porn is acceptable, but cellulite is the subject of lengthy, moist and expectant disapproval – as are skinny jeans, stray boob-flashes, accidental camel toes and Rihanna in any situation.
 
The news economy of misogyny is far more insidious, far more mainstream, and far more damaging to children and young people than online pornography. It titillates readers with hate and provides a steady stream of propaganda, reducing women to bodies for the rest of us to judge. From page three to the rest of the paper, it’s the oldfashioned press, and not the internet, that’s the real threat to young women’s health and happiness right now.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.