The world of soft porn has changed since my teenage fumblings through Playboy and Men Only

What a man of contradictions is this Richard Desmond! A teetotaller who swears like a trooper. A disciplined businessman who loses control and throws chairs around his boardroom. And a man whose fortune was built upon soft porn, yet had a passionate desire to buy the Daily Express.

All the profiles mention his ruthlessness, his charm and also his writ-happiness if people dare to call him a soft pornographer. A litigious newspaper publisher? Now what echoes does that have in the little Memory Lanes of Fleet Street?

Soft porn! It has such a nice, innocent Rupert Bear sort of ring to it. But what does it actually mean? Was Mary Kenny acting a little precipitously in walking out of Ludgate House, even though she admitted she had never read any of Desmond's magazines? I thought I should buy one of his top-shelf products to see how the world of soft porn has changed since my teenage fumblings through Playboy and Men Only. My local newsagent was out of Horny Housewives and Big Ones, so I had to make do with the Best of Asian Babes.

The first thing to say is, Mary, you were right to get out. I don't think you and Desmond will see eye to eye on much.

The second thing to say is, Mary, please don't read on. Skip to the competition at the back for a good, clean laugh. Without wishing to sound too naive, the world of soft porn has moved on quite some way since the early Seventies. For soft, read hard. It is not so much the pages upon pages of gynaecological close-ups that make one wince as the text. The lead letter was allegedly from one Peter Ashford, containing what it said were pictures of his cleaning lady in Nigeria. After detailing what sexual services she would perform in addition to cleaning, Ashford boasted: "The most amazing thing of all was that all this cost me less than £1 a week in wages."

Rosie Boycott, the editor (at least at the time of writing) of the paper that Desmond now owns, has done a rather brave and decent job, I think, of moving the Daily Express towards a more enlightened, liberal agenda. She must want to weep. Two wishes: first, that Desmond pays her off extremely generously as soon as possible; and second, that he should launch a libel action against me for calling him a hard pornographer. We could book a couple of weeks in the High Court to discuss the dividing lines between soft and hard porn. It could be huge fun.

Lord Wakeham, who has - against some expectations - been a rather sensible chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, is stepping down one of these days, and a process of "sounding out" is currently under way as to who should replace him. There are currently seven names "in play". Every one is white and either a peer or a peeress. This is all very cosy. If cosiness is what the newspaper industry feels it needs at the moment, then any one of the seven would do very nicely.

There follows a short book plug: my esteemed colleague Ian Mayes has just published a bumper collection of all the funniest mistakes we've made at the Guardian over the past two years, along with some of his wise essays on our failings in particular, and on the press in general. Too late for inclusion was an all-time classic correction from one day towards the end of last month: we said a man in south-central Florida had been charged with shooting his dog because he suspected it of being gay: "The reporter who covered the case says the dog, a neutered Yorkshire terrier-poodle cross, was not shot but struck on the head with a plastic piece of a vacuum cleaner, because the owner believed he was attempting an unnatural act with a Jack Russell terrier. The blow fractured the dog's skull and a local veterinary surgeon put the dog down." Glad that's straight.

The word about our readers' editor is spreading slowly, and Politiken, in Denmark, has now appointed its own corrector whose first loyalty, like Ian's, is to the readers. But so far, one has to confess, the idea has not spread like a bushfire through the British press.

Do other editors really believe their readers will trust them less if they keep admitting they got things wrong? Can't they see that the reverse is true, and that readers will trust them more? The interactivity of the net makes it inevitable that younger readers will expect a relationship with their paper that is closer to a dialogue than a sermon. A readers' editor is a modest start.

Seeing Claire Tomalin this week reminded me of a wonderful service she once performed for me. Our house was burgled as I slept, and I awoke to find my briefcase gone, complete with computer (no, nothing backed up) and address book. Three years of work gone, me inconsolable.

There followed an extraordinary chain of events. The thief, presumably to solicit a reward for the computer's safe return, decided to ring one or two names in my address book. When he rang Claire, something in her tone of voice undermined all those years of thiefcraft.

"Alan will be so pleased to get his computer back," said Claire. "Do tell me your address." He did so and was evidently astonished when, half an hour later, the police kicked in his front door. Even thieves are dumbing down.

Alan Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image