Woe betide any woman who dares complain about sexism in the media. When Clare Short first protested about Page 3 girls in 1986, she was monstered — and The Sun was still harassing her a decade and a half later when the subject came up again. In 2003, she recounted in her autobiography, the paper mocked up pictures of her as “a very fat page 3 girl” and sent what it would probably refer to as “scantily clad lovelies” to the house she shared with her 84-year-old mother. “It is hard not to conclude that The Sun sets out to frighten anyone who might dare to agree that such pictures should be removed from newspapers,” she wrote.
Nearly another decade on, and representatives from four women’s groups appeared at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards and ethics to talk about how much things had changed. (Joke!)
Their testimony made for depressing viewing: Page 3 girls are cutesy cheesecake compared with the “upskirt shots” and “nipple slips” that hordes of photographers follow young women round in the hope of capturing for today’s papers and celebrity websites.
Google (if you dare) the final edition of the Daily Sport from April, where the entire front page is taken up with a borderline gynaecological view of Cheryl Cole taken by the paper’s “dwarf paparazzo” Pete. The Sport might have gone the way of the dodo but its approach to female celebrity genitalia (ie to be as close as possible to them, preferably with a wide-angle lens) lives on in a dozen celebrity websites with charming names such as Drunken Stepfather.
The Daily Mail‘s website, meanwhile, is a vast, teetering edifice of wardrobe malfunctions and women “flaunting their bikini bodies”, even as the paper itself gets its chastity belt in a twist over “X Factor raunch” and Irene Adler in the nip on Sherlock.
Of course, it’s not just a few jaunty nipples: it’s a pervasive press culture where women are routinely naked, their bodies pored over, found wanting, and put up for grabs as a subject for public discussion. You can’t escape by dressing sensibly: only this week, a photograph of Theresa May in a sober skirt and jacket was reproduced alongside an article which wondered how she could be taken seriously while going for a “cover girl look”.
One of the most astonishing lines to come out of Leveson was that the evidence offered – from British papers, available at your friendly local newsagent alongside the fruit pastilles – was censored by the inquiry lawyers, so explicit were its depictions of women. You certainly wouldn’t want to open that front page of the Sport on your monitor at work — it’s so NSFW I haven’t linked to it — so god knows how parents felt hustling their children past it on the news stand.
One of the suggestions made, by Anna Van Heeswijk of Object, was that the papers should observe some form of watershed, in the same way that broadcasters do (almost all British newspapers and magazines get very f***ing queasy about bad language, after all).
While there might need to be allowances made for images with significant news value – I’m thinking of the pictures of a dead Colonel Gaddafi, which proved the tyrant was toppled – there’s a germ of a good idea there: and although the Sun might squeal, how could the Mail object? Or, as the supremely patronising News in Briefs column might put it: “Helen, 28, from London, thinks that if you’re going to complain about tits on telly, you shouldn’t be allowed to use them to flog your paper.”