Thursday, 4 July 2013

Why we should stop trying to stop Page Three

A few days ago a piece on LabourList asked us to support a campaign to end Page Three of the Sun. I must admit, I’d be happy to see the back of the paper, let alone the page.

A bit of background: since the 1980s, I haven’t bought a Murdoch paper (although, full disclosure: I did recently weaken and buy a Times online subscription, as I was fed up of not being able to read four particularly good journalists). Old habits die hard.

I was never quite comfortable with New Labour’s closeness to the Sun and News Of The World – I remember regularly seeing Rebekah Wade (as was) or David Yelland walking past my desk in Millbank – although I understood the realpolitik of it. We can all now see where it ended up: not in a good place. So that realpolitik should not be a reason to oppose this campaign, either.

And I have never liked Page Three, even as a hormonal teenager. I couldn’t care less about the fact of nakedness or the idea that that is somehow “sinful” – that would make me merely an unappealing prude – but it is undeniably sexist and there is an underlying, none-too-subliminal message that it is more important for women to look good than to be intelligent, funny, decent or nice (that said, many women’s magazines happily propagate exactly the same canard, just in a more upmarket way and with more clothes on). That is the message I will anyway be giving to my two daughters, when they are old enough to understand such things.

But – and this is surely not brain surgery – not liking something is not the same as trying to stop it. And we should forcefully reject the idea that opposing this campaign can only be for socially conservative – or worse, sexist – reasons, which I imagine will certainly be the reaction of some (for the record, my home shelves are not filled with pornography and I defy anyone to find anything sexist in anything I have written here or elsewhere. But I’m pretty sure someone will now try).

Unsurprisingly, almost all the support has been from parties of the left, including
92 Labour MPs, some of whom are personally known to me and all of whom I believe to be entirely well-intentioned. But on this I also believe them to be wrong.

First, what is the campaign aiming for? Well at least, thank heavens, it is not asking for some kind of a ban: that would be madness. But it is illiberal. It is trying to achieve that the Sun’s ability to print what it wants be curtailed, because a sufficient minority of people have said so.

But why should that minority be able to do that? It is precisely for this reason that free speech protections exist, even if, I’m afraid, that means freedom to publish things which we might find sexist. We are currently living through a period where UK law has been found to have serious shortcomings in this respect, including its awful libel laws, which have only just taken their first steps towards reform, and not too long ago veering dangerously close to a full blasphemy law (take a look at
Pakistan if you want to see where this ends up).

Second, think about the logic. Why try and end it now? Why not wait until the newspaper decides itself that its readers don’t want it any more? It is clear (if you compare the Sun now with what it was in its 80s incarnation) that it eventually adopts, like most papers, the attitudes of its readership, for example its homophobia of that era has now all but disappeared.

Countering that argument requires us to believe that we cannot leave people to their own devices, that we are obliged to intervene. In other words, it requires us to believe that there is some kind of pathological, “addictive” vicious circle to be broken; that staring at Page Three is something which in itself perpetuates Page Three, rather than a simple matter of people reading what they want to. The only solution is to limit supply, as if soft porn were a drug (and let’s reflect for a moment on how well constraining supply works with drugs). But it is not.

Also, the campaign implies that, to be consistent, we should stamp out all pornography. This will not happen, any more than it has in other Western countries, and any more than Britain has stamped out men visiting prostitutes or any other undesirable activities centred around the non-emancipation of women. And we then come down to hazier debates about the connection between pornography and sexual violence against women, where freedom to publish is worth protecting (as Nick Cohen thoughtfully
argued last weekend) and the causal evidence unclear.

Third, because it is obviously destined to fail. There is no majority in this (or probably any free) country which will opt for the banning of either a cornerstone of its favourite newspaper or of pornography in general. Probability of failure is not, in itself, necessarily a reason not to protest against something, but I would prefer we within Labour spend our time on something a bit more likely to secure a result. If we were to put the same effort into securing affordable childcare for working mothers or removing the “glass ceiling” in Britain’s boardrooms, I can assure you that a far greater impact would be made on equality.

The Sun is still Britain’s top-selling newspaper. Pesky voters, eh? And I am not going to defend the vested media interests around it.

But I note them: they will not give up easily. We already know we will be going into an election with Murdoch media rapaciously anti-Labour and little we can do will change that at this point. So we haven’t got that much to lose, it’s true: but I don’t know if we need to hand out additional ammunition). With a powerful enemy, you choose your battles carefully.

It is patently not just a matter of “one more heave” willpower on our part that will snowball into a mass movement picketing the Sun headquarters. People simply do not care enough either way and may well end up taking the its side against us, if its arguments are marshalled well enough.

If anyone can see this campaign being a success, I would like to hear from you, because I just can’t.

Fourth, this is exactly the kind of thing which allows media (and not just Murdoch media) to paint Labour as a bunch of prim, nannying killjoys who want to stop everyone else having a bit of fun.

The key point is this: it doesn’t matter whether this is true or fair – it is neither – but that is the image we project.

Luckily, we are not asking for a “ban” but, guess what? That’s exactly how the Sun will present it. In addition, a bad habit of ours on this, and some other policy areas, tends to be one of feeling that our opponents are morally wrong, rather than in simple disagreement. Here, we feel they are either cynics, or sexists.

Mistake. Some probably are, but what about those who are neither? No-one dislikes anything more than having their motives wrongly questioned by some holier-than-thou politician.

In other words, this is exactly the kind of campaign which shows Labour to be out of touch with the British public.

One day, Page Three will stop, of its own accord, when its management decide that it is no longer an asset to the paper. I, for one, will be delighted.

Until that day, please, let’s stop trying to meddle with it. No matter how much we dislike it, this campaign is illiberal, it is illogical, it does nothing for Labour’s image and it will fail.


This post first published at LabourList

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