‘Sun’ decision to drop Page Three in Ireland reflects well on ‘cultural differences’

Opinion: Catholics and feminists find themselves on the same side on this issue at least

News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch: not running a charity. Photograph: Reuters

News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch: not running a charity. Photograph: Reuters


Attention is being paid to a story concerning the print edition of a national newspaper. How quaint. It’s as if we’ve all suddenly rediscovered an interest in falconry or chariot racing. In a largely unexpected – and entirely welcome – development, the editor of the Irish Sun has announced that his paper will no longer carry photographs of topless women on Page Three.

Acknowledging that the feature would still appear in UK editions, Paul Clarkson, editor of the paper, argued that his organisation strived “to cater for our own readers’ needs and reflect the cultural differences in Ireland”. For broadsheet elitists such as this writer, the news was a little like hearing that some grand movie star from the 1940s had passed on. Good grief, is she still alive? Well, not any more it seems.

Open the paper at the offending page and you felt yourself being cast back to an era when casual racism was deemed hilarious, sexual abuse of children was routinely overlooked and newspapers felt the need to provide working men with masturbatory stimulants.

Since its inception in 1970, the feature has always kicked up a degree of controversy. It may be true that a few women forged decent careers on the back of their appearance on Page Three. Yes, the human body is a wonderfully natural thing (and all that guff). Consider what Geoff from accounts gets up to during his regular 11 o’clock trip to the facilities and it will, however, prove hard to argue that soft pornography does not demean and degrade the women depicted.

When British MP Clare Short began the most famous of many campaigns to abolish Page Three, she was depicted as a sort of eccentric loon from a more puritanical planet. Campaigners were, while debating on television, placed in the same cage that housed such rare beasts as atheists, gay-rights activists and opponents of the royal family. All those views are now allowed in the mainstream. Some part of the Murdoch Empire has even acted on the question of nipples in newspapers.

Why here?
But why this part? Many commentators have, over the past week, noted that the campaign against Page Three has been much more vociferous in the UK than in Ireland.

A few months ago the British Girl Guides got on board and sent a letter to the Sun’s editor, Dominic Mohan. “We know that the Sun is a family newspaper,” the missive read. “Anyone can pick it up, turn to page 3, and think that it is normal for young women to be treated as objects. We feel this is just wrong and has to stop.”

The National Union of Head Teachers, the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have also come out against this horrible institution.

Yet it is the Irish Sun that has finally taken a stand. Speaking on Morning Ireland last week, Clarkson did a decent enough job of wriggling his way past the inconsistencies. The move came as a result of “listening to what our readers like”.

When Roy Greenslade, media commentator for the Guardian, interpreted this as a “commercial decision that might get [him] more readers”, Clarkson did not demur. All of which is fair enough. Nobody ever claimed that News International is a charity.

Why not there?
But the editor was on less sure ground when he came to the tricky question of why it was still acceptable for the British edition of the Sun to carry the offending feature.

It is certainly true to say there are “cultural differences” between Ireland and the United Kingdom. But it’s not as if we live next to the Lizard People of Krongo-Krongo. Come to think of it, the cultural differences within the UK – those between the Hebrides and Mayfair, say – are at least as jarring as those between many Irish and British communities. Page Three will be on display in Newry, but not in Dundalk. Are those places really so different?

Two conflicting interpretations of the comment present themselves. Perhaps, the lingering influence of old-school Catholic morality is to be credited for the shift. On the other hand, we can, perhaps, pride ourselves on being more socially progressive than the British. (Pornography is one issue on which the religious right and the feminist left are often in broad agreement.) Mr Clarkson explicitly denied that he was referring to Catholicism. So, let’s rashly jump to the conclusion that his researches confirm we are now a more progressive, less misogynistic bunch of people. Hooray for us!

This is, of course, just one battle. Newspapers (though not this one) still carry soul-withering promotional images of girls in bikinis cradling the latest brand of drain cleaner or the next exciting development in doughnut technology. But something does seem to have changed for the better. Are you listening, Britain?

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