THE BLOG

The Sun's Page 3 Was An Embarrassment, So Why the U-Turn?

23/01/2015 11:47 GMT | Updated 22/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Suppose, in 1969, Rupert Murdoch, having bought the then ailing liberal newspaper the Sun, decided he would revitalize the title by featuring colour pictures, daily bingo competitions and more stories on sport and celebrities.

"Mr Murdoch, I have another idea,"
says one of his editors.
"Every day, we run a half page picture of a good-looking young woman in swimwear, but without a top."

There is silence. Murdoch, barely containing his fury, eventually fires back:

"What kind of newspaper do you think we are running here, you man [there are no women in the meeting]? Have you no sense of propriety, no moral purpose, no understanding of the cultural responsibility that comes with producing a national newspaper? Absolutely not."

Would the paper have risen to the UK's market leader with daily sales of 4 million? Probably not. In this parallel universe, Murdoch's Sun would not have become the goose that laid the golden eggs (about 40 per cent of News Corp's annual profits), he would probably not have been emboldened to buy The Times, perhaps not even launch BSkyB, bid for Premier League football and, well, become one of the most powerful people on the planet. So why, earlier this week, did he appear to drop what is after all one of his most influential innovations, only to restore it two days later?

An double-epiphany perhaps? Unlikely. Murdoch has probably wanted to drop what is, after all, an anachronistic feature for years. Doubtless, several corporate minds have been exercised over this. But ultimately decisions in News Corp, News UK, News International, or any of the other divisions of Murdoch's domain need to bear his imprimatur.

My guess is that the hacker scandal and is embroilment in the Leveson investigation persuaded him that the timing was wrong. But Page 3 has been something of an embarrassment for Murdoch and his corporate executives for too long. As we know, Murdoch is not someone who bows to pressure and there has been a lot of this over the years. The News of the World shutdown in 2011 was a precipitate move: no one forced him to close the paper.

Murdoch is typically defiant on these matters. He has either made up his mind, or been persuaded that now is the time to finish what has become an archaic feature. It is now out of time. The decision is based primarily on business logic, guided by people with their fingers of the cultural pulse. But the return of the Page 3 girls is a perplexing. As The Times, another Murdoch title of course, originally ran the story of Page 3's demise, it can be assumed it was genuinely dropped.

Those who suspect it was merely a stunt are probably swayed the Sun's comment: "We would like to apologise on behalf of the print and broadcast journalists who have spent the last two days talking and writing about us."

The paper hardly needs the publicity. There does seem to have been a volte-face, Murdoch probably in typically defiant mood, angered at what seemed to many a response to online campaigns and other anti-Page 3 forums. Murdoch probably resented the popular conception that he - or at least his paper - had bowed to pressure.

The reinstatement of Page 3 is a gesture of defiance, as if Murdoch is underlining his individuality and independence, his imperviousness to pressure and singularity of purpose.

Murdoch et al probably suspect a few readers will decamp to the Star, but, overall, sales will not suffer. Perverse as it may sound, he will even earn plaudits for making what on the surface may seem a foolhardy, if righteous move.

But the Page 3 feature's future is limited anyway. The comeback is bound to be temporary and The Sun will phase out what has been one of the paper's most controversial items. As I said earlier, it is an anachronism.

The print newspaper market is shifting, so that the traditional distinction between tabloids and qualities has blurred. After The Independent's decision to reduce from broadsheet to tabloid, others have followed. Qualities and tabloids share more in common than size: stories on celebrities, extensive sport news and colourful, eye-grabbing graphics populate the pages of both. Perhaps Murdoch is contemplating migrating the Sun further upmarket.

One thing is for sure: the paper will definitely continue to feature topless models. I guarantee this. But they will not be female. Over the past 15 years or so, men have embraced the kind of "sexualisation" typically reserved for women.

I blame - or credit - David Beckham for having started what I'm going to call aestheticization: after Beckham male sports stars, singers, actors and all-purpose celebs have had no hesitation about getting their kit off and allowing their bodies to appear in print, whether for advertising or just the delectation of newspaper readers. Cristiano Ronaldo is Beckham's natural successor: it's unusual for him to be photographed fully clothed nowadays.

Is this paradoxical? After all, men who provide pleasing images of themselves for public consumption never get criticized for exposing, cheapening, or, "objectifying" themselves. Women and the publications that have encouraged them have. Murdoch's decision will do not to prevent our voyeuristic gaze, nor stunt our interest in peering at naked bodies. But somehow, staring at men's as opposed to women's flesh seems a little more innocent and less unwholesome.