In 1970, soon after Rupert Murdoch acquired Britain’s Sun newspaper, the “Page Three girl” was born: her hair tousled and shoulders sun-kissed, her left breast exposed for all to see. The page-three topless models were credited with salvaging the Sun’s flagging circulation, and were widely copied; homages include Canada’s Sunshine Girl, Chile’s La Bomba 4 and Germany’s Seite drei Mädchen. Now, the Sun’s buxom bosoms are focal points in a national debate about decency on Britain’s printed page. A new petition, “Take the bare boobs out of the Sun,” has garnered almost 60,000 signatures.
The brouhaha began last summer, when 36-year-old Lucy Holmes was flipping through the Sun’s Olympic coverage. “The biggest image of a female in the paper was that of a young woman in her knickers,” she recalls. “It made me so sad.” Soon afterwards Holmes launched the campaign, which has gone viral. She’s even attracted an unlikely ally: Nina Carter, once a page-three girl herself. “In the early days,” the former swimsuit model insists, “it was classy.” But the “glamorous ladies” have long since fled the page.
Supporters want advertisers to leave the Sun, Britain’s largest-circulation daily, and some want government to intervene.
But critics charge that politicians should not interfere in editorial decision-making. That would be “deeply illiberal,” remarked deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. This is something of a straw man. As one Twitter campaigner opined: “We aren’t trying to ban [breasts], we are asking the editor to remove them.” Telegraph columnist Brendan O’Neill compares “the radical pretensions of the page-three lobby” with the campaign to ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 sexually explicit novel.
Sun editor Dominic Mohan touts page three as an “innocuous British institution.” But he’s quick to employ fighting words. A Sun article on #NoMorePage3 supporter MP Harriet Harman ran as: “Leftie Hattie, 62, from Camberwell makes a right tit of herself.” And when MP Clare Short described page three as “degrading pornography,” the Sun superimposed her face on bare-breasted models, branding her “fat and jealous.”
In the Internet era, the feature now appears antiquated and nostalgic. Carter thinks “the Sun needs something new.” She hastens to add: “It could still be a sexy lady, but it should be more original.”