Politics & Policy

Murdoch’s Page 3 Retreat Is a Victory for Pseudo-Science

Boob-banning campaign draws on bogus “media effects” theory.

It isn’t often that Rupert Murdoch makes feminists or leftists smile. But he did this week when he hinted on Twitter that Page 3 — the daily pic of a half-naked lady in his British newspaper the Sun — might be past its sell-by date.

To a certain breed of joy-fearin’ radical, Page 3 sums up everything that is wrong with the modern media, and maybe with the whole modern world. They think putting a photo of a bra-less, usually working-class lass in a newspaper normalizes sexual objectification and encourages mankind to think that womankind exists solely for his titillation.

So they were pleased when, on Wednesday, Murdoch tweeted that Page 3 is “old-fashioned.”

“Aren’t beautiful young women more attractive in at least some fashionable clothes?” the media tycoon asked.

Add Rupe’s seeming discomfort with Page 3 to the fact that the Irish version of the Sun has already ditched the daily display of boobs, and that this week the British Sun didn’t feature a Page 3 girl for an unheard-of four days (finally breaking the boob-fast on Wednesday), and it seems Page 3 may well be on its way out.

Should we shed a tear if this British institution, which has appeared in the Sun since 1970, is sent to the shredding machine of history? I think we should. Not because Page 3 adds anything of value to the British media (as its army of curmudgeonly critics say, “Boobs aren’t news”), but because its demise would confirm the coming back to life of one of the dodgiest, most censorious ideas of modern times: media-effects theory.

Murdoch’s public questioning of Page 3 hasn’t happened in a vacuum. It follows months of agitation by tits-allergic tut-tutters who have devoted themselves to censoring this alleged scourge of the British media.

The No More Page 3 campaign, set up in 2012, has got 203,000 signatures for its petition calling on the Sun’s editor to “take the bare boobs out of the Sun.” This sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that the Sun, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, is read by around 14 million people in an average week, 44 percent of these readers being women. (We can assume that most of these people aren’t offended by a serving of boobs with their news.)

No More Page 3 has tried every tactic in the censor’s handbook to try to denormalize the display of naked flesh in newspapers. It has begged shops to stop stocking the Sun. It has successfully encouraged some students’ unions to ban the Sun on their university campuses, in order to, as one no doubt super-fun student leader said, “create a culture of gender parity.” (Remember when radical female students were more interested in burning bras than insisting that buxom young models put one on?)

This is the back story to Murdoch’s seeming change of heart on Page 3 — a heap of pressure from people who might not be very representative but who are loud and rowdy. But Murdoch (and the rest of us) should hold out against this conservatism dolled up as radicalism, for it is fueled by some deeply misanthropic ideas.

The main argument of the No More Page 3 brigade is that Page 3 is dangerous — actually, physically dangerous. Why? Because it “conditions readers to view women as sex objects.” Readers regularly exposed to photos of half-naked women are likely to have their minds warped by such imagery. In short, people — especially men, and especially the working-class men who make up the bulk of the Sun’s readership — are automatons, easily programmed to think a certain way and even behave a certain way by the words and imagery that drip into their brains on a daily basis.

No More Page 3 is obsessed with the idea that the Sun is “conditioning” its readers to be sexist. “Stop conditioning your readers,” its petition demands. What an interesting choice of word. According to my dictionary, “conditioning” is the process by which “the behavior of an organism becomes dependent on an event occurring in its environment.” So Sun readers are like cells in a petri dish, being prodded and shaped by a massive, evil Rupert Murdoch.

The feminist campaign group Object claims there is a link between Page 3 and “the attitudes and behaviors associated with violence towards women.” Apparently Page 3 screws up men’s minds, “encouraging negative attitudes . . . and at worst, acts of violence.”

Here, anti-Page 3 campaigners are committing the moral crime they accuse the Sun of: objectification. They don’t see tabloid readers as human subjects capable of using free will to decide for themselves what to think about women; rather, they view them as objects, as unwitting entities that can be conditioned by media men to think particular things. The Sun’s alleged objectification of its models pales into insignificance compared with the anti–Page 3 lobby’s objectification of entire swaths of newspaper readers.

If the arguments of the anti–Page 3 lobby sound familiar, that’s because they’re a feministic rehash of an idea that’s been doing the rounds for 50 years or so but really took off in the 1980s and ’90s — the notion of media effects, the belief that people can be warped and maybe even coaxed into a life of violence by the films, TV shows, books, and computer games they consume.

Media-effects theory has become the main banner behind which censors of every shade have rallied in recent decades. The more it became unfashionable to use old-style morality to demand the squishing of an offensive text or image — “This thing should be banned because it offends my conscience and my God!” — the more the censorious lobby was forced to try to use “evidence” to get some video nasty or gangsta rap record squished. “Evidence” is in quote marks because, whether it was being marshaled to demand a ban on the horror movie Child’s Play 3 or to insist that the videogame industry make its games less gory, the “evidence” that media determines behavior has always been shaky, to say the least. Many academics — the critically minded ones — are unconvinced of any clear link between media and behavior. James Twitchell of the University of Florida, who has written numerous books on the media, points to the case of Japan, where there are loads of violent movies and games yet society is generally peaceful. “They can indulge in violent entertainment and still make violent activity shameful,” he says.

For much of the modern period, media-effects theory was a tool of conservatives and squares, used to slam shocking films or hip-hop acts. The war on Page 3 suggests that, now, the young and feministic have inherited the mantle of media-bashing, giving media-effects theory a makeover and making it seem like a good, progressive thing, designed to protect women from men’s lecherous eyes and unwanted touch.

But there’s nothing progressive in the super-simplistic idea that media conditions mankind. The agitation against Page 3 is driven by the same misanthropy that has motored every act of censorship in recent times — the idea that the little people will be morally corrupted if they are allowed to see certain images or hear certain words and that therefore they must have their eyes and ears covered by those who know better, whether it’s the Christian who censors for God or the feminist who bans in the name of womankind.

It is this that makes defending Page 3 worthwhile. Standing up for the right to publish these saucy pics is a way of shooting down the ugly, anti-human ideas of those who think people are basically dogs following their master’s, or Murdoch’s, orders.

– Brendan O’Neill is editor of the London-based online magazine Spiked and a founder of Free Speech Now! Read his free-speech manifesto here.

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