On the 20th, The Times ran an article declaring that its sister paper, The Sun, had ‘quietly’ decided to end its 44-year tradition of topless models on Page 3. Media outlets widely discussed the news and mostly considered it a progressive, important step in ending the over-sexualisation of women in the media. Celebrants included Caroline Lucas, Nicky Morgan, and Jo Swinson, and the No More Page 3 campaign was naturally delighted. But on the 22nd the feature returned. Sardonically titled ‘Clarifications and Corrections’, with ‘Nicole, 22’ winking, its caption stated the paper wanted to ‘apologise’ for ‘journalists who have spent the last two days talking and writing about us’. Clearly acknowledging the prank, The Sun’s website also, unusually, granted the general public access to the photos, without requiring the premium ‘Sun Plus’.
There can be little doubt that this was a deliberate reversal. Whilst Dylan Sharpe, head of the paper’s PR, dubbed reports on the end of the feature ‘speculation’, The Times was the first outlet to break the story and is another member of the overarching corporation News UK. He further mocked a request for comment on the ‘return’, responding, ‘I don’t recall telling you it had gone?’ So if this was planned – a hoax, even – the question remains: what was the point?
The most obvious answer is that this was a bid for publicity, and if so, it worked, sparking great discussion of the implications. The U-turn has made less of an impact so far, but one definite beneficiary was The Sun’s website, which reportedly saw a surge in traffic. It was advertised that topless photographs would still be available online, for premium payers, so this seems a deliberate push for ‘Sun Plus’ membership. This may also be intended as a response to critics, in an attempt to prove the public still want Page 3 to continue.
However, they are not the only ones reaping rewards. No More Page 3 also reported an increase in interest, and the mocking reversal will only strengthen backlash. More importantly, Rupert Murdoch has proved once again that he has no understanding of the arguments behind the campaign.
There was speculation that the paper would instead extend its weekend format of celebrities, minus the partial nudity, or that the feature would continue but the models would wear bras. Accordingly, debate raged over whether this was an improvement, or a false concession within the same issue. Ultimately, even with clothes, a picture of a sexualised woman in what claims to be a newspaper is a damaging normalisation of the idea that women’s bodies are for public consumption. Packaged with restrictive beauty standards, a troubling lack of diversity, and a demeaning presentation of the twenty-something ‘girls’, Page 3 is both symptomatic and symbolic of these wider problems. What is most frustrating about the fake cessation is that supporters glimpsed the beginning of a positive outcome, before it was laughed away, and further damning proof that The Sun cares nothing for progress.