Recently I went to lunch with a client.
This is an energetic, intelligent, unconventional person.
We had a really good time exchanging views and ideas.
The only road bump was when we came to discuss The Sun.
And especially page 3.
I’ve always seen The Sun as a bit of harmless fun.
Sort of a grownup comic.
You read it for the jokes but don’t actually take it seriously.
It’s wittier than The Mirror, The Star, The Sport, The News of the World.
And it’s not so whiny or negative as The Mail.
Once or twice a week I’ll find a really good headline in it.
I usually find NEWS IN BRIEFS funny.
This is the little caption over the page 3 nude photo.
It will say something like “Tracy, 23, from Essex think the chancellor’s fiscal policies must take into consideration the viability of necessary levels of debt reduction.”
Obviously the girl herself doesn’t write them.
It’s just standard schoolboy humour: cognitive dissonance.
But the person I was talking to got quite upset.
He said he’d been at a dinner where the Sun’s editor, Rebekah Wade, had been giving a speech.
Talking about how much better things were for women now they had equal opportunity.
He said she couldn’t see how laughably at odds that was with what she was doing in her newspaper.
Showing naked women on page 3, whose sole function was ‘wank material’ for blokes.
He said the ‘News In Briefs’ comments poked fun at women.
Readers were encouraged to laugh at their stupidity.
It made me stop and think.
I never saw it like that.
But it made me check my view of The Sun against my own moral position.
I’ve always believed anything is okay as long as it takes place between the following:
3) In private.
If you tick those three boxes, nothing you do is anyone else’s business.
If you only tick two, that’s not enough.
If you’re both consenting, and adults, but it’s not in private, then that won’t do.
Other people may not want to see whatever you’re doing.
Get a room.
If you’re both consenting, and it’s in private, but you’re not adults, then that won’t do.
You have to be old enough to take responsibility for your actions.
Children can’t do that.
If you’re both adults, and it’s in private, but one of you doesn’t consent, then that won’t do.
That’s called rape.
How does The Sun’s page 3, and ‘News In Briefs’ stack up?
Well, I guess everyone’s consenting.
The girls are being paid, and they’re obviously proud of their bodies.
They want to do it.
And the person looking at it wants to, or they wouldn’t have bought the paper.
Which brings us to the second point.
Is it in private?
Well, to see it, you have to buy a copy of The Sun.
You have to actively choose to participate.
If you don’t want to see it, you buy a different paper.
But you can’t do that with a poster site in the street.
Posters are broadcast media.
So posters have to have a stricter control.
That’s why there are controls on TV programmes, liked the nine o’clock watershed.
So you have a choice.
If you don’t want your children exposed to rude language or bad taste, don’t let them watch TV after nine o’clock.
Which brings us to the third point.
Can we be sure everyone who reads The Sun is an adult?
Well no, not really.
So should The Sun be sold on the top shelf, where only adults can reach?
Well, that’s a point for discussion I guess.
Personally I don’t know anyone who buys The Sun for page 3.
Before they started to write ‘News In Briefs’ I don’t know anyone who even looked at it.
If you want naked women there are publications with many more of them in.
Printed in full colour on glossy, easy to wipe clean, stock.
So where does that leave us?
Personally I think The Sun offends Guardian readers.
I don’t quite know why.
The Mail seems to me to be more the Yin to the The Guardian’s Yang.
Both of them see themselves as the protector of moral rectitude.
The Sun is just a bit of fun.
And consequently, sells more than both of them put together.
So is The Sun really responsible for perpetuating a stereotype of women that is actually harmful?
On the one hand, you have a powerful female editor.
And a paper that actively supported Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.
On the other hand, you’ve got nudes on page 3.
I think the truth is that people who read The Sun don’t really think that deeply.
That’s why they read The Sun.
So maybe the real question is: should people who don’t think deeply be allowed to buy what they want?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this.
Jeremy Bentham’s definition of Utilitarianism was “The greatest happiness for the greatest number”.
John Stuart Mill’s problem with this was that, left to their own devices, ordinary people may be happy living like pigs.
And his view was, “It’s better to be Shakespeare and miserable, than a pig and happy.”
Which doesn’t really answer either of the questions.
Point one: is The Sun’s page 3 (and ‘News In Briefs’) really harmful?
Point two: if it is, should something be done about it?
What makes a pronouncement difficult is something else Mill said, “Your freedom to do as you please ends one inch in front of my nose.”