This article first appeared in The Sunday Times on Aug 24, 2014

Bust-up over The Sun's Page 3 Girls

Newspaper unlikely to scrap iconic page featuring topless models despite outcry

Platinum-blonde Michelle Marsh became famous in Britain for two things: her left one and her right one, and both, apparently, entirely natural.

Like hundreds of other attractive British women, Ms Marsh, who has now retired from her job as a glamour model at the ripe old age of 32, launched her career with The Sun, the country's top-selling newspaper, whose Page 3 is adorned every single day with a young topless model wannabe.

The "Page 3 Girl" has become a national legend: The Sun has gone as far as registering the concept as a trademark. But the institution has come under renewed attack from activists who say it is time to stop this soft-core porn. A petition asking The Sun to abolish it has just passed the historic mark of 200,000 signatures, and is rapidly gaining support among British politicians.

Even Mr Rupert Murdoch, the octogenarian media tycoon who owns the newspaper, has hinted at a possible rethink.

Founded in the early 1960s as a respectable broadsheet for Britain's working class, The Sun was facing bankruptcy when Mr Murdoch bought and saved it by applying the formula which earned the mogul billions: a large dose of gossip, low-level sensational journalism and at least one pair of mammary glands on display daily.

The idea of using pin-ups to boost circulation is not exactly new: The Daily Mirror frequently published photos of women in skimpy lingerie. But while the Mirror still tried to pretend that the pictures were related to articles about fashion, The Sun dispensed with such niceties altogether.

The first Page 3 Girl, Stephanie Rahn, also known as Stephanie Marrian, made her debut on Nov 17, 1970. Then 20, she was actually a German, who was born in Singapore.

The decision to feature a "lovely" a day caused an uproar. MPs threatened the newspaper with prosecution for obscenity. Provincial libraries banned the paper. But Page 3 carried on, launching the careers of many celebrities, including Samantha Fox, who appeared in The Sun on her 16th birthday.

It is debatable whether the daily topless picture was directly responsible for The Sun's phenomenal circulation jump, from 800,000 copies sold each day when Mr Mur-doch purchased the paper in the late 1960s, to a peak of 4.7 million copies a day by the mid-1990s, when the paper became the best-selling English-language title in the world.

It is much more likely that snappy journalism, tight budget controls and an uncanny ability to understand both the preoccupations and aspirations of its readers have contributed far more to the paper's success.

Still, the Page 3 Girl became the newspaper's most obvious and prominent brand. And because The Sun was so influential in British politics, no legislator dared touch it: Over the almost half a century of its publication, anti-Page 3 campaigners were invariably women on the fringe of the political scene, and The Sun had no difficulty in dismissing them as "fat and jea-lous" or "feminist fanatics".

So, what accounts for the recent revived opposition to the Page 3 Girl? One explanation is the increased awareness about the problem of institutionalised female abuse, hitherto hidden from public eye by a male-dominated political establishment: The BBC, for instance, stands accused of having tolerated practices which treated women as sexual objects, and the print media is getting its share of the same flak.

Technology has also given Page 3 opponents a boost. Ms Lucy-Anne Holmes, a writer who launched the current "No More Page 3" campaign, would not have collected 200,000 signatures had it not been for the Internet.

But ultimately, changing social mores have contributed to the backlash. For, in an age when pornography is abundant and ever more explicit, demands for a clear delineation between publications available to all and those which include titillation paradoxically increase.

"All we are really asking is that women be represented with respect in the newspaper… rather like men are," says Ms Holmes. She also points out that while adults who buy pornographic material tend to keep it away from children, newspapers are available in every store and lie discarded in public places, allowing children of any age to access them.

For the moment, The Sun is not budging. Although its circulation is now down to just two million copies daily, it remains very influential: The Co-Op chain of stores has rejected a call to place the newspaper on its top shelves, the traditional place for "girlie" magazines.

Meanwhile, the newspaper's editor, as well as several other British journalists, has dismissed the "No More Page 3" campaign as just "censorship".

Still, The Sun is subtly transforming the way it displays its Page 3 "babes". Last week's editions contained the obligatory pictures, but none of the suggestive remarks of old, such as "Becky is concerned by the prospect of electoral reform in a hung Parliament". The Sun is also trying to make Page 3 a public service, by introducing a "Check-em Tuesday": Once a week, the Page 3 girl displays her breasts supposedly in order to encourage women to check themselves for any signs of breast cancer. The British Medical Journal remains unimpressed.

The topless Page 3 model may come across as anachronistic and demeaning of women, but strangely enough, the "No More Page 3" campaign has made loyal readers of The Sun even more supportive of their paper. An internal poll conducted by the paper showed that a large majority of readers - both male and female - don't want to see it removed.

So, although the Page 3 girls no longer boost circulation, they have made the page iconic and may prevent the numbers from falling. And that, in a dire age for the print media, will be the key reason why The Sun will likely keep the "babes bursting with ambition" where they are.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times on Aug 24, 2014