Readers who picked up the Sun on Monday found the famed British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch was missing a certain something.
After more than four decades of public enjoyment and outrage, the paper did not publish — and will no longer publish — photos of topless women on its infamous Page 3. News came from the Times, also owned by Murdoch, but the paper offered a coy tweet: “Page 3 will be in tomorrow in the same place it’s always been — between page 2 and page 4,” wrote spokesman Dylan Sharpe.
It was as if Hugh Hefner announced Playboy would no longer publish pictures of naked women with a note on a cocktail napkin. For more than 40 years, the Sun’s risque Page 3 has been admired by some for its assets, loathed by feminists and some legislators, embarrassed one of the richest men in the world known for his conservative politics — and was a consistent topic of conversation among friends and foes alike.
Page 3 as we knew it began in 1970 when Sun editor Larry Lamb took a risk. When Murdoch was out of the country, Lamb published topless photos of a 20-year-old German model on Page 3.
“I helped make page three part of the language,” wrote Lamb, who died in 2000. “In many ways now I wish I hadn’t.”
Indeed, even in the middle of a sexual revolution, the propriety of publishing what amounted to softcore pornography in a daily tabloid was arguable. But the rise in circulation — 1.5 million to 2.1 million, according to the BBC — did not abide what some called prudery.
The Sun was trapped. It was selling sex, and everyone was buying.
“I don’t think the Sun will ever pull out,” the owner of a management company that recruited models for the Sun said in 2004. “It knows its audience.”
But as the Sun became Britain’s best-selling paper, voices were raised against Page 3, and Labor member of parliament Clare Short introduced a bill to end Page 3 toplessness. It failed — and the paper dubbed her “Killjoy Clare” — but she touched a nerve.
“I have never known an issue like it,” Short later wrote. “I received five thousand letters before I stopped counting. … On this issue, where no powerful lobby had asked anyone to write, thousands of women put pen to paper to express their views and fears.”
When Short revived her effort in 2003, a Sun reader called her “fat” and “jealous.” “Who are we to disagree?” the paper asked, superimposing Short’s face on top of a Page 3 model.
“Page Three girls are intelligent, vibrant young women who appear in the Sun out of choice and because they enjoy the job,” the paper wrote. “Unsurprisingly, millions of our readers — men and women — enjoy looking at them. … If Ms Short ran our world it would be time to move to Mars.”
Even as the paper came out swinging for Page 3, change was coming. As The Washington Post’s Karla Adam reported, topless women disappeared from the Sun on weekends. Girls under age 18 and surgically enhanced breasts were also verboten.
In world contemplating rape culture as allegations of decades-old sex crimes derail Bill Cosby’s career, Page 3 no longer seemed to fit.
“I was comparing my breasts to these girls, and I just assumed at age 11 my breasts were there for men to see, which is a powerful thing,” Lucy-Anne Holmes, founder of No More Page 3, a campaign against the feature, said in 2013.
Sun editor David Dinsmore defended Page 3 — “I’m making a paper for the readers,” he said in 2013, citing polling — as his boss distanced himself from it.
Murdoch, of course, was wrapped up in the 2011 phone-hacking scandal that sparked a parliamentary investigation on media ethics— that, in turn, scrutinized Page 3. “There is force in the trenchant views expressed by the groups and organisations who testified to the Inquiry that the Page 3 tabloid press often failed to show consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women generally, and that there was a tendency to sexualise and demean women,” according to the inquiry final report.
In a Twitter exchange in 2013, Murdoch said Page 3 was “old-fashioned,” and he was contemplating changes.
Still, just two months ago, the magazine was celebrating Page 3 in a piece whose headline reflected the page’s less-than-sophisticated humor: “Join us as we take a nip down memory lane.”
But now, it seems Page 3 is turning the page — though the Sun has yet to confirm the change.
“Media equality is a huge challenge,” Anderson wrote. “The Sun has taken one step towards it, but our job isn’t done yet.”