Rebekah Wade marked the first anniversary of her editorship of The Sun by reviving a 16-year-old publicity stunt. The paper stuck the former cabinet minister Clare Short's head on a flabby, naked middle-aged female body as part of its flamed-up "Hands off page three" campaign. "Killjoy Clare" was described as "fat and ugly", "Short on looks" and "Short on brains". Readers were invited to sign a "nationwide petition" to save page three from Short's (non-existent) "barmy crusade" to have it abolished.
In 1987, The Sun did something similar when Short, as an opposition backbencher, introduced her Indecent Displays (Newspapers) Bill into the Commons. The Bill had no chance of becoming law, as The Sun knew full well. But the paper gleefully launched a "Save our sizzlers" campaign - a brilliant excuse to run lots of pictures of the girls, combined with shameless political bias, merciless do-gooder-goading, cruel-yet-funny insults and smutty double entendres milked to the point of overkill.
This time around, Short's anti-page-three "crusade" amounted to a throw-away remark on Any Questions. She was asked what legislation she would like to introduce, and replied: "I might go back to my little page three Bill and take the pornography out of the press."
Some people never learn. Within 45 minutes, a team of page three models armed with jumbo-sized glossy calendars of themselves had arrived chez Short in the paper's double-decker bus, with supporting photographer. The girls' mission was to hang around semi-naked in the freezing weather and then pick a fight of some sort when Short emerged, thus preventing the MP from spreading more gloom and "making everyone's life a misery". The Sun kept the story going all week - promising to stand against Short at the next election and even forcing one of its models to change her name to Clare Short so that the paper could run a picture of "Clare Short topless on page three".
The stunts may have been ludicrous in some ways, but they were a conscious attempt on the part of Wade to stem a sales slump and recapture the spirit of The Sun's 1980s glory days, when, under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, the paper sold a million more copies.
"Rebekah is certainly the best editor since Kelvin," says Bernard Shrimsley, who edited the paper in the 1970s, when it overtook the Daily Mirror to become the biggest-selling tabloid in the world. There was a feeling, Shrimsley and others say, that the paper became almost complacent after MacKenzie's departure - especially as the Mirror fell further and further behind in the once narrow and bitter circulation battle.
"Rupert Murdoch has put her in to make sure the paper is talked about again. He wants her to be brave and outspoken. He will actually be disappointed if he's not woken up in the middle of the night a few times to catch the flak," Shrimsley says. "The Sun needs to be noisy, disrespectful and full of mischief. She has done that a few times already, and there will be more. She personally likes excitement. She is impatient and she wants to make things happen."
Her year started with clever publicity-generating leaks suggesting that she was thinking of dropping page three on feminist grounds. There was no such plan, and Wade marked the first day of her editorship with an in-joke, captioning that day's page three girl as "Rebekah from Wapping".
Sally Feldman, a feminist campaigner, former editor of BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and now head of the School of Media at Westminster University, was disappointed that the page three girls were not finally put to bed. "I don't think everyday images of women's bodies are going to make much difference. I find it irritating and I don't think it helps women in their progress toward the boardroom," she says. "The fact that Rebekah is the first woman editor of a daily tabloid may make it more - and not less - difficult for her to bring the paper up to date and get rid of the topless pictures."
Wade has seen a slight decline in sales in her year in charge. Circulation is now lower than at any time since 1974. But her main rival, the Mirror, has been losing readers faster. The only red-top putting on sales is the Daily Star, where, according to the former editor Brian Hitchen: "They found that news does not sell, so they've grown by putting a pair of boobs on the front page. It's really tough for the red-tops now.
"Rebekah's done well to hang on to most of her readers," Hitchen adds. "She's injected new life and vibrancy to the paper. It is more like the Sun of old, but without bending the facts. She's an editor who is in touch with the readers - too many are not."
The publicist Max Clifford, who had a close working relationship with Wade when she was editor of the News of the World, says she goes out of her way to stay in personal contact with her audience. One of her best and oldest friends, Clifford claims, is a London black-cab driver. And, in an attempt to keep her reporters in tune with popular prejudice, staff were required to take a holiday with Sun readers at an unfashionable Devon caravan park.
Wade's predecessor, David Yelland, was seen by some as detached, Establishment-minded and boring. "It's a warmer paper now," Clifford says. "That's the difference between her and Yelland. Papers need a strong personality." He thinks Yelland was seen as "too much of a diplomat".
Clifford praises Wade's trademark campaigns "naming and shaming" wife-beaters and paedophiles, and against asylum-seekers, as being "far more in the tradition of The Sun and in tune with Sun readers than Yelland's approach.
"When I saw the headline 'Ship Ship Hooray' on the story about Harold Shipman's suicide, I immediately thought: 'That's Rebekah.' It reflects the attitude of the readers. She stamps her personality on the paper."
Mark Frith, editor of the booming weekly celebrity magazine Heat, has met Wade several times during the year. "She's very astute, very interested in the market," he says. "She understands why the weekly magazines have been thriving while the papers have been suffering from a sort of malaise. The paper is a lot more confident again in its touch. The pictures are better. And it will go for eight or 10 pages on a single story nearly every week now. That takes guts.
"For me, it has become once again the first paper I read, and it's rare for it to miss something. A year ago, I think it was worried that it was losing that position of being a bit special. But I think it's got it back now."
One person who does not welcome a return of something "a bit special" is the victim of last week's publicity stunt, Clare Short, who thinks that the campaign is evidence that the paper has a "nasty, hysterical streak". She is unhappy that her party has grown close to the paper in the past few years. "The Sun was seen as being very supportive of the Blair government - embarrassingly so sometimes," Short says. "I never the read The Sun if I can avoid it. I care too much about the quality of my life. Political responsibilities can go only so far. The sacrifices of office don't extend as far as having to read The Sun every day."
Chris Horrie is the author of 'Tabloid Nation' (Andre Deutsch, £17.99)Reuse content