Tacky, seedy and sad - but, boy, are they profitable

On The Press: Lads' mags are under fire. But do we need a regulator to crack the likes of 'Nuts'?
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So I went into WH Smith in Manchester to buy my magazines - Nuts, Zoo and FHM - and found them at midriff level (my natural height is top shelf), a little higher than the children's comics, but way below The Spectator. Nuts and Zoo are relatively cheap at £1.30. Sales will be up this week as a result of people like mefeeling the need to find out what the fuss is about.

There is no sense of embarrassment at the checkout. Lads' mags are mainstream, successful, fun, not to be taken seriously - no worse for you than a pint of lager and a Millwall match. So why would anyone want to meddle?

The latest "killjoy" is the Labour MP for Crosby, Claire Curtis-Thomas, who introduced a Commons Bill seeking to confine the lads' mags to the soft porn top shelves in newsagents and to establish an independent regulator. Curtis-Thomas would include the Daily Sport and Daily Star in the remit of the regulator. There would undoubtedly be problems of line-drawing.

The Periodical Publishers Association (PPA) responded by saying that there was already a code covering display of such publications and this was far more flexible and effective than any legislation could be.

But the PPA represents the magazine publishers, and they are doing very well at present. Sales are up - none more than the weeklies - of which the most successful lads' mags are two examples. Nuts sells 307,000 copies a week and Zoo 260,000. Putting them on the top shelf would hit sales hard and the advertisers would rush for the exit.

Nuts editor Phil Hilton defended his title in The Daily Telegraph. He said it was a mixture of everything men like: cars, sport, random facts and lots of sexy girls. "It's fun, trivial, racy and loved by thousands of men and a good number of women. It is not porn."

Using language rarely published in The Daily Telegraph, Hilton explained what he meant: "The uncovered female breast is as far as we go at Nuts. Pornography is about pictures of vaginas, penises, anuses, oral and group sex... It would make no commercial sense for us to carry pornographic content."

His description of Nuts content is accurate. There is a special feature on unintentional display - "When breasts escape" - and there are the "pictures you thought you'd never see", of Grace from Big Brother wearing very little. The interview with Grace is explicit if not pornographic. So are the letters from female readers. Presumably Hilton is less worried about words than pictures.

Feminists attack the exploitative nature of such content; Hilton says it's all about snobbery, "a response from a section of the middle classes to popular entertainment. Most of the stuff normal hard-working people enjoy in their spare time is despised by a portion of the middle classes: Big Brother, The Sun, EastEnders, Sky Sports." He goes on to talk of the number of British soldiers serving in Iraq who read Nuts.

A contributor to The Guardian's comment blog puts the same point in different language: "It's just a bunch of prudes getting upset about a few tits and bums."

There is little overlap of readership between Nuts and Zoo and The Independent and The Guardian. To be "liberal" is to be a snob; objecting to the lads' mags is snobbery and dismissive of all the women who are so happy to take part in the enterprise.

Banning the mags is a non-starter. Making it harder for children to ogle their pages is allegedly being done, but often isn't. Would Curtis-Thomas's regulator seek to regulate content? That would be much worse than the present situation.

But we can say that lads' mags are tacky, seedy and depressing. In the 21st century, after all the sexual equality achievements, this is what young men want, we are told by publishers making a fortune out of exploiting that belief. That's sad. To say so is to be called a snob who denies the squaddie in Iraq his pleasures. So be it.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield