The Media Column: 'Sex sells; it is used to chase the pocket money of the young'

When Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor talked recently of a danger to the future health and happiness of children, he was not talking about obesity. It was their mental and spiritual health he had in mind - a lack of soul food rather than a surfeit of burgers, chips and chocolate.

Yet it was the pudginess of many young people, and the culpability of TV advertising in making them so, that last week dominated the Bafta debate: "Should Advertising to Children Be Banned?". Although a large percentage of the audience agreed that "certain products" other than junk food should not be advertised on television, none of them could provide an example. Except me.

How about adult magazines, such as "the world's best men's weekly", Zoo, I asked, having seen an ad for the blokes' title - latest issue coverlines include "Football Sex Scandals", "I was roasted" and "Dogging & Orgies" - on ITV1 at about 9.30am one Saturday morning? In reply, Andy Barnes, the sales director of Channel 4, talked briefly about the possible need for a review of what is acceptable and what isn't, a set of criteria to be laid down by Ofcom, once it opens its doors properly for business.

Then it was back to Big Macs and bulging waistlines - a serious problem, without doubt, but no more so, as the Cardinal's remarks emphasised, than the problems being caused by the media's portrayal of sex. Sex sells and, despite frequent calls for responsibility within the media industries, it is used more and more in an unwholesome chase for the pocket money of the young.

Almost two years ago the schools watchdog, Ofsted, urged teachers to do more to counter the acceptance in teenage magazines that underage sex is normal, commenting that "the underlying, but inaccurate, message sometimes seems to be that all young people are sexually active." Soon afterwards, the Broadcasting Standards Commission reported that one in eight viewers thought soap operas - especially Coronation Street and EastEnders - were unsuitable for children. Screened before the 9pm watershed and crammed with sex, they are, Barnes confirmed, still favourite viewing for children (less than 10 per cent of the television watching of children is actually of programmes made for them).

The execrable Zoo, a blatantly titillating title for the less literate, obviously isn't concerned where its profits come from. Locked in a circulation battle with the risqué, but largely inoffensive, Nuts, it has slashed its £1.20 cover price to 50p, giving it a 10p advantage over its also cut-price rival. For this pocket-money price it offers such "cute words for tits" as "penis pillows".

But the lads' mags are almost demure compared with some of those targeting young women. Recalling that the relaunch of the fortnightly more was accompanied by a press release in which Dawn Bebe, the managing director of women's media at Emap, commented, "research shows that there is a real thirst among 18- to 25-year-old women for something new and different", I bought a copy in order to discover exactly what slaked such thirst.

The current cocktail includes such ingredients as an alleged eavesdrop on an internet chatroom discussion about "my penis is so big, my girlfriend says it hurts", tips on "how to get him to give you better oral" and a spread headlined "You confess", in which, allegedly, the readers themselves graphically describe mind-boggling sexual highlights of shopping trips with the boyfriend.

Sales figures for the second six months of last year showed that each issue of more sold an average of 259,550. It is impossible to ascertain how many of those fell into the hands of early- to mid-teen girls, or how many hits the more website - "Give good head - treat his penis like an ice lolly" - gets from young kids who were unable to afford "only £1.75" for a copy from newsagents and unaware of its content, or the worries of Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor.

* Following my observations in this space on the Daily Mirror's 3am Magazine, I received a most lucid letter from a member of its production staff. Far from, as I wrote, the magazine team believing that the newspaper has totally lost its way, he insisted: "I am inordinately proud to be on this paper." He and other team members saw their role as helping to boost the Mirror circulation to back over two million and "trying to revive the spirits of this once-great institution".

In the face of such admirable passion, I concede that I must have been ill-informed on this point.