Women with clout want Page Three out

These five women are only part of the reason why The Sun is rethinking the future of Page Three. It is finance and not feminism that may force the Old Guard to accept that simpering, submissive sex objects to not attract female readers.
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The Independent Online

Rupert Murdoch claims never to have understood the fuss over The Sun's Page Three. Why don't people get just as excited about page two, he has wondered in the past.

Rupert Murdoch claims never to have understood the fuss over The Sun's Page Three. Why don't people get just as excited about page two, he has wondered in the past.

He knows, of course, that Page Three has been The Sun's defining property virtually since he bought it. He also knows that he has been under regular pressure to drop it - from his wife, his ex-wife and his daughter, to campaigners including Clare Short.

Now the pressure is coming from within The Sun. A lobby led by deputy editor Rebekah Wade is claiming that submissive naked women are not going to win women readers. This is a business argument rather than a feminist argument. And that means Murdoch might just listen.

After more than a year of agonising, soul-searching and heated discussion, which culminated last month in a three-day brainstorming session for 28 Sun executives in Dublin, the men and women who run Britain's top-selling daily tabloid are nervous and divided over the future of Page Three.

For The Sun's Rebekah Wade it is quite simple. Topless Tara from Teddington, with mammaries which would make most women rush for reductive surgery, is out-dated, old-fashioned, sexist and - most important - from a commercial point of view, offensive to the new women readers whom The Sun must attract to maintain its slipping grip at the top of the market.

But the question is just how important is Page Three to current buyers of The Sun. Its old editorial guard, generally male, is warning against messing about with one of the most distinctive, and successful, bits of branding that the newspaper business has ever seen. In 1970, the first year of Page Three - which, legend now has it, started by accident as journalists struggled to fill an unexpected space in the paper - The Sun doubled its circulation to more than 2.5 million. Without Topless Tara, old-timers warn, circulation might fall as flat as the 32AA breasts that will never again grace Page Three.

Internal division has led to a rare period of self doubt and dithering at a paper which usually displays unshakeable - if questionable - conviction. From 13 October - when Maria, 26, from Guildford, showed off her assets - until yesterday - when Emma, 21, from Southend - appeared, a coy and possibly experimental cover up was being exercised.

Nipples suddenly disappeared, hidden behind tiny triangles of nylon and fake fur. On one occasion at least, even breasts were covered up and the Page Three slot featured a positively chaste fashion shot of a model competing for The Sun's Girl of the Millennium title.

Nipples made a return to yesterday's paper - perhaps in an effort by David Yelland to show that he still rules the roost after destabilising weekend reports that Page Three was dead - and now the eyes of the outside world have turned to a page which is normally the preserve of hard-core Sun loyalists for the latest developments. God knows what the punters make of it, but presumably The Sun is rather discreetly measuring discontent.

It would be ironic if market forces were to kill off Page Three. After all, it has until now proved pretty indestructible, surviving a long series of political and moral onslaughts since that day in 1970 when Stephanie Rahn began a peculiarly British tradition. About 16,000 breasts have been exposed despite the best attempts of, among others, the Labour MP Clare Short, who tried to introduce legislation in 1986 which would have outlawed Page Three, and criticism from the anti-porn campaigner Lord Longford.

The Sun, under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, did not take Short's campaign lying down. Samantha Fox, 36D, the most famous Page Three girl of them all, denounced Short as a killjoy. Any objection to The Sun's Third Page was quickly, and cheekily, turned to the paper's advantage. When a council in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire banned the paper from its library, The Sun declared war on the "Barmy Burghers of Sowerby Bridge". Five local girls were recruited to pose in mini skirts in support of The Sun. The 78-year-old codger of a council official who had introduced the ban did not stand a chance against such an onslaught.

Such has been the commercial success, until now, of bare breasts, that Sun proprietor Rupert Murdoch even defied the pleas of his own formidable mother, daughter and ex-wife to get rid of Page Three.

So does Wade - tipped to be the next Sun editor - stand a chance of succeeding where Clare Short and three generations of Murdoch women failed? The bets are divided at Wapping. Wade holds her opinion as passionately, insiders say, as the old guard holds its.

The two views have been endlessly thrashed out in a series of high-level meetings, which resulted in stalemate. Editor David Yelland, whose judgement has been previously questioned by his proprietor, has taken a pragmatic, sideline position, cautious this time about sticking his neck out. "No one was willing to take the ultimate risk," was how one insider described the drama yesterday.

The Dublin summit of Sun executives was supposed to focus on the whole future of the paper, but was completely dominated by discussion about Page Three. This was not inappropriate when both camps are warning that it is the future of Page Three itself which could determine the future of The Sun.

And there's no surprise that Murdoch is being lobbied again. He met with Yelland, Wade and Les Hinton, the executive chairman of News International, The Sun's owners, on Friday to thrash things out. What appears to have been decided may ultimately bring the death of Page Three, but it will take a long time. For a gradualist approach seems to have been chosen, one which allows the toning down of Page Three. But if circulation starts to buckle, as the old guard predicts, there will be a triumphant return of bare breasts and football stud nipples by "popular demand".

" The Sun is not really a political animal. It's a business first and foremost," says another source. "We want to increase circulation, as simple as that. This is not a political argument, it's about business."

And that's where Wade plays her trump card. For no one at The Sun - not even the old guard - can deny that the paper currently attracts an exceptionally small number of women. That The Sun cares about that is obvious from its plans to revamp the Sun Woman section and to expand it from eight to 12 pages. More women-friendly features are also planned through out the paper.

While Wade argues that all the efforts to improve women's coverage will be in vain if Page Three remains so exposed, the old timers at The Sun fret about the reader's core support - working-class men whose main preoccupations are sport and, presumably, Page Three. "Once you take the mainstays away, the rest could begin to crumble," says one inside source. "It's certainly a risk, and it will be an interesting time."

What modern women really object to, according to market research, is the girl next-door with simpering smile who is taking her top off to get a man because she can't do anything else. Self confident, successful women who are also proud of their bodies are, apparently, positively welcomed by female newspaper readers.

So the expectation is for more glossy, tasteful, partially-clad photographs along the lines which have been pedalled so successfully by male magazines such as FHM, Maxim and Loaded.

"This is not going to be the end of sexy pictures in The Sun," says a source. "They just won't necessarily be on Page Three."