Claire Curtis-Thomas: Why these magazines drive me nuts

'Lads mags' are both sexually explicit and highly sexually denigrating
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The Independent Online

I am guessing that because you are reading this in The Independent, you may not be a consumer of such men's magazines as Nuts, Zoo, or indeed the so called newspaper the Daily Sport. If I am correct, then I would encourage you to go to your newsagents today and buy one of these titles. You will, I imagine, be as horrified as I am, not just at how obscene and explicitly pornographic the material they contain is, but that you don't have to reach up to the top shelf to get hold of them. These publications are openly displayed alongside mainstream glossy publications such as Elle Decor, Good Housekeeping andWhat Computer?. There are no restrictions on their sale to children or minors. The Daily Sport, and its appallingly explicit images, sits alongside other newspapers, usually on the bottom shelf.

The response I have received to the Bill I presented to the House of Commons on Monday suggests that most people want such material to be accessed only by adults, and their sale controlled by an independent regulator capable of ensuring children are protected.

"Lads mags" provide a clear example of the failure of current media regulation. Publications such as FHM, Zoo, Nuts, and the like are sexually explicit and promote a sexually denigrating message. The question is why publications containing images and references so obscene that I was barred by the Speaker of the House of Commons from citing them in debate this week, are not limited to the top shelves. Their content is barely distinguishable from recognised top-shelf pornography.

Women in these publications are shown only as cheap, contemptible sexual commodities, fit to be subjected to a range of exploitative, violent and degrading activities. It is this, I believe, that makes these publications dangerous to be viewed by children and minors. Displaying them next to mainstream glossy magazines may help to shift more copies, but what message does it send to boys and young men about the value that society places on women?

While these publications are sexually explicit and, in my opinion, exploitative and denigrating, there is no meaningful regulation in place to ensure they are sold as age-restricted and displayed only on the top shelves. As I told the House of Commons, the British media has throughout its history achieved a balance between decency and freedom of expression. Our country has led the world in its ability to combine a freedom of choice for society, while at the same time protecting its most vulnerable members. But the availability and impact of such publications as Zoo, Nuts and the Daily Sport are undermining this reputation. Since regulation has proved an excellent mechanism for protecting children from other media - the TV watershed or film classification, for example - it should be extended to the print media, thereby ending this anomaly.

Although publishers are regulated by the Press Complaints Commission, this body has no codes regarding sexually explicit content. The commission has refused to consider introducing guidelines, even over explicit material on the covers of newspapers and magazines.

The sale of newspapers and magazines is monitored by a retail regulator, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, but this body issues purely voluntary codes to retailers and has no power to impose fines. Retailers are under no obligation whatsoever to abide by its recommendations.

WH Smith is the UK's largest distributor of magazines, yet despite hearing my arguments, they continue to make these publications available to children. When I contacted WH Smith to discuss this issue, the chairman refused to speak to me, presumably because he is very happy with the profits he is generating as a result of his role in promoting and distributing this literature.

I believe we have a duty to protect children from harm. Yet it seems the print industry would rather look to profit from the young. I urge you to contact your MP to signal your agreement with me, and to write to the chairman of WH Smith. It is only by taking action that we can safeguard our young ones from deviant and derogatory material.

What I am proposing is the establishment of a new, independent, non-partisan regulator for the sale and display of sexually explicit material, with binding codes and transparent guidelines; a regulator that is socially responsible and, crucially, not motivated by profit.

I am quite happy for adults who want to access Zoo or Nuts to continue doing so, but I am outraged that anyone should continue to defend their availability to children: it's not free speech they are advocating, merely the freedom to profit.

The writer is the Labour MP for Crosby