Clare Short: I didn't get rid of Page 3 – can Leveson?

Tabloid vilification helped kill off the debate then. We should begin it again now

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It was 1986 when I first put forward to the Commons the idea of legislation to cut the Page 3 phenomenon out of Britain's press. My father had died at my home that morning so I was in a sad mood when I set off for Westminster. But soon, the adrenalin protected me as MPs giggled and sneered at my suggestion that it degraded women – and our culture generally – to spread such images so widely in the mainstream of society.

There was little publicity for the speech but enough to produce a torrent of moving letters from women saying yes, please do it. And so I went ahead and introduced my tightly-drawn Bill, and the floodgates opened. The Sun went to war with me. "Twenty things you need to know about killjoy Clare"; "Fat, jealous Clare brands Page Three porn". It went on and on, and the News of the World joined in, even colluding with the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad in an attempt to smear me.

Nearly 20 years later, after I had left government, I was asked by a female journalist whether I still objected to Page 3, and I said I did. The bullying and intimidation started again. Half-naked women calling at my home in Birmingham and startling my elderly mother, and a double decker full of them outside my London home for hours. Again, there were snide comments about me and my body, not noticing that by then I was a grandmother approaching pensionable age.

Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into the ethics of the press heard some impressive, if depressing, evidence this week from women's groups about the continued use of sexualised imagery in some newspapers and about a culture of relentless sexism in some sections of the press.

In response, he said that his terms of reference did not stretch to such issues. But surely the depiction of half the population in a way that is now illegal on workplace walls and before the watershed in broadcasting, is an issue of media ethics? Interestingly, the evidence put to the inquiry was censored before circulation to remove the images that are perfectly legal in millions of newspapers that spread across society.

The Leveson Inquiry should also take note of my experience to learn how the media can censor public debate. The deliberate bullying I endured was designed to stop me discussing an issue of public concern and to frighten other women off. This is not a question of phone hacking or intrusion of privacy, but in some ways it is worse.

Tabloid vilification helped kill off a debate that would have forced Page 3 images out of British newspapers and perhaps obliged the media to behave and report in a less sexist way. Twenty-six years on, Lord Leveson should seriously consider the case that has been made.

Clare Short served as an MP from 1983 to 2010 and as international development secretary in the Blair government

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