Phil Hilton: Lay off the lads' mags, Michael

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The Independent Online

If full executive power was ceded to my family tomorrow there would be free chocolate in schools, the death penalty for people with nicer houses than ours and red wine attached to lamp-posts for men who'd had a tough day at work. In other words, we'd be fairly terrible. So we tend to stay away from policy-making.

I think in return I'd ideally like politicians to stay out of family life. The shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove has turned his fire on the lads' mags as contributing to the breakdown of the family. As the launch editor of Nuts and a member of a real family, I'm well placed to say that, as far as I can tell, the two are connected in much the same way that independently made organic cheddar and Formula 1 racing are intertwined – ie. not that much.

Family values seem to exist only in politics – if we have any ourselves, it would be that the loudest and most repetitive person gets their own way, and spitting is frowned upon (unless someone much bigger has you pinned down on the carpet). Family values in my household consist of arguing, laughing, ignoring each other and playing long games of "First One To See" in the car.

The Gove line is that a culture of hedonism is leading feckless men to be bad fathers. Having researched the Nuts audience and their older counterparts for the launch of my present magazine ShortList, we found that once out of their immature, dating, "Aren't women incredible" phase, men no longer want lads' mags. They look instead at more sober reading – in preparation for a life of carpet wrestling and long games of "First One To See".

The real advantage, if you're a politician, of talking a tough and uncompromising line on men's magazines is that it costs nothing – unlike extended paternity leave or better childcare support – and has no chance of becoming any kind of legislation, what with free speech and all. So it's carte blanche for posturing with no tax or manifesto implications.

The complexities of family life – shifting attachments, divorce (and, indeed, public drunkenness and a tendency to not give up your seat for old ladies) – cannot be blamed on a magazine sector.

Speaking to the audience at which they're aimed, it quickly becomes clear that in their spare time these "lads" are in very equal relationships with girlfriends, female friends – and mostly their mums. They share the washing-up and go to the supermarket; when I was at Nuts, Tesco was our largest single retailer.

Families are very private, eccentric places and very seldom resemble the cosy Victoriana that lies behind the appeal to Traditional Family Values.

To publicly throw yourself behind the arrangement of adults, children and computer-gaming equipment that constitutes the modern family unit is to underestimate the fluidity of these relationships. It is no surprise that so many public figures who have made a stand for the family end up having to explain their own divorces or sexual adventures in later years.

Politics is peppered with men and women who've attached themselves to the family and later been found to have dark hinterlands or been unable to sustain their own family attachments. As units around which to base rallying cries, families are just awful; for a two-hour game of Connect 4, they are unrivalled.

Phil Hilton is the editorial director of the free weekly men's magazine ShortList