Fleet Street's careful work has been undone

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The Independent Online
HOW FAR can one go? This is the vexed question that has been uppermost in the minds of our senior opinionistes these past 10 days. I refer, needless to say, to the difficulty in writing about the Starr Report (dread topic!) without swimming into the proverbial pool of deep water with one's more sensitive readers.

When I embarked upon my career as a scrivener, there were a great many words considered too fruity or risque to print. "Humid" was one, "moist" another. In fact, there were over 103 different parts of the body alone on the proscribed list, updated each year to include new parts discovered by medical boffins in the interim. "Little toe" was allowed, but "big toe" was most certainly not. "Tongue" and "lips" were obviously taboo, whilst "cheek" was only allowable with the word "facial" in front of it. No parts of the body between the navel and the knee were ever to be mentioned, and only the neck between the navel and the chin.

For reasons of propriety, many of the major historical events passed by unreported in the Fleet Street of that period. For instance, the abdication of King Edward VIII was first mentioned in our newspaper as late as 1952, and then only in the most abstract terms. Up until that point, we had intimated that the King was happily married to a plucky yet retiring bride, and that the happy couple had anything up to six children, all of them well-mannered.

The early successes of Elvis Presley and The Beatles went similarly unremarked, and well into the 1970s our artist was at hand 24 hours a day, ready to doctor photos of Presley, making any unsightly bulges in the upper-leg region vanish and transforming his figure-hugging jump-suits into sensible three-piece tweeds.

Once the Sixties and early Seventies had got into their stride, our arts pages were heavily reduced in size, and some of the most controversial books and films of the time - Last Mango in Paris, Lady Chatterley's Rover, Deep Goat, The Joy of Essex - had to be tweaked a little in order to satisfy the demands of the more delicate reader. But before long the ravenous appetite of the market place forced standards to fall, and soon anything and everything was permitted into print. Personally, it was when I saw that the separation of Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret had achieved the front page that I knew the writing was well and truly on the wall: their marriage had been refused any mention at all, on the grounds of the groom's alleged leanings towards photography.

First one taboo tumbled down, then another. Before long, there was a positive avalanche. First "moist" was allowed, then "lobe" and finally "buttock" (though only, for some reason, the right buttock: it is a little- known fact that the left remained banned until as recently as February 1979). I regret to say that the shenanigans of the Tory Party in 1995- 97 forced yet more floodgates open when it became impossible for serious commentators such as myself to inform our readers of Britain's place in the world without at least a passing mention of three-in-a-bed toe-sucking kinky sex-romps.

But the Starr Report has made our task all the harder. Poor Kenneth Rose in the Sunday Telegraph, for instance, was driven to remind his readers of the aristocratic origins of the phrase "oral sex": "Lady Oral was, of course, the distinguished 18th century hostess whose six Adam fireplaces at Burpham were one of the wonders of their day," he informed us last weekend. "So I trust that when President Clinton next entertains Miss Lewinsky he will find time to tell her of her illustrious predecessor, with her famous Oral Six."

Lord Rees-Mogg took a long-term historical view of the situation. "President Roosevelt was not averse to a little fellatio, and both Presidents Nixon and Johnson were also firm adherents. In my many cordial meetings with Nancy Reagan, I rarely raised the subject ... but from the set of her jaw I would judge her to be one of that estimable pastime's most formidable champions."

I jest. Yet for all this "openness", one sometimes yearns for a world that is a little more closed. "Put it away!" one longs to shout, "we've all got one!"