Coming across a Radio 5 debate on the rights and wrongs of Page 3 topless photographs last Friday induced in me an acute attack of déjà vu. A concerned feminist called Kate Something-or-other was less fierce than Clare Short used to be.
Ms Short wanted to eradicate pornography from the mainstream press (“I'd love to ban it. It degrades women and our country"). Kate, who just wants to make the world a better place, merely hoped to persuade The Sun to do the decent thing and desist from further sexualising women.
In 2004, Sun editor Rebekkah Wade’s retaliation was to superimpose Ms Short's face on a topless model and make jokes about how turning her into a Page 3 girl would be "mission impossible". Kate is lucky that eight years on, The Sun’s fangs are not what they used to be.
Apart from the fashionable insistence of some young women that stripping “empowers” them, the arguments being put by callers-in were traditional. However I was interested to learn that the celebrity magazine, Heat, has struck a blow for sexual equality by running a regular feature called Hunks in Trunks.
I find this debate a waste of time. It’s standards, not flesh, that matters here. Rupert Murdoch did many good things for newspapers, but among his malign effects was to make tabloids appeal to the worst, not the best, in their readers.
When in 1969 he bought the failing Sun from IPC, he told his minions that what he wanted was “a tearaway paper with a lot of tit”. Hugh Cudlipp, then IPC Chairman, who was the greatest UK tabloid editor ever (Okay, okay, I declare an interest I wrote Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the Glory Days of Fleet Street), watched in horror at what happened to his beloved fun-but-serious Mirror.
In 1968, the Mirror had been Newspaper of the Year in recognition of its foreign coverage, but to survive it went remorselessly downmarket. Twenty years later, in a funeral oration for a old colleague, Cudlipp delivered a lament that I’ve never heard bettered about “the dawn of the Dark Ages of tabloid journalism, the decades, still with us, when the proprietors and editors not all, but most decided that playing a continuing role in public enlightenment was no longer any business of the popular Press. Information about foreign affairs was relegated to a three-inch yapping editorial insulting foreigners.
“It was the age when investigative journalism in the public interest shed its integrity and became intrusive journalism for the prurient, when nothing, however personal, was any longer secret or sacred and the basic human right to privacy was banished in the interest of publishing profit when bingo became a new journalistic art form when the daily nipple-count and the sleazy stories about bonking bimbos achieved a dominant influence in the circulation charts.”
Cudlipp was guiltily aware that he was the first editor to have sneaked a nipple into a national newspaper, but he never slackened in his mission to make his readers better informed and kinder. That will not be Rupert Murdoch’s epitaph.