Where’s the ‘Je Suis Page 3’ movement?
Boobs, prophets – true press freedom means nothing should be off limits.
Well, there you have it, an answer to the question: ‘How long will it take for Britain’s political and media classes to go from saying “Je suis Charlie” to being their old censorious selves, celebrating the crushing of words and images they don’t like?’ The answer is 13 days. Not even two weeks. They couldn’t keep up the pretence of being in favour of press freedom for one measly fortnight. For yesterday, just shy of the second-week anniversary of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the right bunch of Charlies who make up Britain’s illiberal liberal set were hollering ‘Victory!’ following reports that Page 3, the Sun’s daily serving of a scantily-clad woman, has apparently been put to bed. ‘Charlie Hebdo is dead!’, shouted those French lunatics two weeks ago; ‘Page 3 is dead!’, yelp Britain’s chattering classes today.
No, there’s no comparison between two men using Kalashnikovs to murder 10 people who worked on an allegedly offensive magazine and gender-studies graduates using prudish petitions to pressure the Sun to ditch its pics of half-naked women. Murder is a heinous crime; Mary Whitehouse-style campaigning is not. But you know what can be compared? The desire of Islamists to squish images that upset their religious sensibilities and the urge of feminists and others to halt the publication of imagery they claim has a ‘negative impact’ on their ‘self-esteem’. In both cases, the esteem of small groups of people — Koran-devouring Islamist sects, bel hooks-reading feminist cliques — is elevated over the right of everyone else to publish and read what they want.
Remarkably — or not, given Britain’s opinion-forming set is famous for its double standards — the same people who stood up for Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish offensive cartoons were yesterday at the forefront of celebrating the longstanding, slow-motion and now reportedly successful questioning of the Sun’s right to publish allegedly offensive photographs. So just five days ago, the grand dame of Guardianistas, Polly Toynbee, was laying into the pope over his suggestion that Charlie Hebdo, and others, should stop offending religious people. It’s the job of raucous press outlets to ‘stick two fingers up to propriety’, she said: ‘It is a belch in the face of established taste and dignity.’ But then yesterday, in an about-face so colossal it threatens to skew the Earth’s orbit of the Sun, Toynbee was saying ‘Victory!’ about the Sun’s ‘retreat’ on Page 3. She celebrated campaigners’ smashing of images of women as ‘dumb bare bodies’. What happened to sticking two fingers up at propriety? No, no, not at Polly’s proprieties! Where Pope Francis wants to punish those who make a tit of Jesus, Pope Polly wants to punish those who show tits. Different focuses, same shit.
Or consider deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman. Two weeks ago she wrung her hands over the possible post-Charlie Hebdo ‘chilling [of] free speech’. She hailed the ‘right to satirise, to lampoon and to criticise’. ‘No democracy can function without freedom of the press’, she said. Fast forward 13 days and she’s loudly cheering campaigners for helping elbow aside Page 3. Photos of women in their underwear is ‘not the representation of women… that I want to see’, she said. Who does she think she is? God? Muhammad? Photos of half-naked women is not what she wants to see and therefore it’s good they’ve been expunged? Her tyrannical instincts are the match of any pope’s or imam’s.
The flimsiness of the ‘Je suis Charlie’ outburst could also be glimpsed in the Independent’s joyous dancing on the grave of Page 3. This paper that just a few days back was upholding the right of cartoonists to stir and shock now features columnists crowing over the demise of ‘toxic and demeaning’ Page 3 and demanding that the Sun go even further and ditch the pics of women in bras, too. Or as a writer for the New Statesman said: ‘Now that Page 3 is gone, we just have to get rid of pages 1, 2 and 4-39.’ What intolerance! As surely as Islamists want to crush blasphemy, so they want to crush the Sun. I know, not with guns, but certainly with pressure and harassment and shame. And as Ray Bradbury said, ‘There’s more than one way to burn a book’.
The whooping over the reported end of Page 3 shows what a blip ‘Je suis Charlie’ was. There has been no shift in the mentality of the British elites. Rather, their post-bloodshed nods to the importance of free speech were total lip service, all thesaurus-fuelled gesture and no substance. So now, not a fortnight later, we’re back to business as usual. Back to the post-Leveson norm of elitist assaults on the wicked tabloids; back to living in a nation straitjacketed by hate-speech laws and the worst libel statutes on Earth; back to the era of the Twittermob getting coppers to knock on the doors of people who tell off-colour jokes; back to politicians believing with implacable arrogance that they can say what is and isn’t acceptable in the press, as if the entire demos just died and MPs accidentally became the sole determiners of truth and discussion. ‘Je suis l’état.’
Some will say, ‘Well, Page 3 was silly and outdated, so who cares?’. I agree it was silly and outdated, and it would probably have been retired by the Sun long ago if it hadn’t been for Clare Short, No More Page 3 and others unwittingly keeping it alive by turning it into a massive moral battleground. But caricatures of Muhammad are also silly, usually, and I defend the right of newspapers to publish those. The problem is not the disappearance of Page 3, but the arguments that were used to help it disappear. The anti-Page 3 campaign represents a 21st-century revival of something that is truly outdated: the pseudo-scientific, super-censorious idea that culture warps people’s putty-like minds and makes them do terrible things. With searing contempt for your average Sun reader — whisper it: white, working class, probably didn’t go to Oxford — anti-Page 3 campaigners say Page 3 ‘conditions’ the ‘behaviours’ of men, ‘encouraging negative attitudes… and at worst, acts of violence’. Monkey see, monkey do. Page 3’s demise is regrettable because it represents a victory — a long, slow victory, admittedly — for a deeply misanthropic, authoritarian outlook: media-effects theory, the notion that the public, or at least Them, lack free will and good sense and thus We must control the media and culture in order to stop Them from becoming twisted. Like every censor in history, Page 3 bashers were driven by a deep distrust of the plebs and a corresponding urge to hide certain images and words from us.
Page 3 made it through the Eighties, the high point of PC. It survived the Nineties, a decade of top-down tut-tutting over ‘lad culture’. It got through the Noughties relatively unscathed, despite that being a decade of Twitterfury over everything. But it couldn’t keep it up — no pun intended — in the 2010s, after Leveson, with the ideal of press freedom shoved in the bin, at a time when the right to be offensive has rarely been so weak, now battered by everyone from coppers to students. You might not miss those daily boobs, but you should mourn the passing of an era in which showing boobs, and in the process belching in the face of propriety, was at least a possibility.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.