25 May, 2009Issue 9.5EuropeHistory

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Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall

Daniel Hemel

binghamAdrian Bingham
Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life & The British Popular Press 1918-1978
Oxford University Press, 2009
267 pages
£55.00
ISBN 978-0199279586

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In February 1943, the UK Ministry of Health asked newspapers to print a public service advertisement alerting readers to the risks of sexually transmitted infections. “The first sign of syphilis is a small ulcer on or near the sex organs”, read the draft statement sent to editors. The Daily Mirror printed the draft text in full, but the conservative Daily Mail dismissed the ministry’s text as too explicit, opting to excise the words “on or near the sex organs”. The Mail’s million-plus readers were thus left with the impression that a canker sore could mark the onset of venereal disease.

In the UK today, the reaction to canker sores is more likely to involve antihistamines than hysteria. But surveys still reveal startling levels of sexual ignorance across the British population. A 2007 Family Planning Association poll found that 29% of British adults believe urinating, douching, or “jumping and dancing around” may “stop a woman from becoming pregnant if she does it immediately after sex”.

These numbers should improve once comprehensive sex education becomes part of the compulsory curriculum in primary and secondary schools starting in 2011. But schools cannot reach the 18% of British adults who say they have never received sex ed. For some in this segment of the population, agony aunts such as The Sun’s Dear Deidre and the Mirror’s Miriam Stoppard step in to fill a void. Even the mid-market Mail—still steadfastly Tory—has reconsidered its reticence regarding sex organs and other sex-related topics: columnist Rowan Pelling now writes frankly about her own abortion and offers advice on the treatment of erectile dysfunction.

Adrian Bingham—formerly of Merton College, now a lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield—explores the sexualisation of the British print media in his new monograph, Family Newspapers. Bingham’s narrative extends from the post-World War I period, when “the habit of daily newspaper reading spread throughout society”, until 1978, the year that Rupert Murdoch’s salacious Sun dethroned the Mirror as the nation’s number-one circulating daily.

Bingham argues that British newspapers do not merely reflect popular attitudes; they shape these attitudes as well. And although commercial pressures often overshadow other motives, Bingham acknowledges that, on occasion, tabloids can contribute positively to the public discourse on sex and sexuality.

The Mirror’s anti-venereal disease campaign was one such occasion. As syphilis rates surged during wartime, the Mirror’s leaders launched a lonely crusade against sexual ignorance in mid-1942. Others on Fleet Street purported to be scandalised by the Mirror’s explicitness, but the Ministry of Health responded approvingly and initiated its own informational campaign the following year.

The Mirror and its Sunday stable mate, the Pictorial, would remain pioneers of sexual health coverage for the next three decades. In 1960, the paper printed a three-part report on the birth control pill, explaining how the medication could make sex “more satisfying because…the natural flow of affection need not be interrupted”. In 1975, the Mirror ran a “Guide to Sexual Knowledge” (under the direction of agony aunt Marje Proops) that marked, in Bingham’s words, “the apogee of this form of educational popular journalism”. That guide calmly informed readers that pre-ejaculate contains sperm—a fact that a frightening 24% of British adults still fail to recognise today, according to the FPA’s 2007 poll.

Not surprisingly, pecuniary motives mixed with political and public health concerns to drive the Mirror’s coverage decisions. As one veteran reporter wrote, “sex, the Mirror discovered, sold papers—papers—papers by the million”. Of course, not all the Mirror’s sex-related content served a public interest purpose: the scantily clad cartoon character Jane seduced Mirror readers each morning from 1932 until 1959. (Though to Jane’s credit, some would argue that even she advanced the common good—when servicemen saw her in the nude for the first time, a US reporter quipped that “the British 36th Division immediately gained six miles”.)

Regardless of whether the 36th Division gained, the Mirror’s circulation certainly did: by the end of the war, it had vaulted from fourth place among popular newspapers to the top spot—a position it retained for another three decades. But the Mirror’s sex coverage did more than pander to popular sentiment. As early as 1958, it emerged as a staunch opponent of anti-homosexuality laws (Parliament would not decriminalise consensual sex between adult men for another nine years). Indeed, the Mirror took this stance even against its readers’ objections. When a survey revealed that a majority of Mirror buyers disagreed with the decriminalisation proposal, the editors announced: “This newspaper believes these readers are wrong.”

Examples such as the Mirror’s pro-decriminalisation campaign may make the modern-day reader nostalgic for the tabloids of yore. If the period of pre-World War II press prudishness was the “first phase” of the tabloid treatment of sex, and the “second phase” spanned the Mirror-dominated decades in which “sex was presented as a source of entertainment, but also as a subject about which the public required up-to-date, scientific information”, we have now, Bingham argues, entered a third phase: the Age of Murdoch.

Launched in 1969, Murdoch’s Sun “increased the emphasis on sexual pleasure, steadily moving away from what it regarded as an anachronistic attachment to educating the public”. As The Sun rose in circulation, other newspapers adopted Murdoch’s methods in order to maintain their market share. Indeed, longtime Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp acknowledged that his paper had to “lower its standards” in response to The Sun’s ascent.

It is tempting to tisk tisk at the “Murdochisation” of the media. But “phase three” sex coverage is not as vapid as Bingham implies. He writes that in the Age of Murdoch, “the information and advice that [i]s provided assume[s] a basic sexual literacy and [i]s directed to providing instruction in sexual technique on how to become the ‘perfect lover’”. Yet as the FPA’s statistics illustrate, “basic sexual literacy” is lacking among many British adults, and the popular press—even the Murdoch-owned popular press—still performs an educative function. In recent weeks, The Sun’s Dr. Keith has weighed the merits of competing anti-ED drugs and shed light on lesser-known diseases that affect male sexual health. The Sunday Mirror’s Catherine Hood has answered readers’ questions about emergency contraception and reverse vasectomies. To put it bluntly, you won’t find this sort of coverage in the Financial Times.

Indeed, for informative columns on sexual health, readers might be better off with a tabloid than a broadsheet or a Berliner. In the past year, according to statistics from the search engine Lexis-Nexis, the Mirror has printed 46 articles making mention of chlamydia (now the most common sexually transmitted infection in the UK) and The Sun has run 43, while the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian lag with only 14 articles apiece. Interestingly, the upmarket paper that fares the best on this dimension is the Murdoch-owned Times: 27 articles, plus a dozen in its Sunday sister paper.

Of course, any judgment about sex coverage in the British press requires qualitative content analysis as well as crude quantifications. But in terms of informational value, the Mirror’s Stoppard and Hood easily top Telegraph sex columnist Graham Norton. Whereas a recent Stoppard story carries the title “How do you know if you’re at risk of Hepatitis C?” and a recent Hood item urges readers to go in for chlamydia check-ups, the Telegraph’s Norton sprinkles almost no public health content into his columns. The Guardian’s in-house sex therapist, Pamela Stephenson Connolly, makes a more admirable attempt to educate, but her once-a-week contributions cannot compare with the tabloids’ steady stream of sexual health coverage. Ironically, while the upmarket papers are the ones most supportive of sex education in state schools and the redtop tabloids are the papers which are most hostile toward sex ed, tabloids have done more to improve sexual health knowledge among readers. (Perhaps the tabloids realise that in the market for sex advice, schools are now their number one competitors.)

One lesson from Bingham’s book is that papers use sex coverage to maintain circulation amid competition: as upmarket papers see their sales numbers falling, they will follow the path pioneered by the tabloids. But if there is a second lesson from Bingham’s book, it is that the sexualisation of the press can provide readers with information as well as titillation.

The mid-century Mirror’s motives were not pure, but they were not purely prurient either. The paper’s public information campaign probably limited the spread of syphilis during World War II and might have hastened the decriminalisation of homosexuality decades later. Agony aunts and medical “experts” have provided basic sex education to readers who never got it at the primary and secondary school level. As much as we might jeer Murdoch’s models on Page 3, sex organs are here to stay in the UK papers. And that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Daniel Hemel is an MPhil student in International Relations at New College, Oxford. He is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.