The word "responsibility" and national newspapers often go together like a horse and steamroller. As a journalist in Tom Stoppard’s play, Night and Day, observed, "comment is free but facts are on expenses", so it comes as no surprise when papers depart from the straight and narrow to thrash about in the murky undergrowth in order to pursue their own agendas. But in one area the press – well, most of it – is ultra careful. When it comes to sex, newspapers tread warily.
Of course sex is exploited, but its treatment in newspapers is unsophisticated bordering on gauche, a lurid pig’s ear version of a fine silk purse. The bloke culture that established bare breasts on page three of The Sun and still dominates much of the material found smirking inside the Daily Star and Sunday Sport – indeed, last Sunday’s News of the World featured wall-to-wall sham glam – is as much part of British life as casual profanity and street litter. It has made Jordan a red-top superstar.
But, comically sad and demeaning though they may be, tit pictures are hardly a corrupting influence. Nor are those irresistible stories – usually broken by the tabloids and then seized upon with a totally insincere frown of disapproval by the broadsheets – concerning married clergymen and lady parishioners, vapid pop stars and publicity-junky models, or footballers foolish enough to injunct a Sunday paper that’s about to reveal details of how he is two or even three-timing his wife.
Editors are aware that their newspapers are read by a wide cross-section of the public and tend to be left around the house, so they mostly shy away from the kind of prurience unsuitable for the eyes of younger family members. (The Guardian may delight in de-asterisking f***s and c***s, like an attention-seeking schoolboy scrawling obscenities on the lav wall, but even its sternest critics would not suggest such deliberate eccentricity was dangerous to Britain’s youth.)
The same, alas, cannot be said of some magazines and the writers of television’s most popular soap operas.
Schools watchdog Ofsted, in urging teachers to do more to counter the acceptance in teenage magazines of underage sex as normal, commented at the end of last month: "While many magazines now stress the importance of safe sex, the underlying, but inaccurate, message sometimes seems to be that all young people are sexually active." Meanwhile, the Broadcasting Standards Commission reported even more recently that one in eight viewers thought soap operas – Coronation Street and EastEnders came in for particular criticism – were now unsuitable for children. Screened before the 9pm watershed, these opiates of the airwaves have included plot lines featuring rape, prostitution and incest, as well as common-or-garden TV fodder such as murder and wife battering. Sunny Stories, they ain’t.
I have long despaired of the desperate thrashings of the soaps in the relentless struggle for ratings. What sort of audience can be hooked on human caricature where sex and violence in any number of permutations prevails, yet, in an ironic gesture towards political correctness, hardly anyone smokes? I was less familiar with teen magazines (yes, I would be, wouldn’t I?). So I collected a few from my neighbourhood newsagent, who if he found it bizarre that I should approach the till with an armful of glossies offering on their covers to answer all my "most in-depth" sex problems, kept his feelings to himself.
CosmoGIRL!, the giggly little sister of Cosmopolitan, is "for fun, fearless teens", claims the National Magazine Company. Its special "All Your SEX Questions Answered" feature in the current issue has an "It’s Sealed!" cover-line. Inside the eight-page "100% sex sealed for your protection" supplement there are graphic explanations of oral sex and useful glossaries, from which fun girls can learn that among euphemisms for sexual intercourse are "knobbing" and "humping", but not – editor Celia Duncan’s hypocritical bow to propriety – "f******". From the CondÅ½ Nast stable comes the hugely successful Glamour, which by its simplistic writing style and tone I can only assume is aimed at very young women. Glamour boasts that since its launch it has won a cluster of awards, including Magazine of the Year in last year’s Asian Trader Awards. Good grief, I thought the strong family ethos of Asian parents would make them particularly sensitive to their young daughters reading how to "Give Your Sex Drive an MOT". Or "Free SEX Advice that would normally cost you £1,200" – tips from sex therapists that include an anecdote about a woman who as a toddler had her first orgasm when a dog licked her crotch.
How teachers and parents can steer teenagers away from the confused and often tacky messages to be found in such magazines I don’t know. NatMags and CondÅ½ Nast need seriously to examine their responsibilities towards society as a whole, but I doubt that it will happen – CosmoGIRL! is presumably a marvellous recruitment base for readers of more "grown-up" publications, such as NatMags’ Cosmopolitan and Company.
The main selling line in the May Cosmo, the magazine for bigger but not necessarily brainier girls, was "Men + Sex". Company, the middle sister in the sex-obsessed family, boasted "The Sex World Cup", a "saucy and" – guess what? -"sealed section" – perhaps there is something erotic about tearing at polythene with trembling fingers.
For those women not especially interested in World Cup Willies, of which 32 are given full-frontal photographic treatment, Company also contained "Your 28-day orgasm guide" and a sexual health feature asking: "Are you sure you don’t have an STD?" I don’t suppose anyone can be – you could probably catch one from the cover.
There is nothing to prevent teens, or even pre-teens developed beyond their years, getting hold of grubby material that deserves to be elevated to the newsagent’s top shelf alongside explicit sex magazines aimed at men. Perhaps Ofsted needs to widen its concern.
Where sex is concerned, sometimes the newspapers do get it right when much of the public gets it wrong. Listening to a Radio 5 Live phone-in discussion on the Sven GÅ¡ran Eriksson-Ulrika-Nancy infamous triangle, I thought Sunday People editor Neil Wallis spiritedly defended publication of the story, emphasising that Eriksson had only himself to blame and that, far from being censorious, most papers had treated the affair with their senses of humour firmly in place.
Alas, the majority of callers roundly abused Wallis for, by reporting Eriksson’s indiscretions, endangering England’s chances of winning the World Cup. The trouble with journalists like him, blustered one particularly sad complainant, was that they considered sex to be more important than football.
I’ve rarely been more pleased to be a journalist.