Why I think boycotting The Sun newspaper is a good idea

In this article, the author raises their concerns about what materials can be viewed as appropriate for public libraries to stock, explains their position regarding why they believe The Sun cannot be regarded as suitable stock for a public library, and outlines why a public petition to remove it deserves support.

(Image c/o Liam Wilde on Flickr.)

I will jump right in and start with the biggest accusation, censorship. It’s a complicated subject and one that will have most liberals squirming in their seats. Where should a line be drawn between free speech /access to controversial publications and having respect for those who do not wish to see such resources? I think that throwing censorship at an argument shuts down discussion rather than opening it up for debate and becomes counterproductive.

Boycotting a product, organisation or even placing embargos on countries seems to be an effective and accepted way in which we use our collective disapproval of an action or product to put pressure on a company and make it change its ways. Yet when the company in question is a newspaper any criticism levelled against what they do is instantly branded as censorship.

Many women feel reluctant to speak out over issues that concern sexism as a torrent of online abuse, including violent threats, often follows and again this shuts down debate leaving concerns about sexism overlooked while mainstream sexism is allowed to thrive.

I am, for the record, against censorship. I respect the right for people to have different opinions to my own and I relish the opportunity to challenge them.  I believe that the current rules in which a library operates (CILIP guidelines) work perfectly well for the written word.  There is no need to change the way in which we select literature or buy books that may or may not offend the reader. The difference is that the reader can choose whether they want to access the book or not.

When it comes to The Sun that choice is removed. You cannot choose to ‘unsee’ a sexist image blazoned across the front page. It is difficult to avoid the full page soft porn that accompanies each issue, every day and tough not to see the derogatory and eroticised headlines that accompany stories of the crimes frequently committed against women.

To assert that a library operates with no bias, rules or filtering of material is an outright myth. The on-going debate about unrestricted access to the internet is a perfect example. Libraries already filter against materials and websites deemed to be inciting terrorism. This is presumably because we, as a society, believe that terrorism is something that we do not wish to facilitate or encourage and is detrimental to us as a community. I agree with this principle. We have guidelines and an ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ which states “Our network is filtered to block offensive or illegal material being viewed or downloaded in the library”. Again I agree with this policy. The library is a community resource and it aims to be inclusive even going so far as to state that the Council is “determined to remove discrimination”.

I believe that to use the CILIP guidelines for images such as those in The Sun does not keep up with the changing nature of materials available.  New guidelines are needed for visual imagery. It is irresponsible and unequal to put the rights of people wanting to view offensive material above those who don’t. Why are the needs of these people not as important when we argue about rights people have in the library environment?

Libraries attempt to avoid displaying offensive materials in line with local needs. They do not distribute leaflets for hate groups, nor do they permit the use of racist and abusive language for staff or public. This is because it goes against our beliefs of what is right in a community. To argue that libraries exist in a vacuum where anything goes in the name of free speech is simply untrue.

Libraries operate on a decreasing budget. Choices are made as to what may “educate and inspire” readers and to provide resources to a diverse community.  I am grateful that the library service I work for does not buy The Daily Sport or The Daily Star who along with The Sun were cited in evidence presented at the Leveson Enquiry into press standards as having “a tendency to uphold myths about domestic and sexual violence, prostitution and violence against ethnic minority women; news reporting which implicitly blames women for violence committed against them; and the normalization of images and stories which sexualize and objectify women.”

So what exactly is the problem with The Sun? The Sun has been criticized for eroticizing crimes against women, see recent example of this with the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. The paper regularly objectifies women and distorts news stories suggesting women are responsible for the crimes committed against them. They continually mock women in the public eye by trying to shame or humiliate them into being silent. Clare Short MP and Harriet Harman MP have both fallen prey to this.

It is the normalization of everyday sexism that we need to fight against. 30 universities in the UK stopped selling The Sun on their campuses as they saw a conflict between their own equality policies and the selling of a sexist newspaper. The Sun still exists. People are still free to buy it if they choose but these institutions have decided that the selling of this paper on their own campuses would render the universities own equality policies meaningless.

Likewise Tesco  and The Co-op supermarkets made the decision to cover or remove ‘lad’s mags’ such as Nut’s and Zoo because of their graphic front covers and misogynistic content were inappropriate to their wide customer base.

Currently, there is an online petition asking The Sun to remove the Page 3 topless full page image from its newspaper. It has been signed by 189,000 plus people including the signatures of 154 MP’s. The question of if Page 3 has a place in 21st Century Britain has recently been discussed in parliament but it continues to be printed.

“One in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime” (2003 Unifem report). The normalizing and possible eroticizing of violent crimes against women and the daily objectification of women in newspapers such as The Sun perpetuate  the idea that women in our society are not respected and not taken seriously. Evidence presented to the Leveson Enquiry states “There is much evidence about the media’s role in providing a conductive context for violence against women to occur by condoning, tolerating and normalizing abuse of women”

Bizarrely, The Sun chooses not to show soft porn in their weekend issues as they see these editions as ‘family friendly”. I see my local library as a family friendly environment but am confused as to why The Sun and its soft porn, misogynistic content is accessible every day for all to see.

This article isn’t a criticism of the council I work for, in fact I think the beliefs and guidelines they hold dear on equality are commendable. I do understand the difficult position they are in being bound by the CILIP guidelines but there is a real conflict of interest.

I am delighted that this question and the introduction of the petition highlights an issue which has for too long been overlooked. Libraries need to move with the times and face up to the growing issues surrounding offensive imagery and how it is displayed or accessed. The voices of those who do not wish to be exposed to such material needs to be heard.

The real debate lays in what kind of society we want to live in. Can we accept the existence of offensive materials or publications that we don’t agree with without stocking them? Do the council’s standards on equality come before or after the rights of people wishing to access the materials in question? Do people who do not want to see offensive imagery have the same rights as those that do wish to see it? To say ‘anything goes’ in the name of free speech, is in my opinion a liberal cop out.

A. Ashcroft

*The views and opinions in this article belong to the author and not necessarily represent the views of any Council*

4 thoughts on “Why I think boycotting The Sun newspaper is a good idea

  1. I agree with all that you’re saying but still yet disagree with a blanket ban. Each authority should decide on its own rules and on its own stock policy.

    Interestingly, I was recently witness to a stand-up one-side row between three professionally behaved soldiers wanting to donate “The Volunteer” magazine to the library and one irate library user who took offense to what he sees as it militaristic message. To him those images of uniforms and military hardware were quite as offensive and dangerous as what one sees in the Sun. Should that be banned too then? And then the Mail of course. And that Telegraph is a bit gung ho sometimes too.

    Stock policies are there for a reason – a group thinks about all aspects and writes it accordingly so that we don’t have to make individual decisions on individual titles. This is a dark road you suggest. Sorry but it is. And it can be used against you and what you stand for (and you could be rightwing or leftwing, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter) quite as much as it can be used for you.

  2. What should be banned? The offensive. the destroyer of society: The Guardian.
    It’s leftist claptrap would bring our economies to its knees. Next thing you know the commies would be in. Reds in our beds.

    …..Wait, that’s not my view.
    But a large portion of a ‘freedom’ loving country did think like this not that long a go. (well, not the Guardian bit, they didn’t have it, but they probably would have done if it was in circulation there at the time)

    It begs a question. while ‘banning’ (or ‘not stocking’) material which is deemed offensive and inappropriate seems like a simple approach. The key is always, by whose say so?

    The only valid (if any) answer is the general public at large.

    Do we really want a community where if the majority don’t like something they can choose to ban it from the local library? frankly that scares me.

    I appreciate that wasn’t your exact point, but the decision to not stock anything based on ‘inappropriateness’ (which was part of your point) leads on to who decides what is inappropriate – history suggests that sooner or later this is open for abuse. This is the strongest argument for freedom of speech, no one gets to say what should not be said (or stocked).

    PS excellent article by the way. And I am sympathetic to the view point, and have no time for that newspaper (though a large portion of our society depressingly do, like the Mail and the Telegraph).

  3. While I don’t doubt the sincerity or depth of feeling that has informed this article, I cannot help feeling that the arguments for removing *The Sun* presented so far hold very little water.

    By far the biggest hurdle I would suggest you have to cross is that at no point do you address the huge popularity of The Sun in the UK, including amongst women readers.

    In print and online, *The Sun* reportedly had 13.5 million readers over the course of 2013, 5.7 million of which were women. That means that there were more female readers of The Sun than all readers, male and female combined, of *The Guardian* in the same period and completely dwarves the 189,000 signatories of the petition.

    On what grounds therefore can you claim to be removing *The Sun* by popular demand?

    And incidentally, the petition that you are in support of is objecting specifically to the page 3 ‘feature’ but your objection appears to be to the front page (as well).

    Your argument is also full of fallacies; for example, you say that:

    “Many women feel reluctant to speak out over issues that concern sexism as a torrent of online abuse, including violent threats, often follows…”

    That women, and especially feminist women, receive online abuse in social media is beyond doubt as (to take just one example) the case of Caroline Criado-Perez shows.

    However, it does not follow that the reason why women such as Ms Criado-Perez receive this kind of abuse is as a direct result of *The Sun*’s existence in our communities.

    In fact, your argument overall rests on the assertion that *The Sun* is a direct contributor to misogynistic thoughts and actions in society as a whole – this is a completely unprovable point or, at the very least, it is a point you have failed to prove in the article above.

    The fact that, for instance, one of the two people convicted of sending abusive tweets to Ms Criado-Perez turned out to be a university-educated woman (Isabella Sorley) suggests that the profile of people who abuse women on social media is evidently more complex and varied than the one you seem to imply (i.e. people who write and read *The Sun*).

    You also claim that you are against censorship and for free speech, but actually what comes across here in this argument is quite the opposite.

    The key point about “free speech” is not that it defends our right to express ourselves but that it defends the rights to speech of those we might disagree with and who we might even find completely odious – because the rights that defend them also defend us.

    If you want to achieve your goal by having *The Sun* removed, you need to be able to:
    a) show why such a popular paper should be removed before other, less popular papers (e.g. The Guardian, The Morning Star, etc.) with much smaller circulations;

    b) prove beyond reasonable doubt that the UK is in fact a misogynist society (specifically, that is, as opposed to ‘merely’ a violent and uncivil one);

    c) prove beyond resonable doubt that *The Sun* – and not other factors – is a primary contributor to the atmosphere of misogny claimed in the previous point.

    If you can do all that, then you might well succeed. But until you can do that, all you have a series of disputable claims and implications.

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