“The back page” of the Sunday Times might no longer be where it once was, but if a general, all-purpose newspaper is to be all things to all me and women, you’ll find still the content, dressed a little differently, in another section of the newspaper. It appears there’s just no getting around it, “So let’s talk about all the good things, and the bad things, that may be...”
With one fell swoop, and I don’t know if it was intentional, new Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt has removed one of the traditions that has been part of the paper for almost as long as it has existed, albeit reluctantly in the past few years. And nobody even noticed.
I am not talking about the visible removal of senior staff, which is expected when a new editor takes over the helm. I’m talking about what was known as “the back page”, which appears to have been unceremoniously dumped.
Even during the days when Ken Owen was editor of the Sunday Times (I was an assistant editor then), we did not know how to handle the back page. Here was a page dedicated to stories about sex and sleaze, often accompanied by a picture of a near-naked “back page girl”. Stories abounded about bonking priests or members of other normally respectable professions. It did not matter that most of these stories came from our syndication partners in the United Kingdom.
In the early days, it was very interesting to see how many times one could carry stories about s_x without even using the word because our conservative society frowned on even discussions about s_x.
The back page was a throwback to an early age when sexism was acceptable in society and thus also in newspapers. It was okay to have pictures of near-naked women but you could not dare carry pictures of near-naked men.
But it was also a throwback to a time when conservative Nationalist Party thinking dictated that South Africans could not really engage openly and legally with each other on topics such as sex. In a weird way, I suppose, the back page could be seen as being defiant of this archaic thinking.
Those were the days when thousands of South Africans used to cross the “border” to the “independent homeland of Transkei” to visit the Wild Coast Casino where they could watch pornography in their hotel rooms and gamble, another activity that was outlawed by the Apartheid regime.
In the early 1990s, under Owen’s editorship, we desperately wanted the Sunday Times to be a paper that people could take seriously and the back page just did not fit in with this strategy. However, survey after survey showed that it remained one of the most popular pages in the paper.
The back page moved to inside the paper, but to the back of the first section. The back of the second section, which was seen to be more prestigious, went to sport, which, I suppose, made more sense.
Under Ray Hartley’s editorship (or it could have been under Mondli Makhanya, I’m not sure), the back page moved anywhere inside the second or third section of the paper. It now contained a columnist who wrote about celebrity bonking and the obligatory picture of a model in a swimsuit.
For the past few weeks, I have noticed that there is no more “back page” but a column about sex on a page with the tagline “review”. It was not a dedicated page, however, sharing the space with some other news, including the “social column”. The “bikini girl” picture is still there, but much smaller.
All of this completely irrelevant information made me think once again about the role of the media in our society. The oft-repeated phrase is that the media have to “inform, educate and entertain”.
Of course, different media do this in different ways and, depending on your target audience, you would inform and educate more or entertain more.
Over the years, and especially since the introduction of the tabloids in South Africa, I have learnt to read different publications for different things. If I want to be purely entertained, I will read the tabloids or watch e.TV in the evenings.
If I want to read about the shenanigans in government, I will read the Mail & Guardian and maybe even sometimes the Sunday Times. (Ironically, there is nowhere really where I can read about corruption in business, but that’s probably a topic for another day.)
But, in today’s world where specialisation has become a buzzword, it is clear that a general, all-purpose newspaper such as the Sunday Times will suffer to identify a proper niche for itself.
Is it still possible to produce a newspaper, even on a Sunday, that is everything to all men and women?
And, even in a paper like the Sunday Times, with its many sections, should you have bonking stories in your main section or should they be resigned to the lifestyle magazine, where they would probably fit more comfortably?
There is no doubt that people are interested in sex. How else does one explain the continued existence of places such as Adult World and the high interest in sex-related stories on news websites?
Maybe the people at TopTV are onto something that the rest of us are trying to ignore because of our own moral issues? TopTV appears determined to introduce a pornography channel on its pay-for-view service, something that has been resisted by religious groups and also groups who are lobbying against violence in our society, especially against women.
I do not intend to speak out in favour or against TopTV’s application, but my feeling is that sex is a reality of our society and, if the media are supposed to reflect our society, they need to find a way of reflecting sex too.
All of us have different interests and our interests are not always only serious. Business people are not only interested in business, and politicians are not only interested in politics. Teachers are not only interested in education. Sports people are not only interested in sport.
Part of the role of the media is to find ways of reflecting all our different interests in a way that appeals to their various audiences and makes sure that they are able to grow their footprint.
The Sunday Times’ grappling with what to do with its back page and the strong reaction to TopTV’s application for a porn channel is probably an indication of our society’s inability to deal publicly with one of the key interests of just about everyone in our society.
I understand that we have serious issues of sexual crime in our society, but that is no reason to ban reporting and discussion about sex. It’s almost like wanting to ban cars because so many people get killed in accidents every year.
Of course, I could be completely wrong. Maybe there are people in our society who are not interested in sex at all. Maybe there are people who feel more comfortable living in a society where the media completely ignores s_x and makes as if it does not exist at all. I don’t know if I would want to live in such a society. DM
Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.
"The world doesn't make sense so why should I paint pictures that do?" ~ Pablo Picasso