As speculation mounts about who will be the new owner of Britain's best-selling conservative broadsheet, the Daily Telegraph, so does disgust at the prospect of a 'pornographer' as proprietor. But how much do his detractors actually know about his business? Sally Feldman delves between the covers
"Check out these melons!"
"Take me from behind!"
"Do me before my hubby gets in!" Richard Desmond's magazine porn emporium thrives on imperatives. Imperatives and exclamations. A cursory flick through just a few of his top shelf titles, from Big Ones to Asian Babes, Nude Housewives to All Girl Action and Forty and Over, plunges you into a bewildering underworld where slightly overweight and underdressed women boss you into sexual abandon in the same tone they might order you to take out the rubbish.
There's also something almost touchingly suburban about the women doing the ordering. These cover girls may claim to be filthy sluts, spunk lovers and horny nympho totty but you never quite get over the suspicion that if they had any clothes on they'd be more likely to be sporting a Littlewoods acrylic twinset than anything vampish or clingy. Even the cover lines are hopeful rather than triumphant. The VIP edition of Amateur Wives, for example, claims to be "Rammed full of dirty, willing wives!" Best of Asian Babes promises: "They'll guzzle down your plum sauce!"
If anyone's going down here it's Desmond himself, so downmarket that even the pages and pages of small ads have a tone of despair. Mostly they're endless variations on simulated phone sex for which you must pay per breath. These vary from quick and nasty to degrading, from backdoor quickie to dirt-cheap, with a few tantalising sound glimpses of lesbians and, if you're really adventurous, older fat women.
Another sign that this is very, very cheap stuff is that most of the magazines rely heavily on readers' letters and confessions. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of these are written by women. You can tell because all too often the erotic narrative will be interspersed with the kind of circumstantial detail that no man would ever notice. Here, for example, is part of the confession of a home wrecker who cannot resist his brother's wife. He tells Big Ones:
"Then Val straddled me, pulling off her white t-shirt to reveal her huge breasts encased in a white bra, her nips pushing against the material... She unclasped her bra and those heavy, 42DD tits swung free." See what I mean? It's less a raunchy tale of titillation - more an M & S catalogue.
The man responsible for these and so many other sister publications, not to mention his far more lucrative video channels, now wants to buy the Daily Telegraph. Commentators vary on their assessments of how likely such a takeover might be. He already owns a modest newspaper group - the Express and Star, in addition to OK magazine. More tellingly he has a 50 per cent stake in West Ferry, the printing wing of the Telegraph, which may well put a brake on rival bidders.
Doubters argue that Desmond simply doesn't have enough backing, collateral and sheer experience to take on a giant like the Telegraph. Whether or not that proves to be the case, the disgust and outrage at the very prospect of such a proprietor is already in full swing. But no matter what the perspective - from shocked reader from the shires to shrill debunker from the radical left - no one ever seems to say exactly what it is they're objecting to. Is it all pornography, or just the cheap kind? Is it all sexually explicit material? Or just intentionally arousing sexually explicit material? Is it just sex - or illicit underworld sex? Is it the explicitness that makes it offensive? Or the values or politics that go with the images?
When it comes to pornography, no one can quite bring themselves to put their finger on it.
For radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, all pornography is offensive to women: intrusive, penetrative, tantamount to rape. Theirs has become an evangelical position stemming from feminist analysis of the effects of patriarchy and the seemingly inevitable power imbalances resulting from it. But its refusal to discriminate between different forms of pornography, or to recognise that women themselves may be consumers, merely plays into the hands of that annoying breed of men who deride as humourless or puritanical any female disapproval of unpleasant portrayals of ourselves.
Some argue that pornography is defined by intent: it is imagery or writing that sets out to sexually stimulate. But intent can never be proved and in any case is far less potent than effect. The effect of provocative bra ads on billboards may well be just as arousing as that of Desmond's Celebrity Babes. Teen Big Brother, with real sex, purported to be educational, but it could just as easily have been described as hardcore pornography.
The Daily Mail, a vociferous opponent of Desmond's latest bid on the grounds of pornography, maintained an unrelenting onslaught on Michael Grade for his entire tenure as Chief Executive of Channel 4, dubbing him an 'arch pornographer'. Clearly for them the simple portrayal of explicit sex constitutes pornography. Intent is secondary.
Fine art, with its self-conscious labelling of erotic or conceptual pieces, may wish to distance its creation from its effect. But from Renaissance nudes to the Chapmans' copulating figures, art has always portrayed explicit, graphic sexual images. And who knows to what effect?
On the other far end of the spectrum are liberationist feminists like Wendy McElroy who, from a declared position of anti-censorship, claim that all sexual exploration can be liberating to women. She, too, appears to offer no distinctions between different kinds of sexual portrayal and no analysis of those differences.
In a somewhat unexpected defence of pornography the Labour MP Glenda Jackson has argued that it performs a number of crucial social services. It stops rapists and keeps men busy at home. Others point out that pornography can be instructional, initiating young men into the mysteries of human sexuality.
It is perfectly true that young men today are unlikely to experience the traumatic shock that Ruskin suffered when he first saw his new bride naked. Not for them the appalling contrast between the perfect female forms captured by the great masters and the hairy, animal reality of the real caboodle.
All the same, I would hesitate to recommend the delights of grinding pussies, Stateside stunners, dominant she-males and all to sensitive young Adonises on the brink of manhood. It may be a relief to them, but it hardly constitutes a sentimental education in the ways of women.
It seems that what most of Richard Desmond's detractors object to is the very existence of his pornography business rather than its quality or character. So their loud and vehement objections to his purchase of national newspapers remain equally vague.
Three years ago, when Desmond bought the Express and Star, there were 23 objections filed to the Office of Fair Trading. All expressed concern that the repulsive values of the magazines would creep into the newspapers. OFT found no grounds for these fears, especially as the papers had by then been in his hands for several months without a radical descent into labia land.
Desmond may have a reputation for a somewhat aggressive hands-on style, enhanced by legendary stories of how he conducts editorial meetings with a duck horn, throws heavy objects at recalcitrant reporters and once locked an advertising executive in a cupboard for failing to meet his targets. But that doesn't mean we're likely to see a flowering of Tunbridge Wells babes or Peterborough popsies where highminded headlines and stalwart values used to reign supreme.
His aim if anything is to distance himself and his business as far as he can from the magazines that made his original fortune. They already occupy a separate division, far from Northern & Shell, which is busy trying to make itself respectable. And despite the preponderance of gynaecological display which characterises most of the poses, these are not really hardcore. Some titles may offer genuine used knickers to their readers, but even that is smutty rather than psychopathic. There is certainly no violence, nor children. There are no men, no erections, no couplings, and no 'cum shots' or 'money shots' as they say in the trade. They are the Carry On end of the market, nothing like as powerfully explicit nor as lucrative as the other reaches of the Desmond empire for which they are really just a promotional vehicle.
One of his companies, for example, has a website which promises live heterosexual sex, live lesbian sex, images of women as old as 78, pregnant women, and one who goes by the name of Anal Annie. Another Desmond interest, the subscription channel Television X, has been reprimanded by the Independent Television Commission for featuring a baby, albeit mistakenly, in a three-way lesbian sex scene.
But in the much tamer magazines, it's the sheer relentlessness that is off-putting; page after page after page of graphic close-ups of our body parts strike many women as both demeaning and objectifying. That doesn't mean that men who respond to this kind of material would think differently about us if pornography didn't exist, any more than little children would stop shooting at each other if we didn't give them toy guns. Then again, the endless diet of silicon breasts and raw orifices, beaver shots and eager nipples, is not exactly going to progress our route to boardroom and power-broking, either.
But they're not a constant irritation. Top shelf magazines have a life of their own, up there away from our gaze. In this sense they are less offensive to women than Page Three nudes which appear within our tabloid newspapers. MP Clare Short appears equally affronted by both. When she conducted her courageous campaign against Page Three in the 1980s she was unjustly derided in Parliament. 20 years later, when Desmond made his bid for the Express, she and other women MPs objected to his donation to Labour because of his links with pornography.
But in both instances, her brave stand for women's rights and dignity was also a bit short of the mark. In the case of Desmond, it seems perverse that Short, Jowell, Beckett and the rest objected to how he made his fortune, but not to the fact that his gift was widely regarded as a political bribe. Would that have been more acceptable if it had come from a non-pornographer wishing to butter up the DTI?
The anti-Page Three campaign against the Sun in the 80s also detracted from the main issue. It is true that in no other English-speaking country would a newspaper get away with showing nudes as daily entertainment, as the Sun and now the Daily Star do. But it is also true, and even more perniciously so, that it is very rare for one mogul, Rupert Murdoch, to own quite such a massive chunk of a country's newspaper and television interests. The dangers of such ownership are manifest, from the gleeful headline after John Major's 1992 victory that "it was the Sun wot won it," to New Labour's shameless courting of the News International empire, to the latest teasing from the great man about whether he may switch allegiance again.
We may not like the pictures they put in their tabloids. But it is dangerous to be side-tracked by this distasteful aspect of their business to the point of ignoring the huge political power that is now wielded by over-weaning media tycoons.
A healthy democracy needs a diverse press. As the Guardian recently pointed out: "If either the Mail or the Express were to get their hands on the Telegraph, 12 of our leading newspapers would be under the thumbs of three willful proprietors rather than four."
Quite what power Desmond would intend to wield is unclear. His £100,000 gift to Labour, just before his buy-out of the Hollick titles, was more a political expedience than a commitment. Just a few years earlier he had donated large sums to the Conservatives. And now he is promising Michael Howard that the Telegraph would remain safely Tory with him. It's not just his hottest totties that swing both ways.
His seeming political cynicism is a dangerous attribute in a press baron. The ones we have - Rupert Murdoch, even Black himself - at least know their business and support the seriousness of their broadsheets. In a recent letter to the Guardian, Lord Rothermere made a spirited defence not just of his own management style but of the whole nature of press ownership which goes beyond mere party allegiance:
"What is important is that (the Telegraph) receives the investment, support and journalistic love it will need to prosper as a high-standard, well-staffed, independently edited, serious newspaper, competing with yourselves and others in much the same way as it does now."
No such gravitas applies to Desmond, with his lust for the bottom line. When he acquired the Daily Express his first act was to savage the staffing and whittle down the budget. The only way to make it viable was to cut it to the bone. Out went swathes of journalism, of editorial colour, of meaningful content. In came minor celebrity gossip galore and a plummet in news values. It's not the introduction of hot babes, filthy sluts, horny housewives and the rest that we should be worrying about but another kind of stripping altogether. Of the assets.
Taking away the subtlety, the surprise, the character, the relationship with the reader - that's the danger of the Desmond way. He does to newspapers what his magazines do to women. Reducing them both to crude common denominators. And cutting out their hearts.
The author is a New Humanist reader's wife.