Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press, 1918-1978 (review)
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Reviewed by
Adrian Bingham, Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press, 1918-1978. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 320 pages. $99.00 (cloth).

Throughout the twentieth century, sex was—just as it is today—a powerful marketing tool in the selling of newspapers in Great Britain. The prospect of reading about the private indiscretions of the rich and famous, the opportunity to see provocative photographs of scantily clad or fashionably dressed women, and the thrill of following serial features about scandalous sex crimes and purported international prostitution rings have long proved to be irresistible lures for potential subscribers. Any newspaper publisher [End Page 252] who hoped to reach and retain a mass audience in the past century had to be extraordinarily careful, however, not to offend or too obviously test the boundaries of good taste in making such material available to readers. Most major daily newspapers and Sunday weeklies in Great Britain prided themselves on being "family newspapers," newspapers that could be safely read by any member of a household, and they risked losing subscribers, advertisers, and market share if they became too daring in their treatment of sexual matters. Treading the fine line between attracting readers, often with material they professed to disapprove of, and maintaining a respectable public image was a major challenge for editors. It required a keen sensitivity to the often rapidly shifting sexual mores of the British people and thus makes a nearly ideal subject of inquiry for anyone interested in the sexual culture of Great Britain in the twentieth century. As historian Adrian Bingham makes clear in his fascinating and revelatory new book Family Newspapers?: Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press, 1918-1978, British popular journalism offers an invaluable window into the complex views about sex of both ordinary Britons and those members of the British press who helped shape public discourse on the topic.

For several years now, Bingham has been a strong advocate for drawing upon popular newspapers to examine social change in modern Britain. In his earlier work Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Interwar Britain (Oxford, 2004), a study of changing views about femininity and masculinity in post-World War I Britain, he laments historians' reluctance to draw upon the popular tabloid press for insights into the past, and he returns to this theme in Family Newspapers?. Bingham believes that, in investigating popular newspapers' coverage of sex, media and cultural studies scholars frequently lack historical perspective; he expresses disappointment that more cultural historians do not analyze page-three pinups, sex crime reports, and gossip and scandal columns about public figures. In his view, historians too often assume that such features are "entirely predictable, superficial, and socially conservative: a commercially driven diet of cheap titillation, prurience, and hypocritical moralizing that is barely worth detailed scholarly investigation." Bingham also believes that most historians are predisposed to regard the growing importance of human interest, lifestyle, and entertainment features in the tabloid press as "marking a shift from an audience of enquiring, intelligent readers to a mass society of passive consumers." Strongly challenging these assumptions, Bingham points out that twentieth-century popular newspapers were more [End Page 253] complex, diverse, and unpredictable than such stereotypes suggest. Far from providing only trivial pap for a distracted and uncritical working-class readership, they could be refreshingly progressive in their treatment of social issues. They also did their best to understand the needs and wishes of their subscribers and worked tirelessly to earn their trust and loyalty. Indeed, as Bingham usefully reminds his readers, popular daily and weekly newspapers did not speak with a single voice on any topic or issue. Their varied content was "produced by different journalists, with different intentions and styles, often with different readers in mind." To assume that this content always served the same purpose or reflected a common set of values is to fail to grasp the practical realities of newspaper production and consumption during the twentieth century.

The scope of Bingham's study is carefully chosen. Starting in 1918, when the habit of daily newspaper reading first became widespread throughout Great Britain, and ending in 1978, the year Rupert Murdoch's sexually...