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Dyson at Large: It's time to ban sex ads – part two

I’m still scratching my head at some of the official responses to this month’s debate about massage parlour ads in regional and local newspapers.

The day after my original tirade appeared on this blog on 4 August, the headline ‘Police urge local newspapers not to ban adult advertising’ appeared to explain all with a follow up at

Fair enough, you might think: if the police want these ads to assist its fight against crime, who are we as mere journalistic mortals to question this?

Except that when you read the copy, far from urging anything the boys in blue were not actually quoted at all.

Instead, the site merely printed the Newspaper Society’s claim that “some newspapers are being actively discouraged from doing this by their local police forces to avoid driving this underground”.

Are they? Does anyone out there have any actual example – not just hearsay – of a police force asking a newspaper to continue printing adverts that it suspects are for sexual services?

And if newspapers are knowingly doing that, are they not aiding and abetting solicitation?

Or has this request gone higher, with the group boardrooms at Northcliffe, Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror et al considering and granting official requests from senior boys in blue? I don’t think so.

But even if unofficial conversations from vice squads at a local level have taken place and have indicated a preference for a ‘blind eye’ to further investigations, is that really the reason why some newspaper groups are agreeing to illegally help vulnerable women sell sex?

Or is it more of a dirty excuse for continuing a torrid affair that some bosses want to continue because it’s worth a large wad of banknotes, albeit somewhat soiled?

Because I just don’t believe that the ads would be continuing if they weren’t worth it to the bottom line of these companies. I mean, can you imagine the same response from the Newspaper Society if we were debating the standard of free ads?

Another puzzling stance emerged on the subject following the uproar that greeted the Croydon Advertiser’s splash on a ‘sinister brothel’ a week later – the paper itself carrying adverts for the very same massage parlour it exposed.

Alan Geere – an editor I’ve always had much time and respect for – argued that Northcliffe Media South East was “aware of the sensitivities surrounding adult and personal services advertising” and “take every reasonable step to ensure that the advertising we carry complies with both the letter and the spirit of the law”.

Except, Alan, that’s not quite true is it, given that your organisation was aware of this illegal brothel and yet published adverts for it, both before and, unbelievably, after the splash!

So much for ‘reasonable steps'; so much for ‘the letter and spirit of the law’. I’d welcome a more incisive line of reasoning from Alan.

Another, more worrying, response to the debate also caught my eye, related to the fact highlighted on my blog and others that Newsquest banned sex ads back in 2008.

Commenting on Roy Greenslade’s media blog on 8 August, ‘PercyHoskins’ said: “Clearly someone hasn’t been checking the personal services pages of Newsquest’s rags recently … The adverts are back and have been for several weeks, if not longer. Only there was no great fanfare on their return!”

If you’re reading this, Percy, please tell where you’ve spotted them, because I’ve now picked up and perused five recent Newsquest papers to investigate your claim: the Oxford Mail from 27 July; the Dorset Echo from 3 August; the Stroud News and Journal from 4 August; the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard from 5 August; and the Bucks Free Press from 13 August. They hosted not one massage parlour classified between them.

On which positive note, plaudits should also be made about Midland News Assocation’s Shropshire Star on 10 August, CN Group’s News and Star of 3 August and the same publisher’s Hexham Courant of 30 July: no sex ads in sight.

On the contrary, both the Surrey Mirror and Leatherhead Advertiser should at the very least set an investigative reporter onto the ads pictured on its page 59 of 29 July.

“Stunning ladies from 1 hour to overnight… unhurried experienced ladies” and “Visiting massage service, 90 minutes of sheer bliss” are not the most blatant ads I’ve seen, but neither seem to indicate a simple Indian head massage.

I invite the Northcliffe papers’ editor-in-chief Frank le Duc – another professional that I rate – to post his team’s findings here.

Oh, and from now on, newspapers reviewed here will have a ‘sex ad rating’ included.

Why? As said before, and despite the official claims made above, we’re talking about family newspapers here, products that we repeatedly tell ourselves will only continue in existence if we constantly improve their community links, their attractiveness to parents and children and their espousal of health and education.

Even the legal but unashamed sex phone lines pictured above don’t lend themselves to that end: “Amazing girls cheap action” and “Quickie sex… get off now!”

And one last point in response to commenter ‘Neil Hodge’ on my 4 August blog, who said: “Sex ads are about the only content worth reading in most local newspapers.”

Interesting to note, Neil, that one of the above-mentioned papers that has banned sex ads has the best circulation figures in the industry: the Dorset Echo, up 2.1pc to 18,296 in the last ABCs

Read Steve’s previous blog posts here

  • Steve Dyson worked in the regional press for 20 years, editing weekly, Sunday and daily newspapers in the North East and the Midlands from 2002 until the end of 2009. To contact him, email [email protected].

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    ex-editor (25/08/2010 08:53:32)
    I am a former Northcliffe editor. I banned sex ads from my newspaper, which led to one of many run-ins with the ad manager. I am now an ex-editor and guess what? The paper is now running brothel ads.

    RT (25/08/2010 09:14:10)
    Steve, I think you have a pretty good idea how these things work, so I am slighlty puzzled why you are asking Alan Geere or Frank Le Duc to justify the inclusion of these adverts. I’d bet a month’s salary that neither of them are carrying them out of choice. No matter how many hyphens they have in their job titles, they don’t have the authority to block such adverts. Try aiming your question at the people who CAN ban these ads – such as Michael Pelosi or the local MD. I don’t get any satisfaction from seeing editorial representives continually carrying the can.

    Ladyhack (25/08/2010 09:26:57)
    Man, I just LOVE the filler ad used in the Surrey Mirror/Leatherhead advertiser pictured above. Right next to ‘phone sex’, ‘quickie sex’ and ‘live xxx chat’ is the lovely, friendly ‘Come rain or shine, East Surrey and Sussex News and Media’. Ah!

    Laura Oliver (25/08/2010 10:25:06)
    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for this follow-up post. I take your point that the headline of our story on was misleading. We plan to clarify this with a note.
    But I do hope that as a result newspaper journalists get
    in touch with us or you to throw some more light on this issue and what responsibility/action editors are being asked to or can take.

    Ruffled feminist (25/08/2010 10:34:29)
    Bit less of the “boys in blue” please – last time I checked, women are actually allowed to serve in the police service.

    Andy (25/08/2010 10:56:23)
    As an editor, what steps did you take to ban these ads from your papers? Is it the role of the editor to justify them, or the role of the person who will make the decision to run them – normally a director?

    Steve Dyson (25/08/2010 11:21:57)
    Thanks for the emerging replies.
    RT: I see your point but, believe me, this campaign is aimed at the bosses who can ban the ads. Yes, part of that means making editors feel awkward for the lame excuses they choose to make, because that can only assist the debate upstairs.
    Laura Oliver: thanks for your positive input, and I look forward to reading any responses you get on
    Ruffled feminist: good point! ‘Boys and girls in blue…’ tho’ it doesn’t have the same ring…
    Andy, I was lucky in Teesside when editing the Evening Gazette. Prostitution was so appalling in the area at that time that there was just no way any such ads could be accepted.
    By the time I arrived as editor in Birmingham, daily columns of such ads were already in place, and yes – I regularly challenged the section. I was met with the response that I could edit the wording of such adverts and the taste of any related pictures, which I constantly did. But the legality of the adverts was treated on the ‘innocent until proved guilty’ basis. Hence the ‘Cuddles’ ad was removed only after the police had raided and arrested (later prosecuting – see previous August 4 blog).
    Could I have done more? No, like other editors quoted above, such a decision was out of my hands. But since leaving I’ve been concerned at the increasingly brazen adverts in terms of phrases and pictures used in some of the family newspapers I now review.
    Yes, I understand that editors are in impossible position; but they don’t have to defend it. And they could investigate it (like the Crodon Advertiser did – hat’s off to Geere’s team for that). But editors aside, like RT points out, this campaign is aimed at managing directors and group chief executives, whom I can now challenge without worrying about my job.
    And I say it’s time they took the brave decision to clean up their own industry, an act that I reckon would bring much respect from readers.

    ajinexile (25/08/2010 11:31:49)
    Most of the ads shown here are for phone sex. Surely it cries out for a feature on how telecom companies are coining it with their Dial M for Model services. As for your comment regarding police complicity, there’s the old adage: never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Keep up the crusade, Steve — Duncan Webb would be proud of you, mate…

    Surfer Joe (25/08/2010 12:06:31)
    I once worked as an investigations editor at an evening newspaper, and was pursuing complaints about a clutch replacement company that happened to advertise in the same publication.
    A friendly colleague in the accounts department showed me a file which recorded that the selfsame clutch replacement company had tried to pay for one of their adverts with three counterfeit banknotes.
    I then approached the newspaper’s advertising department with the hope of getting the company blacklisted, as it was clearly being run by a bunch of rogues. The answer from a senior and very angry advertising manager was that the accounts department had no right to disclose the information about the forged banknotes to me, I was not to report that matter to the police under any circumstances, and the company would continue to advertise as before.
    So we ended up running a double page spread in the news section about unscrupulous practices in the clutch replacement trade, while carrying adverts for the worst offender in the back of the paper, for whatever sort of money they chose to offer.
    Since then, the concept of “campaigning journalism” in most newspapers has always appeared to me to be a figment of la la land imagination.

    Hannah (25/08/2010 12:31:31)
    It would have made so much more sense if Alan Geere had just said that reporters and the ad team do not liase with each other and the two sides were unaware of what the other was printing on that day until the paper came out. Embarrassing, but I’ll bet no one even thought of, or discussed, the contradiction between the two sides until it was all printed.

    James (26/08/2010 10:29:18)
    I fail to see what the big deal is about these adverts? People pay for sex, people sell sex. Haven’t we moved on from the Puritans?

    Steve Dyson (26/08/2010 12:30:03)
    There is no big deal as far as I am concerned, James, about sex or the selling of. But it’s illiegal to solicit, and any newspapers knowingly assisting are therefore arguably breaking the law. That’s not in keeping with the titles’ standing in society, is it? Also, to carry on the trade in local newspapers with the phrases and images used is out of keeping with and therefore damages the family/community/healthy brand values. That’s my view.

    Billy Sly (31/08/2010 13:50:11)
    Never mind the morality I think some of these ads are completely misleading. I called the Direct2U one in the Surrey Mirror and Leatherhead Advertiser. It claimed to offer ‘stunning ladies’ but the one I got was a right old trout. I know they also said they were ‘experienced’ but this one looked like she had been round the block far too many times for my liking.