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A cover-up, of sorts, for British tabloid’s Page 3

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LONDON » After more than 40 years of running a picture of a topless woman almost daily on its Page 3, The Sun, Britain’s raucous and best-selling newspaper, appears to have given in to changing social attitudes.

On Monday, The Sun showed photographs of the model and actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who — despite the headline "Rosie’s got no clothesies" — was wearing a range of lacy lingerie. On Tuesday, Page 3 showed pictures of actresses in bikinis on a beach.

There has been no confirmation from The Sun, or from its owners, News Corp., that the longstanding practice of running a photo of a topless woman has been abandoned. But The Times of London, which is owned by the same media group, reported that its executive chairman, Rupert Murdoch, was "understood to have signed off on the change of policy."

The Times added that The Sun would "still run topless photographs on its page3.com website."

If there has indeed been a policy change, it would highlight a shift in social mores in Britain and a change in thinking at the newspaper. The Sun has reveled in the criticism the images have provoked, particularly from female politicians and from the opposition Labour Party.

During the 1980s and 1990s, The Sun captured an average of more than 3 million readers a day, and it took pride in a buccaneering form of journalism and its connection with ordinary working people. In 1992, it asserted that it had influenced the outcome of the general election in favor of the Conservatives, and it ran a front-page banner headline: "It’s The Sun Wot Won It."

While The Sun’s print circulation of about 2 million remains the highest in Britain, sales, like those of other newspapers, have dropped. And after the telephone-hacking scandal that led to the closing of The Sun’s sister tabloid, The News of the World, the publishers had to weigh the reputational damage of photos of topless women against their influence on the number of people who read the paper.

Dylan Sharpe, a spokesman for The Sun, said that a photograph of a topless woman last appeared on Page 3 on Friday, but he would not comment on future plans.

On Monday, Sharpe posted a message on Twitter that read, "Page 3 will be in TheSunNewspaper tomorrow in the same place it’s always been — between Page 2 and Page 4."

The apparent change of policy was welcomed by Nicky Morgan, the minister for women and equalities and the secretary of state for education.

"This is a long overdue decision and marks a small but significant step towards improving media portrayal of women and girls. I very much hope it remains permanent," she said in a statement.

The first "Page 3 Girl," as the feature became known, appeared in 1970, a year after Murdoch took over the newspaper. Several careers, including those of Samantha Fox and Katie Price, were helped by posing for the Page 3 photos. But the feature was always controversial, and as the decades progressed, the complaints of sexism became louder.

One of the most vocal protesters was Clare Short, a minister in the government of Tony Blair who, in 2012, wrote an article in The Independent about her unsuccessful efforts to stop the feature. She first proposed legislation in Parliament to that effect in 1986.

Other lawmakers "giggled and sneered at my suggestion that it degraded women — and our culture generally — to spread such images so widely in the mainstream of society," she wrote.

"The Sun went to war with me: ‘20 things you need to know about killjoy Clare’; ‘Fat, jealous Clare brands Page 3 porn,’?" Short added.

The Irish edition of The Sun stopped printing topless pictures in 2013, and Murdoch had hinted on Twitter that such a move might be imminent in Britain by suggesting that the feature was outdated.

One person who disagreed with the move on Tuesday was Jodie Marsh, who has appeared on Page 3 and who complained on Twitter that "telling girls they shouldn’t do Page 3 is not being a feminist." She added that "women should do whatever they want!!"

Steve Hewlett, a media commentator, told the BBC that the decision was evidence of the newspaper’s "trying to reinvent itself in the world post-phone-hacking."

But by not announcing or confirming the end of the Page 3 feature, The Sun also kept open the option of reintroducing it if it contributed significantly to a decline in sales.

The Sun’s tabloid rival, the Daily Star, which is owned by Express newspapers, published a topless picture on Tuesday of 22-year-old Ellie from Liverpool, with an option for readers to receive the image on their cellphones.

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