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LONDON (Reuters) - British newspaper The Sun has ended a 45-year tradition of picturing topless models on page three, scrapping a daily feature denounced by women's rights groups since the tabloid launched it in the early years of Rupert Murdoch's ownership.
Murdoch had staunchly defended "Page Three girls" for decades. But pressure on Britain's best-selling paper had intensified in recent years, with a campaign drawing support from politicians, trade unions, universities and a breast cancer charity, among many others.
The Times, also owned by Murdoch's News Corp, reported that The Sun had decided to quietly drop Page Three girls and that the tycoon had signed off on the decision. It said topless women would still feature on the dedicated Page3.com website, which is behind a paywall.
A spokesman for The Sun said: "Page three of The Sun is where it's always been, between pages two and four, and you can find Lucy from Warwick at Page3.com."
He declined to comment on whether the move was permanent.
The change has come into effect since Monday, when page three featured a model wearing a bra, while Tuesday's edition showed women in bikinis running on a beach.
Supporters of the "No More Page Three" campaign hailed the change as a step forward for gender equality in Britain.
"The sexualization, the objectification of women in this way was basically saying to all of us that what mattered, frankly, were our breasts not our brains," said opposition Labour member of parliament (MP) Stella Creasy.
Page Three was not "some great British institution like James Bond or moaning about the weather", Creasy told BBC Radio 4. "That's not the world we wanted to live in any more."
The Sun had been in severe decline until Murdoch bought it in 1969, turned it into a tabloid and introduced a brash, irreverent style of popular journalism so successful that circulation rocketed from 800,000 to 4 million in a decade.
In line with a trend affecting most of the British press, its circulation has dropped sharply since the glory days. It slipped to just below 2 million in October last year for the first time since 1971.
The end of Page Three girls was not expected to make a big difference to sales. The Irish edition of the newspaper stopped publishing the images in August 2013, with little impact on circulation.
Introduced a year after Murdoch took the helm, the photos were part of a vein of British popular culture in the 1970s that also relished jokes with crude sexual content. From the start, feminists opposed Page Three girls as sexist.
But for decades, The Sun was ruthless in defending the images, as former Labour minister Clare Short found when she spoke out against them in 2003.
The paper retaliated with a crudely doctored image of Short's head set on an overweight topless woman's body, under the headline: "Fat, jealous Clare brands Page 3 porn". It also parked a busload of topless models outside Short's home.
In recent years, an ever broader coalition of people and organizations had voiced their opposition.
In June 2013, Green MP Caroline Lucas wore a No More Page Three teeshirt during a parliamentary session. She was told to put her jacket on as she was violating the dress code in the chamber.
Lucas said it was ironic that her teeshirt was deemed inappropriate while The Sun, with its racy page three, was available to buy from eight outlets in the parliamentary buildings.
Murdoch posted a tweet in September last year that suggested his support for Page Three was no longer as resolute as it had been.
"Brit feminists who bang on about page 3 never buy the paper ... I think old fashioned but readers disagree," the 83-year-old tycoon wrote.
Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Kate Holton; Editing by Mark Trevelyan