It’s the interview that launched a thousand naughty nautical puns and outraged politicians, feminists and feminist politicians. Australian Naval Commander Tom Phillips gave a “racy interview” for men’s magazine RALPH and suggested “female sailors wearing bikinis might help boost recruitment”.

Poor Commander Phillips. The Royal Australian Navy has been struggling to attract recruits recently so thought a little light-hearted interview with RALPH magazine would be an ideal way to persuade potential sailors that a life under the ocean waves was for them. Commander Phillips was tasked with showing RALPH reporter John Bastick around a submarine in an attempt to show naval life is a bit of a lark. Any port in a storm.

Unfortunately, Commander Phillips fielded a couple of tricky RALPH questions about “booze, birds and biff” in a rather tactless manner, mentioning a Navy “down under club” and agreeing with RALPH’s suggestion that female sailors wearing bikinis might boost recruitment. By the time The Daily Telegraph got onto the story it’d morphed into a SUB-STANDARD S-X GAFFE eagerly picked up by other media outlets.

Liberal MP Bob Baldwin said Commander Phillips’ remarks were “totally inappropriate and absolutely offensive.” Minister for Defence Warren Snowden judged the comments “utterly unacceptable”. Women’s Lobby Australia’s Eva Cox lamented the “Navy’s limited view of women as bodies rather than brains”. Suddenly, the Navy’s PR manoeuvre was copping plenty of flak from all quarters.

But here’s the curious thing. The RALPH interview with Commander Phillips hasn’t even been published yet. The February issue isn’t out until Monday. Anyone popping into their local newsagents before then will be confronted by many unsold copies of January’s issue featuring a heavily airbrushed Mercedes Corby — fittingly — posing in a bikini on the front cover (it seems the $50,000 RALPH allegedly paid  to the sister of convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby for “a red-hot exclusive about s-x, drugs and Schapelle” didn’t help boost sales).

So, how did the likes of Bob Baldwin, Warren Snowden and Eva Cox manage to comment on an article they couldn’t possibly have read?

Perhaps the fact RALPH boasted late yesterday afternoon  that “the February issue of RALPH isn’t out until Monday, but already it’s causing a media stir” provides a clue. Stories surfacing which conveniently publicise the increasingly unpopular magazine are not uncommon. Last month, an “Inflatable Boobs Lost At Sea?” saga was deemed newsworthy enough to get some other much needed coverage for the ailing RALPH. Even UK newspapers have noticed this latest issue of international significance, with The Daily Mail, The Guardian [submarine] and The Sun grabbing a piece of RALPH action. Good news for RALPH but not so great for The Australian Royal Navy.

Interestingly, this latest so-called scandal seems to have backfired somewhat on local tabloids with The Daily Tele now claiming readers are “shooting the messenger” in accusing it of lacking a sense of humour. Meanwhile, the Navy is standing by its man with Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas saying Commander Phillips’ remarks were a response to “a flippant question” and were “not intended to be serious”.

RALPH has its knockers. But they’re masters at getting free publicity in tough economic times for the magazine market. All’s fair in circulation wars, after all. But here’s a tip for any media spinners considering cosying up to lads mags such as RALPH for a little loving. They won’t respect you in the morning.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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