Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Belle de Jour: Comment is “Free”?

I have been more than thrilled that Belle de Jour is finally getting the chance to write outside of the box that she’s been painted in as “THE” erotic author. Her current blog post discusses some surprising and thought provoking pitfalls about writing a guest column on libel reform law.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with her, Belle de Jour had been the nom de plume of the celebrated British author who was also a London call girl for two years.

Last year, Belle revealed she is Dr. Brooke Magnanti, of Bristol, England, a noted scientist. Brooke’s specialist areas are developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and is now working at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. She is currently part of a team researching the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

But, from 2003 to late 2004, Brooke worked as a prostitute via a London escort agency; she started blogging as Belle de Jour — after the Buñuel film starring Catherine Deneuve as a well-to-do housewife who has sex for money because she’s bored — shortly into her career as a call girl, after an incident she thought funny enough to write down.

She charged £300 an hour for her services, of which she got £200. The average appointment lasted two hours; she saw clients two or three times a week, “sometimes less, sometimes a great deal more,” she has said.

But, it another aspect of the real Brooke that shines through on this post, not the erotic author, but the intelligent woman with a wide range of interests and extensive knowledge. Her writing, on any topic, remains compelling. Read her post here in full, or directly from her blog then take time to reflect on what she has to say:

mardi, mars 9

At school, the physics teacher had a quote on one of the pinboards in his room:

We dance round in a ring and suppose but the secret sits in the middle and knows.

It's a Robert Frost quote, a pretty well-known one. With my rather nerdy, scientific bent the quote bothered but fascinated me. At that point, we had not yet got on to the topics in science which were unknowable. If it was in the text, it was known. I was soon to find out that when it comes to science, nothing is written in stone.

Then later at university, I had a sociolinguistics course. There we talked about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I remember it not only for its delightfully Star Trek-y name but also the content: the idea that the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it. That's what Wikipedia says, anyway. Long story short, the language you speak affects your thoughts and experience.

Later, in the mortuary, we had this Giovanni Morgagni quote mounted on the wall:

For those who have dissected have at least learned to doubt when others, who are ignorant of anatomy, and do not take the trouble to attend to it, are in no doubt at all.

Why am I telling you about these? Because they greatly influenced the way I think (and re-think) about what I do. And think. Being of the strongly opinionated persuasion, I also appreciate when interpretation is brought to bear. I like uncertainty.

This is a bit of a long-winded introduction to a post about libel law, but if there's one thing I learned this week it's that when skirting the edges of what is or is not libellous you can not afford to be too succinct. Editing out the qualifications means leaving yourself open to someone else's unflattering interpretation.

When approached this week to write about the ongoing Simon Singh case for Comment is Free, alarm bells started going off when I learned the maximum word count: 600. Knowing what little I do about how to state things in the most milquetoast and inoffensive way possible, how could I even bring one legally unassailable sentence in for that number?

So when I filed the piece I was unsurprised to be questioned on a particular reference – almost a throwaway comment, but, I felt, integral to the quality of the writing.

Sadly, when I spoke to the Guardian's legal team on how best to rephrase that sentence, they could tell me little (although using many words to do so).

It's sad. I'm an okay writer, but possibly my greatest attributes in that arena are the ability to write quickly and accept editing. I love when an editor comes back to me with what works and what doesn't. It feels collaborative, it feels positive, it feels...well, a bit like doing science actually.

But to be told that not only is something I wrote a cause for concern, but that there was no direct way to fix it, was frustrating. I didn't want to leave the reference in question out, but keeping it as it was would have brought down a world of hurt.

And that's basically it, folks. The irony of writing about libel, but being unable to without potentially libelling someone.

I think it's sad. It's sad when people hurtfully insult or damage others, but more often, these things are a matter of unclear editing, understaffed subbing, or undermotivated advisors. 99% of libel suit threats can probably be cleared up with an email or two and a discreet apology. I should know – I've seen one or two things in print about myself that were clearly incorrect, and what do you know, an email to the right person usually solves that problem. But that's not how it goes.

Because libel oftentimes is not about the facts. It's about the impressions. It doesn't seem to matter if something is true or not (nor even if anyone cares) so much as how the organisation/celebrity/whatever feels about it. Does it "damage" them. Does it harm the brand.

Someone takes offence and is incapable of seeing the wood for the trees, and before you know it...there's a lawyer on the end of the telephone whom I've asked six times 'so what can I say about this?' and he can't give me a straight answer. I can't write what I want to write and he can't tell me how to fix it, because if he's wrong, they're liable.

I get his position, but fuck me is it frustrating.

Bottom line? Grow thicker skin, folks. If all you care about is someone's impression of you rather than the quality of what you do, then thank goodness you're not a scientist. Not only are we meant to conduct our business in the open, but to take contradiction as it comes and get on with life. Even Einstein was wrong sometimes and people like Bohr didn't shy from pointing it out. Guess what? Didn't really affect his image in the long run, because the long term view relies on trends, not minutiae. I can only imagine what we wouldn't know if those men had been lawyers instead.

This week is Libel Reform week. If you support libel reform in the UK, read more about it and sign the petition.


If I lived in the UK, I would sign that petition in a nano-second. As a former print journalist, I learned some very hard lessons about unintended consequences to reporting. While reputations must be protected, fair comment (in the US that equals free speech) about topics of public interest must have equal protection under the law. Bravo to Brooke for bringing up yet another important topic to consider.

— The Curator

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