Belle de Jour writer Brooke Magnanti. Photo by REX Features
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Brooke Magnanti's The Sex Myth review: How Belle de Jour got her figures wrong

Brooke Magnanti's skewering of others' bad stats is excellent. It's a shame she isn't blameless herself.

Brooke Magnanti is one of our best-known female scientists – albeit not for her research. Accounts of her time as a high-end sex worker, published under the nom de plume Belle de Jour, were made into a glossy TV series fronted by Billie Piper. Her new book, The Sex Myth, attempts to join her two lines of work, cutting a useful, Ben Goldacre-ish furrow into areas where sexuality meets public policy.

Magnanti pulls apart the canards in the government’s review into the “sexualisation of childhood”, led by the Mothers’ Union president, Reg Bailey. She zaps away a widely cited claim that lap-dancing clubs in Camden led to a 50 per cent rise in rape. At her hands, zombie statistics get a brutal comeuppance. A chapter on the wild exaggeration of sex trafficking builds on work by the Guardian’s Nick Davies.
 
These are all fascinating but the book does not quite hang together. This is principally because, as well as a dissection of bad social science, it is a pro-prostitution-and-porn polemic. Even if you are sympathetic to her arguments about the weak evidence for the harm they do – and I am – melding these two approaches makes for one unsatisfactory encounter.
 
First, because she introduces an irritating Aunt Sally: the feminists. Magnanti cheerfully generalises about them in exactly the way she claims they do about sex workers. The feminists hate porn. The feminists hate prostitution. The missing word is “some”. (Incidentally, Magnanti refuses to talk to me, citing an online argument I can neither find nor remember.)
 
Her lack of nuance in engaging with critics and unwillingness to see her own viewpoint as anything other than objective are weaknesses. She is upset that the Secret Diary of a Call Girl TV series was “accused of glamourising sex work”. Her distress is baffling: it’s bleedin’ obvious that it did. It was a glossy star vehicle.
 
The most important flaw, however, is that Magnanti is not as careful in deploying research to advance her arguments as she is in debunking the statistical sleight of hand of others – particularly on prostitution. The Magnanti who debunks Bailey would sneeringly gut the Brooke who writes about sex workers.
 
Take the centrepiece of her argument on prostitution: a pair of studies of sex workers, the first by Suzanne Jenkins of Keele University and the second by Eaves, a charity, and London South Bank University. The second study was the more negative of the two about the effects of sex work on prostitutes, finding physical, mental or sexual health problems in lots of cases. Magnanti criticises this because “the sample they’ve recruited is not representative of UK sex workers overall”. It focuses too heavily on streetwalkers, a minority who have “more chaotic” lives.
 
“As a former statistician dealing with population-based data,” she says, “I know that one of the most important criteria for an acceptable study is to make sure the sampled population reflects the status of the population as a whole. If this is not done, the results are not reliable.” 
 
The Keele research, on the other hand, is commended for “turn[ing] almost everything we know about sex work on its head”: a third of the respondents had degrees, 85 per cent of the women were aged 26 or older and a top answer to “How long do you plan to do escort work for?” was “I have no plans to stop”. Magnanti praises it for using “not simply street-based women, either, but women, men and transgendered sex workers in all areas of the business”.
 
Case closed. Except the word used to describe the sex workers in the Keele study was “escorts”, which usually means those who advertise themselves on the web or with agencies. Not streetwalkers. A look at the original study reveals that Jenkins confined her research “to sex workers who advertise their sexual services via websites as escorts”.
 
The Eaves research may well be skewed in favour of the experiences of streetwalkers. But the Keele study is skewed against them. Neither is representative of the industry as a whole, yet Magnanti mysteriously claims the one that supports her views is.
 
The error rather bulldozes her argument and undermines the book. If you’re going to be a smart arse – and she is, relentlessly – make sure you’re right. Magnanti, although fascinating on the misuse of statistics generally, does seem to have come a cropper when using them to push her own agenda.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder