The readers' editor on . . . describing experiences of sex work

Our readers' editor on a complaint over accuracy. 

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Since the dissolution of the PCC, the New Statesman has not been part of a press regulator. As a result, we decided to strengthen our responsiveness to complaints, so we have asked former editor Peter Wilby to act as "readers' editor". In this role, Peter - a former editor of the New Statesman and Independent on Sunday, a current NS columnist, and an experienced journalist - will act as an independent voice outside the current editorial team. 

I made the first referral to Peter at the beginning of January 2015, after Melissa Gira Grant complained about an article by NS blogger Sarah Ditum. Below is Peter's judgment, which is now reflected on the original article page. 

Helen Lewis, 7 January 2015

 

The article

On 1 December 2014, the New Statesman ran an online article by Sarah Ditum headed “Why we shouldn’t re-brand prostitution as ‘sex work’.” The article’s second paragraph stated: “Figures such as Brooke “Belle de Jour” Magnanti and Melissa Gira Grant (author of Playing the Whore) are able to become representatives of prostitution probably in part because their largely benign experiences are unusual.” The article contained no further direct references to either author.

 

The complaint

Melissa Gira Grant objected to the sentence and particularly to the words “largely benign”. Her book, she said, “contains no information regarding my sex work experiences”. Nor had she described her experiences in any interview regarding the book. Unlike Belle de Jour, she had not published a memoir about her experiences. She was a writer and did not regard herself as “representative” of sex workers. She concluded: “Please correct this claim, or remove me from this story. The claim is unsubstantiated by my writing and in my interviews.”

 

The correspondence

In reply, Helen Lewis, deputy editor, replied that Ditum’s “intention was not to imply that you had written about your personal experiences”. Rather, she had sought “to draw a contrast” between statements such as one made by Grant in an interview with The Cut (3 February 2014) that “I’m not ashamed of my experiences as a sex worker - I don’t harbour trauma, and I don’t have problems talking about them” and “the feelings of shame and trauma” cited by other women as reasons for their reluctance to discuss the subject.

Lewis, however, added that she was “keen for you to feel that your position has been represented fully and accurately” and proposed the publication of an editor’s note at the foot of the piece reading: “Melissa Gira Grant contacted the New Statesman to make clear that she has not described her personal experiences of sex work in her book, or other interviews, and nowhere has she described her experience as ‘largely benign’. We are happy to clarify this.”

Grant responded that “Ditum’s characterization of my experience as ‘largely benign’ is not actually supported” by the quote from The Cut interview. The editor’s note was therefore “insufficient to address her fabrication of my experiences”. It was “a she said/she said”. There should be a correction stating the facts “which are easily verified and should have been checked prior to publication”. She proposed an editor’s note stating: “Melissa Gira Grant has not described her personal experiences of sex work in her book, or other interviews, and nowhere has she described her experience as ‘largely benign’. We are happy to correct this error.”

 

My conclusion

The only practical point of dispute between the New Statesman and Melissa Gira Grant is over whether the editor’s note should take the form of a “clarification” or a “correction”. Otherwise, the words proposed for the editor’s note are identical.

This may seem a trivial difference but it often occurs in disputes between publications and complainants, and is of importance to both the writer of the article and the aggrieved party. “Clarification” implies that readers may have been misled, perhaps unintentionally; “error” suggests that the writer got the facts wrong.

In this case, there is no doubt in my mind that some readers could have been misled as to the nature of Grant’s book and the extent to which it cited her personal experiences. The sentence should have been more thoughtfully and less clumsily written and, after email exchanges with both parties, I believe Grant was justified in requesting some qualification to the article. However, I cannot agree that Ditum was guilty of a factual error, mainly because, insofar as there is a factual statement in the disputed sentence at all, it is qualified by “probably” which suggests the writer was speculating - on the basis of Grant’s interview - about what lay behind the book’s account of sex work (or prostitution). Still less can I agree that Ditum was guilty of “fabrication”, which suggests deliberate falsification.

I therefore conclude that a “clarification” is the appropriate remedy. However, I suggest that editor’s note proposed by Helen Lewis is amended as follows: “Melissa Gira Grant has told the New Statesman that she has not described her personal experiences of sex work in her book, or other interviews, that nowhere has she described her experience as ‘largely benign’ and that she does not purport to be “representative” of sex workers or prostitution. We accept that, in these respects, the article may have misled readers and we are happy to clarify it.”

 

Peter Wilby

Readers’ Editor

7 January 2015

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