You can ring my Belle

"The thing is that people are complex. People lead complicated lives." So said the research scientist Brooke Magnanti, when she "came out" in the pages of the Sunday Times earlier this month as the blogger better known as Belle du Jour.

The identity of the ex-London call girl who has been blogging pseudonymously since 2003, and whose exploits became a hit TV series, had been described as one of the best-kept literary secrets of the century - even her agent didn't know who she was. But if there's one profession that understands discretion, and the need for human beings to keep different parts of their lives in distinct compartments, it is the world's oldest.

Identity is the biggest fault line between old and new media. Offline, the truth is not the truth until someone stands by it. Even if that someone is "a source close to the actress", the audience is unlikely to suspend their disbelief unless there is a clear and identifiable trail leading to a named personage with whom we presume the buck to stop.

Thus the fairly modern concept of the "media whore", several examples of whom - Rowan Pelling, Toby Young - were initially fingered as the elusive Belle. A good old media journalist will know several of these, all of them ready to go on record with a point of view whenever the news cycle demands it. The alternative - Fox News's vague "some people say", for example - leaves us feeling intuitively uncomfortable.

Online, the story is different. We might pay brief attention when the mainstream press outs a previously pseudonymous blogger - one obvious example being when the Times named the police blogger NightJack.

But finding out the "true" identity of our favourite bloggers appears to please journalists more than it does readers. Online, we swap accountability for context.

Any tale of the realities of a life - be that driving ambulances in London, working on the crime frontline, or servicing the sexual needs of rich City types - will stand or fall on its intrinsic plausibility. With Belle, most of us had nothing to compare it to anyway - most journalists don't know many high-class call girls willing to go on record should the need for a spokesperson from that community arise. So we should probably be thankful that the web's cloak of anonymity allowed Belle to speak so clearly for so long.


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Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains