The Apology That Wasn’t

I missed this article, addressing the Guardian’s coverage of the Tim Hunt affair, when it appeared last month. For the uninitiated, here’s what’s meant by “the Tim Hunt affair.”

In June, Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt gave an impromptu speech to a room of female journalists at a science conference in South Korea. After the conference, a journalist named Connie St Louis posted a photo with text on Twitter, in which she quoted Hunt as saying he was in favour of single-sex labs. The tweet made headline news and Hunt became the subject of much media disapprobation.

Hunt apologised profusely, but insisted that his comments were taken out of context. Two days after making the offending remarks, Hunt resigned from his position at University College London (UCL). In statements to the press, he claimed the UCL had forced his hand. Hunt’s unfair treatment at the hands of his employer drew support from many in the scientific community and a petition to have him reinstated was started online (it was unsuccessful).

In response, St Louis doubled down. Writing for the Guardian, she maintained that Hunt’s words had not been taken out of context. Call it a case of bad timing; the following day, the transcript of Hunt’s speech was leaked to the Times. It provided some much-needed context, confirming Hunt’s version of events and revealing St Louis as having misrepresented what was said.

Which brings us to Chris Elliott’s article for the Guardian, intended as an apology to readers for the paper’s failure to provide proper editorial oversight in its coverage of the Tim Hunt affair. Of the numerous problems with Elliott’s article, first is his apparent willingness to repeat Hunt’s comments out of context. This was perhaps the most egregious aspect of St Louis’ original hatchet job, in which an innocuous joke, framed as a sexist diatribe, cast Hunt as the living embodiment of a male chauvinist pig.

Guardian coverage of remarks by Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel prize winner, to a group of women scientists about his “trouble with girls”, has been criticised by some readers. An editorial was one area of readers’ concerns. It was published three weeks after he made the remarks to a world conference of science journalists in South Korea that eventually led to his resignation from his honorary post at University College London.

Prof Hunt said at that conference: “Three things happen when [women] are in the lab … you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Second is his unwillingness to acknowledge the more substantial questions raised by the Guardian’s coverage of Tim Hunt, glossing over St Louis’ article altogether in favour of a lesser contribution by nobody in particular. The omission is glaring. No reference is made to the factual accuracy of St Louis’ anecdotal account, where she stated definitively that Hunt had not praised the role of women in science.

The aim of this column is to address the issues about coverage, not to express an opinion about Prof Hunt’s remarks. The problems with coverage came before the editorial was published, in an opinion piece by Connie St Louis, the senior science journalism lecturer who tweeted Prof Hunt’s remarks, igniting the controversy. She was responding in an online article published on 23 June to a number of leading scientists who had publicly defended Prof Hunt. However, an unedited version of her article was published in error, which was immediately spotted by readers. “Was it even subbed? It’s hard to believe the Guardian published it in its current form.”

Unfortunately we did but then edited it live, when the mistake was discovered. If basic style and grammar errors are spotted and corrected within hours of a piece being published, we would not usually add a footnote. However, on this occasion we should have done so as, such is the controversy surrounding the story, at least one commentator thought the absence of a footnote might be significant. It wasn’t.

Third is his obliviousness as to why intentionally misrepresenting Hunt’s comments might be considered unethical, framing the fallout as a mere difference of opinion. In a cowardly move to determine whether the paper might have acted less than honourably, his mea culpa comes in the form of a question.

Editorials are there to express the views of the newspaper, an opinion, but it should be a collective opinion. In that context I think it would have been reasonable to describe Prof Hunt as making a sexist remark – he admits it was wrong, even if it was meant to be ironic. But it is a stretch to say that he “shared his sexist opinion of female scientists”. Is it right to infer a man’s whole character from one remark?

Last but not least, this deeply disingenuous closing gambit, in which readers’ editor Chris Elliott, writing on behalf of the Guardian, pats himself on the back for helping to highlight the Issues Affecting Women in Science.

Where the Guardian had it right is in the heart of the leader, in the penultimate paragraph: “All the same, the surge of support shows how widely misunderstood the pressing need for feminist activism still is, particularly in science. According to the latest evidence, women occupy just 12% of jobs in science, technology and engineering. In research, women earn less, are less likely to be promoted, and win fewer awards to support their work. A third of PhD students are women, but only one in 10 professors. This is not a joking matter (although the #distractinglysexy hashtag did a good job of showing there could be a funny side).”

Meanwhile, Tim Hunt is out of a job and science is one Nobel prize-winner short. Never mind, the work of raising awareness is sure to pay-off at some (as of now) undetermined point in the near future. Three cheers for social justice.

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