Small victories with the BBC

Back in March I made two complaints to the BBC over the way commercial sexual exploitation was reported on the BBC’s news website; in April, the BBC replied to my concerns, and altered the web pages.

I am absolutely certain that, in relation to the BBC’s reporting of Fiona Broadfoot’s victory in the High Court, I am far from the only person to have complained to the BBC, so cannot claim this as my own, sole, work.

The BBC originally used the headline “Former sex worker ‘vindicated’ after High Court win”, it now reads “Sex abuse victim ‘vindicated’ after High Court win”

This is my original complaint:

The use of the term ‘sex work’ in a piece relating to the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. Fiona Broadfoot was 15 when she was first commercially sexually exploited, 15 is below the age of consent so this was statutory rape, rape is not ‘work’. Broadfoot has said clearly on twitter that she was never a ‘sex worker’. ‘Sex work’ is a partisan term and should be used with caution, and should never be used to describe the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

To which I received this reply:

Thanks for contacting us regarding use of the phrase “former sex worker” in the headline to the following BBC News article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43261021

The use of this phrase in the headline reflects the fact that the “three women, who say they were groomed into prostitution as teenagers, have won a High Court battle” and “successfully argued that the disclosure of convictions for working in the sex trade many years ago was disproportionate and a breach of their Article 8 Human Rights – the right to a private life.”

Thanks again for your feedback. Complaints are sent to senior management and news teams every morning via our overnight reports.

So I complained again:

I contacted the BBC two weeks ago to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about the commercial sexual exploitation of a fifteen-year-old girl, the reply I received was an insultingly lazy, circular, cut-and-paste (effectively: we used the term ‘sex work’ because it was an article about ‘sex work’). ‘Sex work’ is a partisan term, the debate over whether the sex industry is a form of exploitation, or freely chosen work is far from over. The term ‘sex work’ itself is begging the question (‘sex work is work’, ‘this bad thing is bad’). Under any other circumstances, coerced sex is called rape, but when money is exchanged, coerced sex gets called ‘work’. Fifteen is below the statutory age of consent, therefore any sexual activity below the age of consent is rape. Fiona Broadfoot has contacted the BBC via twitter to say that she was never a ‘sex worker’, and that she objects to the use of the term in the article about her. I would like someone at the BBC to explain to me why it was considered appropriate to call a commercially raped child a ‘sex worker’

And received this reply:

Thank you for getting in touch about our article reporting that three women have won a High Court battle which means they will not have to tell future employers about their soliciting (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43261021) and we’re sorry that you were dissatisfied with the initial response from our central complaints team.

Having reviewed your complaint I think you raise a fair point.

While we wouldn’t refer to statutory rape in the absence of actual charges or convictions for that offence in connection with the story, we have since amended the headline to now refer to how:

Sex abuse victim ‘vindicated’ after High Court win

We hope you’ll find this satisfactory and we’re sorry once again that you’ve had to write to us twice to make this point.

I also complained about the reporting of trafficking into the sex industry in Spain. This is the complaint I sent:

I am writing to complain about the use of the term ‘sex work’ in an article about sex trafficking, sex slavery, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children (‘Spanish police break up Nigerian sex trafficking gang’ published online 23 March 2018).

‘Sex work’ is a partisan term, it is not a neutral descriptor; under any other circumstances, coerced sex is called rape, but when the rapist hands money over to a third party controlling the rape victim, some people try to call this ‘work’. The term ‘sex work’ takes a sexual abuse and sexual exploitation issue, and reduces it to a mere labour issue.

The article in question clearly says that one of the victims of sex trafficking was an under-age girl, which means she was incapable of consenting to sex, and it is therefore entirely inappropriate to describe her rape as ‘work’.

Language matters, the meaning of words matters, the BBC is supposed to be impartial and trust-worthy; by using a contested term like ‘sex work’ in this context (the Europol report uses the terms ‘prostitution’ and ‘sexual exploitation’ only), the BBC is failing to be either of these things.

I received this reply:

Thank you for getting in touch with your comments on a recent article headed, ‘Spanish police break up Nigerian sex trafficking gang.’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-43514125)

On review we agree that use of the term ‘sex work’ may be ambiguous in relation to the 39 women and girls trafficked into forced sex by a notorious Nigerian gang.

We have updated the article to clarify that while they were paid for sex, they were not employed in ‘sex work’ in the traditional sense of a person legitimately employed in the sex industry.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention and we hope this addresses your concerns.

The line in the article “Gang members forced the women into sex work in order to pay off a 30,000 euro ($37,000; £26,000) debt.” Has been changed to “Gang members forced the women into paid sex in order to pay off a 30,000 euro ($37,000; £26,000) debt.”

It’s not ideal, since ‘paid sex’ doesn’t really communicate fully the reality of being held captive and raped so someone else can receive money, but it’s better than ‘sex work’. I also don’t agree that the sex industry is ever ‘legitimate’ even when it’s legal, but that is a political stance, and I can only ask the BBC to be impartial!

The moral of this story is, it’s always worth complaining to the BBC, they are a publicly funded body, and they are therefore answerable to the British public.

3 responses

  1. Well done! It might be only a small thing, but it’s still a step forward!

  2. Thank you!

  3. […] fee, they have to listen to complaints. You will probably be fobbed of with a standard response (as I was in a previous case), you will need to follow-up and say you were not satisfied with the original response to your […]

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