Mensch Drags The Guardian into Tim Hunt 'Conspiracy'
Thus far in the Tim Hunt saga, Louise Mensch and other of his defenders have pointed fingers at a vast army of conspirators engaged in collusion to bring the Nobel laureate down: a global network of science journalists, pre-eminent Korean female scientists, the entire BBC, and thousands of people on Twitter.
It is an ever-growing list to which the The Guardian is now the latest addition.
Yesterday, in response to an enquiry from Louise Mensch, The Guardian published a clarification to the first story it wrote on the Tim Hunt affair on the morning of 10 June.
A note appended to the bottom of the article reads: 'This article was amended on 2 December 2015. An earlier version said that Prof Hunt “could not be contacted for a comment”. In fact he responded within an hour of being contacted but his response was not included in this early version of the story because of an editing error.'
The omitted comment reads as follows:
'I’m very sorry that what I thought were light hearted ironic remarks were taken so seriously, and I’m very sorry if people took offence. I certainly did not mean to demean women, but rather be honest about my own shortcomings.'
Mensch, in her never-ending mission to rewrite history and exonerate Hunt, has seized upon this correction as evidence The Guardian were somehow complicit in a cover up.
Not for the first time these claims fail to stack up. It is worth burrowing down to discover the truth of what happened, and to prevent still further journalists from being smeared for no fault of their own.
The news of Hunt's comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists at lunch sponsored by Korean female scientists on 8 June (reported at length here and in summary here) had spread across social media on the 9th. The Times had picked up the story and splashed it across the front page of their first edition on the 10th. A copy of this was shared with Hunt prior to his BBC interview later that morning.
The BBC and others had spent the evening of the 9th trying to contact Hunt for comment. As we know, the BBC won the race and recorded an interview with him for the Today programme at approximately 01.30am UK (9.30 a.m. Seoul time) as he waited at Seoul airport for his flight back to the UK. In that interview, he confirmed what he was reported to have said and apologised.
Other news outlets had also emailed him for comment. Among them was a casual reporter, Rebecca Ratcliffe, doing a night shift at The Guardian. Having not received a response, she had filed a piece based on agency and existing reports, scheduled to be published automatically at 06.53am.
After Hunt completed his Today interview, he replied to Ratcliffe at 01:55am UK saying he was about to board a plane so couldn't speak to her, but gave a statement. By this time she had completed her shift and gone home. She was aware that her piece said that Hunt could not be contacted for comment, and so she emailed the news desk asking that the quote be attached to her pending article.
At that time of the morning, the Guardian night desk hands over to a desk in Australia until the start of the working day in the UK. Her email was missed and Ratcliffe's piece was launched at 06:53 without Hunt's comment.
When Ratcliffe woke up she checked that her story had been published as scheduled and saw that her correction adding the quote had been missed. She immediately contacted the news desk, who took the decision to include the quote sent by Hunt from Seoul in their news story focusing on his Today apology, published two hours later, at 09:03.
It is worth noting that newspapers do not make a habit of updating every story they have written. As new facts emerge, they write new stories, as they had in this case with Hunt's comments and apology on the Today programme. It made sense to include his statement in the newer article.
The correction has not taken six months, as Professor Athene Donald has claimed: it took two hours.
Mensch has insinuated that the omission from the first piece was deliberate when it was in fact a simple error, of the kind that often occurs in newsrooms in the dead of night.
Chris Elliott, Reader's Editor of The Guardian, said: 'The desk missed it and therefore it was left out of her story when it was launched. I think that miss is regrettable but not highly significant. Unfortunately these things happen in a newsroom. I don't think it was deliberately left out.'
This statement, whether it was reported at 6.53 or 9.03 on 10 June, has been on the record for six months.
Mensch and others have suggested that, had it been reported at 06.53, it would have pre-empted the BBCR4 interview and changed the reporting of the entire story.
That is not the case. As we previously reported, the BBC aired an apology statement from Hunt in their opening Highlights segment, at 6.08:
‘I mean I’m really really sorry that I caused any offence — that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean — I just meant to be honest, actually.’
This was nearly an hour before the original Guardian story, minus Hunt’s comment, ran at 06.53. And of course the entire BBC interview had been recorded before Hunt sent his email to The Guardian at 01.55.
And far from exonerating Hunt, The Guardian statement appears to reinforce what he told the BBC and the idea that he was speaking about women in the lab generally.
Whatever he means by his ‘shortcomings’, it is clear he is not speaking specifically and solely about the circumstances in which he met his wife, as has been insisted upon by his supporters until recently.
His comments regarding ‘unrequited’ romances in the lab in a Hungarian interview of September 2015 would appear to have involved other women:
‘I was really talking about painful situations that had occurred to me in the lab once when I fell in love with somebody and once when somebody fell in love with me and in both cases it was unrequited [our emphasis], right, and, you know, that was hard; but we solved it in the end . . . and I suppose out of that pain comes the joke.’
Now the narrative seems to have shifted to Hunt speaking generally about his own 'shortcomings', but without considering what he means by that.
Does he mean his inability to prevent himself falling in love with the women in his lab? Or his irritation at their inability to control their emotions when criticised?
In his BBC Today interview, Hunt asserted that ‘these emotional entanglements made life very difficult’ and that crying when criticised was a problem for him:
'It's terribly important that you can criticise people's ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth.
'Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.'
Long before Seoul, it seems, Hunt had already registered his irritation with people being unable to handle frank criticism. He made similar comments in an interview of 2007, without gender specificity:
‘Sustaining people’s morale and enthusiasm is tremendously important and I am not so sure how good I am at that. You have to be so critical of yourself and of the people around you; often they take that very hard.’
He cited the ability to take criticism as a reason for Watson and Crick’s Nobel success:
‘One of the reasons was that they could be really frank with one another and not take it personally: “That’s a bad idea. It was your idea, but it’s still a bad idea and you have to look for a better idea.” But it can be very crushing when someone more senior tells you that.’
It seems clear, from both Hunt’s BBC Today interview and his statement to The Guardian, that among the 'shortcomings' about which he was ‘being honest’ in his Seoul toast, is his belief that women in the lab are more likely to cry when faced with this type of criticism, thus bolstering the damaging sexist stereotype that they are over emotional, and his view of the lab as a highly sexualised or emotionalised space that is terrible for science.
It’s not at all difficult to see why such views were deemed inappropriate. But it is rather more difficult to see how they could be seen as the subjects of light-hearted ‘jokes’.