A few years ago, following a series of murders in Ipswich of women who had been working in the red light district, we saw a flurry of columns in various newspapers and sites along the lines of this one on the BBC. These articles earnestly debated when – and whether – it was acceptable to refer to the victims in such stories as “murdered prostitutes” or “murdered sex workers” rather than simply “murdered women”:
When someone’s been murdered, does it matter what they did for a living?
Many people have contacted BBC News to complain that we have made a point of describing the women who’ve been killed in the Ipswich area as “prostitutes”. The problem must be the description, and not the language. At least once on Five Live we referred to the women as “sex workers”. This euphemism hardly rebuts the basic complaint, expressed succinctly in one text message we received – “just call them women”.
The complaint took two forms – we wouldn’t bother to report that a murder victim was, say, a plumber, and when we report that the victim was a prostitute we are being judgemental and implying that her life was less worthy than another’s.
There were similar articles following the murders of several women working in similar circumstances, but this time in Bradford, last spring.
This has been in the back of my mind over the last few weeks for two reasons – or rather, one situation and a number of semi-related references. The situation is the murder before Christmas of Jo Yeates in Bristol.
The first reference is this tongue in cheek article from satirical news site NewsThump which carries the headline “The death of one middle class woman is equal to that of six prostitutes”:
The UK media has finally revealed the calculations used when categorising the importance of a human life, or the scale of natural disasters.
The calculations, which are the industry standard, reveal that a mudslide in Brazil that kills between 10 and 20 people would receive the same level as coverage as a covering of snow in Oxfordshire that caused a retired ex-army officer to slip and nearly fall.
The calculations are also used for stories involving murder, and highlight the importance put on the victim not being a prostitute, drug addict or a foreigner when it comes to receiving round the clock coverage.
Our insider continued, “If the victim is respectable, white, middle class, and with a loving family then it’s going to receive blanket coverage.”
“If, on the other hand, the victims are a group, or to use the collective noun, a ‘shame’ of prostitutes then it will take quite a lot of violence to generate the same sort of interest.”
Yes, it’s satire, but there’s a more than a grain of truth there.
At the same time, I’ve been quietly noticing how many news outlets are referring to the murder of landscape architect Joanna Yeates (see also: murder of the landscape architect, murdered landscape architect, murdered architect, murder of architect etc), including the BBC, which just this morning published a story with the first paragraph:
A 32-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of landscape architect Jo Yeates.
So they “wouldn’t bother to report that a murder victim was, say, a plumber” but they would if she was, say, a landscape architect?
In the 2006 Ipswich murders coverage, the BBC dismissed the complaint I quoted at the top of this post, and defended its use of the women’s jobs as a descriptor, like this:
In this case, the fact that the women were prostitutes was crucially relevant. It suggests, if nothing else, that prostitution is a dangerous way to earn a living and that a prostitute is more likely than most people to meet a murderer. That has to be the starting point of the police inquiry.
If that’s the case, then how crucially relevant to the Jo Yeates murder inquiry is her job as a landscape architect? Is it inherently more dangerous way to earn a living? Are landscape architects more likely to meet a murderer? Or is it fair to say that in this case, as in so many others, the victim’s profession adds colour and human interest to the coverage rather than just calling her a woman?