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In 2003, one of the most popular online blogs was Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl, but who was its mysterious author? Below you will find the data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
References, sources, and more
The Belle de Jour blog archive
The Guardian’s British Blog Awards 2003
But who is Belle de Jour?
No really, who… is… it…
Okay so maybe it’s Andrew Orlowski!
The Times have solved it!
Prof Donald Foster
The JonBenet Ramsay case
The anthrax attacks
The anthrax suit
It’s Sarah Champion!
Donald Foster’s letter
Belle de Jour’s secret ally
The googlewhack page
The short story
The clock is running out
The big reveal
Morris vs TNL
Evidence that Belle de Jour was real
Belle de Jour’s response to the suit
Dr John Olsson
This is a content warning. This podcast contains references to sex, including prostitution, a variety of sex acts, and some questionable dry humour. Teachers should listen to the whole podcast first and then make their own judgement call about whether this content is suitable for various student audiences. The same content warning obviously applies to all caregivers and guardians of younger or more sensitive audiences.
Case S01E03 – Belle de Jour
It’s October 2003. We’re in England. For winter, the weather has been changeable – sometimes surprisingly mild and almost summer-like, before turning cold, bright, and dry.
On a popular, free platform, a new blog appears. This is nothing unusual. Dozens of new blogs start every day, and many will be just as quickly abandoned. But this one is destined to be quite different.
The title? Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl.
The author? Anonymous.
The blog begins to publish regular updates. A post about finding a suitable agency. Another about meeting the manager of such a place (far Eastern, witty, air kisses). Meeting a client. Beauty regimes. Another client.
To give you a tiny sense of the blog, here’s a snippet of one such post in which she discusses her new line of work with her boyfriend and goes on to do a photoshoot for her new agency. (Please forgive the truly heinous French accent.)
mardi, octobre 28 (Tuesday, October 28th)
Met the Boyfriend for lunch. Spoke to him about the agency to check if everything was okay with him. “Of course if ever you want me to stop, I will.”
“You’d be surprised. I’ve been thinking about it and I think it’s okay.”
He was right – I was surprised. The Boyfriend is as straitlaced as a whalebone corset. I kissed him. We had a lovely time, though he did insist on staying to meet the photographer. He dropped me at a hotel and we waited in the lobby for three quarters of an hour. By the time she arrived it was time for him to catch a train.
A stranger photo sesh I’ve never had. My own lingerie were judged unsuitable – which is to say they were far too tasteful.
November moves in with unseasonable rain squalls. Belle de Jour posts about call girls trying to use public transport in London. The perils of clients with rough fingernails. The boyfriend’s job. Alan Davies. Oral sex. Horses.
December is bright and cold, and brings with it posts about Deanna Troi. Phone sex. Bookshops. Lube. Knicker shopping. Choke chain collars. White lies for the neighbours. Circumcision. Threesomes. The boyfriend being abroad. You get the idea.
In case my summary here is being too subtle, assume that there is an awful lot of discussion about every variety of sex, exemplified via a wide assortment of colourful and mind-expanding vignettes.
The interested listener can still find these posts archived on the Wayback Machine. A link is provided in the Case Notes.
On the 18th of December 2003, only three months after the blog’s creation, the Guardian announces the results of their second ever Best British Weblog Awards. (Yes, this was indeed a time when we all still said the word weblog with a straight face.)
The winner in [the “Best Written”] category… is Belle de Jour, the diary of a London call girl. There’s obviously a prurient and titillating element, but the quality of her writing took her blog well beyond that. Some judges were concerned it was a work of fiction, but even if it is, it remains an impressive piece of writing.
Belle de Jour has already been amassing followers, but this propels the numbers up ever higher. No one knows who she is and people began frantically gathering clues from the blog. An easy fact to unearth is that the pseudonym – Belle de Jour – seems to have come from a 1928 Joseph Kessel novel of the same name. Belle de Jour translates to daytime beauty, and is a play on belle de nuit, or lady of the night – a euphemism for a prostitute. It’s an allusion that suggests wider reading. The style of the blog in general exudes sophistication. The posts vary between profoundly introspective and philosophical to graphic, silly, and irreverent. The writing is likened to that of Martin Amis, Nick Hornby, and others.
From the posts, a profile of Belle de Jour gradually emerges: well-educated, cultured, worldly, middle-class, young, living in London with a boyfriend. She has links to Yorkshire, a taste for high fashion, and she is, of course, a very good writer. But who fits this picture? The concerted efforts of journalists, other bloggers, and literary detectives is relentless. We will later find out that very few people indeed ever knew Belle de Jour’s real identity – initially only two – her agent, and her accountant. This doesn’t stop people from making wild guesses, though.
Some argue that Belle de Jour is, in fact, Isabel Wolff, a British Chick Lit novelist. One of her books, The Trials of Tiffany Trott, is about a British working girl. Her response to the suggestion that she is Belle de Jour?
It’s hilarious that people think it’s me, but it’s not.
Others suggest Rowan Pelling, the editor of the Erotic Review magazine, for somewhat obvious reasons. His response to being outed as Belle de Jour is said to be:
It’s true, I have never been seen in the same place at the same time as Belle, but it’s not me.
The Daily Mail and The Independent both point the finger at Andrew Orlowski, a British journalist for The Register. He too has Yorkshire connections, lives in London, and is described as having “a record of cultured sex writing on the internet”. He soon responds with:
To be accused of being a whore is one thing, but to be accused of being a weblogger is actionable.
The Telegraph argues that it is Toby Young, a British journalist who is arguably best known today for his extremely controversial and short-lived appointment as a non-executive director for the UK’s Department for Education’s Office for Students. (That trips right odd the tongue.) In response to the suggestion that he is Belle de Jour, however, Young is reported to have said:
I’m extremely flattered that people think anyone would pay to have sex with me but, alas, I’m not her.
Even Alastair Campbell isn’t safe. Campbell – for those who lives outside of the UK, or hide from politics – is a British politician, journalist, and author, but he’s perhaps best known as Tony Blair’s spokesman and campaign director. What are his supposed credentials for writing a titillating blog about a high-calibre London escort? After leaving university, in his quest to break into the world of journalism, he started out by writing pornography for Forum magazine under the pseudonym Riviera Gigolo – a timely reminder, perhaps, that every one of us has a surprising secret lurking in our past somewhere.
As all this speculation is afoot, in 2004, Belle de Jour lands a book deal with a superb advance fee. This is an affair that generates the usual spike of media interest in the case, and then, in the midst of this, loud and unabashed, on Thursday the 18th of March, The Times runs a front-page splash. They declare that they have solved the mystery. Belle de Jour IS….
…back after the break. 😉
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find Case Notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.
The Times reveals all
I know, I know, that was cruel. According to The Times’ front page, Belle de Jour IS…
In fact it turns out that there are a cluster of notable Sarah Champions in Britain – an MP, a DJ, a journalist… so for clarity, it was this latter Champion – the journalist – that The Times had in their sights.
Born in Manchester, Champion sort of had the Yorkshire connections implied in the blog – or at the very least, northern ones. In her early thirties at the time of the exposé, she was kind of close to the right age. A journalist for NME Magazine, she sort of had the writing credentials. She also happened to be in San Francisco at the time of the reveal, and in a post only a little earlier, Belle de Jour’s boyfriend had apparently just flown to San Diego. For the geographically challenged, like me, I checked and both San Francisco and San Diego are in California, though they are actually a good 500 miles apart.
In Champion’s own words, this exposé was followed up inside The Times: “across two pages was the newspaper’s verdict:
Across two pages was the newspaper’s verdict: I was either a fraud or a whore.
Whilst I strongly do not commend that particular descriptor for a sex worker, the front-page splash and the extensive copy inside does give a flavour of the almost fanatical interest in the case. The Times presented their conclusion as a breathless fait acomplis. It was a smug one-over on the other papers, on Belle de Jour, and most of all, on Sarah Champion.
So what was the basis of such confidence? They had turned to Donald Foster and asked him to undertake a textual analysis of the blog posts.
So, who is Donald – or Don – Foster? At the time of the analysis, in 2004, Foster would have been in his early fifties. A professor of English at New York’s Vassar College, his research uses a technique known as stylometry to look at Shakespearean authorship. Notably, he has sometimes applied the same techniques to high-profile modern data, including criminal investigations. Foster’s career in the forensic linguistic sub-discipline of authorship analysis has had its colourful moments.
In 1996, Foster had been one of several to identify that the anonymous novel, Primary Colours, was by the author Joe Klein. For those who don’t know, Klein is a political commentator and columnist for Time magazine. And for those curious as to why this novel’s authorship might prompt much interest, it actually describes real life events and people – namely Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992.
In this case, though, Foster is one of several people who all come to this conclusion, so it is unclear quite whether Foster reaches this name by himself, unaided, or whether he simply tests someone else’s hypothesis which then turns out to be correct.
Also in 1966, Foster is involved in the Unabomber case. Since this is one I discuss in a future episode, I won’t say much here beyond the fact that Foster was initially approached by the defense, but that upon reviewing the FBI’s evidence, he believed that the prosecution’s case was actually stronger even than the FBI was claiming. In this case, one of the techniques used is to identify unusual phrases and idioms across several documents. Hang onto this detail because it comes up again later.
In 1997, Foster is then part of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, in which a ransom note is a significant part of the evidence, but as I will also discuss in a future podcast, Foster is said to have seriously compromised his position as an expert witness in the case, and is finally dismissed by the District Attorney, rendering his expert report on the ransom note useless.
Four years later, Foster then advises the FBI on the case of the 2001 Anthrax Attacks – yet another case I will cover in another episode. In brief, he writes a piece for Vanity Fair in which he makes links between a government scientist, Dr Steven Hatfill, and the attacks. Unfortunately, the culprit is someone else and Dr Hatfill pursues substantial legal action.In the end, Vanity Fair‘s owners, Condé Nast, settle out of court with Dr Hatfill for an undisclosed sum.
So much for Donald Foster and his past casework. Let’s return now to 2004 and his analysis of Belle de Jour.
The Times’ analysis
As I mentioned, Foster uses an approach that we might call stylometry. These days, stylometry is usually carried out computationally, but it’s actually a pretty old discipline. It dates back to the late 1800s. Its original growth was driven by the desire to know who had authored various literary texts, often English Renaissance drama, such as works by Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and so on. But it was also applied quite enthusiastically, if not always very sensibly, in philosophical and theological circles as people tried to establish which historical thinker had written which text, or who had penned which books in the Bible. As I’ve mentioned, Foster’s particular approach was to investigate Shakespeare, and to do this, he would look at the frequencies of certain features in texts, such as punctuation, word-choices, and so forth.
So what did Foster analyse in the Belle de Jour posts? Well, as with many of these podcasts, I’ve had to stitch the story together from a multitude of sources, but even so, what I’ve been able to find is still interesting. Foster appears to have considered internal biographical data – that is, Champion’s age, location, Yorkshire connections, current location in California, and so on. The problem here is that taking these into account involves assuming that they are even true. What if Belle de Jour is a complete fabrication and some or all of these details are red herrings?
Moving on, then, Foster also looks at the language. The linguistic features enumerated in the various reports are Belle de Jour’s use of brackets, dashes, compound verbs, and italics. Unfortunately, aside from pseudo-statistical phrases like “more than” or “often”, we only have summary information about them – that they are interesting, that they seem to match Champion’s usages. I have more to say about that angle in a moment, but the crucial point for now is that we don’t get any clear, fine-grained results in the form of percentages, normalised statistics, and so on.
Moving on, remember from the Unabomber case, where unusual idioms and phrases were part of the evidence that helped track the Unabomber down? Well, Foster seems to apply that method here, too. He notes that Belle de Jour has typed the word cringeworthy with a hyphen – that is, cringe-worthy. He also cites Belle de Jour’s use of the phrase suffice to say as noteworthy. Foster then does a Google search for both of these at once, and finds less than 200 pages in total containing the two items.
The choices of these items in itself is also rather puzzling. Remember, Belle de Jour is writing a blog, so potential authors are not restricted by issues of physical proximity. Really, Belle de Jour could be any English-speaking, literate, well-educated, online adult. That is a big pool of potential authors, and at that population level, suffice to say is not really unusual. Equally, cringe-worthy is also not a terribly unusual way of writing that word. It’s not even an error. It’s definitely an interesting formulation, but sticking a hyphen in it is also pretty common. I did a forced-match Google search for that word and at this moment it produces 2.2 million webpages featuring this exact hyphenated variant, and that’s not just rambling, incoherent tweets and linguistically erratic blog posts. This includes mainstream media headlines and news articles which will, presumably, have a house style guide for words like this. Just like suffice to say, then, cringe-worthy is too common to be anything more than an extremely weak feature. Of course, combined, their predictive power increases a lot, but again, the pool of potential authors is still so big at this point that at best, these two are only going to be indicative.
However, this isn’t the only issue. Even if Belle de Jour, when writing under her real name, consistently writes cringe-worthy, and even if she writes it a lot, she still might never happen to use both cringe-worthy and suffice to say on the same page at the same time. Remember, Foster is using Google to find both at once and that works on a page-search basis, not on an author-search basis. Only pages where both occur will be deemed a match. If the real Belle de Jour never happens to have used both together on the same page under her real name, then she would be excluded from the search results.
Purely for the fun of it, I did the same search as Foster and right now, Sadaf Ahsan of The Saskatoon Star Phoenix is also Belle de Jour, based on an article about Megyn Kelly strangely. So too is Richard Carr, if we are to believe his book, One Nation Britain. As is the British comedian, Miranda Hart on the basis of her book, Peggy and Me. Better still, Hart is also in the right age range, she is thoroughly well-educated, widely read, preposterously upper-middle-class, writes splendidly, has lived, gone to school, and worked in and around London for most of her life… The only thing I can’t find is a solid Yorkshire connection… In fact, I would like to petition Miranda Hart to take the blog back up in her own unique style.
More seriously though, at the risk of over-explaining this, to go about such a search properly, you would need to consider anyone who wrote both items, but who may have done so across different online pages. One way to do this would have been to produce a list of every viable candidate who uses “cringe-worthy“, and then another list of every viable candidate who uses suffice to say, and then pull out only the names that appear on both lists. However, as you can imagine, (a) that’s a monumental task, and (b) the shortlist of potential Belle de Jours drawn from that would have multiplied exponentially, and the conclusion would have been far less dramatically confident.
Whatever the rationale or thought processes, of the 200 pages in the Google results that Foster finds, one hit is for an Amazon review of the book, Playing the Moldovans at Tennis by Tony Hawks. In it, the reviewer writes:
Hawks’ sixth-form joke of presenting a round table to Moldova’s new King Arthur is especially cringe-worthy.
A few sentences later, the review concludes with:
Suffice to say that, yes, at the end of the book someone does end up naked and singing outside a South London Woolworths.
The writer? Sarah Champion.
We have to wonder if the two features were what produced Champion’s name as the prime suspect in the first place, and then the rest of the analysis followed that found so many supposed linguistic similarities. Or was Champion’s name suggested first – maybe the newspaper came up with a name – and what followed was a process of shopping through the google results till the right combination brought up the right name? Or was it some terrible serendipity that having narrowed down to Champion, when googling various phrases, her name coincidentally came back out, thereby leading into confirmation bias? We will probably never know, but it remains a good lesson on letting the data speak for itself, uninterrupted, rather than trying to only hear what you want it to say.
Back to our story. On the overall basis of this body of evidence – the internal biographical evidence and the linguistic features – Foster is quoted in The Times as saying:
While no piece of evidence is conclusive by itself, I’m sure we have found our woman.
Unfortunately, the only thing that matches The Times’ levels of confidence in its front-page headline is… how wrong they are.
A few days later, Champion writes a very public rebuttal in The Observer:
I want to make it clear that not only have I never been a call girl – which will especially please my mother, who has had journalists calling on her Manchester home – but I am not the author of the Belle de Jour net diary. I have not lived in London since 1999 and, far from a predilection for manicures, Gucci and French affectations, many will testify to my dedication to trainers, pints and northern slang. Meanwhile, I’m not big on obsessive daily confessionals, having rarely as a journalist ever written a piece in the first person. Until now.
And then, in an intriguing twist, Foster, too pens a response. A week later, in a letter to The Guardian (that is, the weekday edition of The Observer), he writes:
I deny concluding for the Times that Sarah Champion is ‘Belle de Jour’. I was able, very quickly, to come up with what the FBI calls ‘a person of interest’.
My brief role in the Times investigation was abruptly halted when the reporter, Mr Coates, called me to say that the search was over. On Saturday, following Ms Champion’s entirely credible denial [as she wrote in The Observer last week], the Times reported that ‘Don Foster, the literary sleuth who identified Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors, took only 20 minutes to establish to his own satisfaction that ‘Belle de Jour […] is really Sarah Champion, a 33-year-old author from Manchester.’
Never have I said, either on or off the record, that Belle’s identity has been established by anything I ever said or contributed. I made perfectly clear, in a series of telephone conversations and email exchanges with the Times, of which I have a complete record, that Champion is a person of interest. Contrary to what the Times has reported, I do not believe that the search for Belle is over.
Poughkeepsie, NY United States
Overall, as Fosters letter suggests, this analysis took us no closer to finding out the identity of Belle de Jour than any of the other guesses. What, then, was the problem? More broadly, why was everyone failing? Why couldn’t the collective minds of some of the best wordsmiths and literary detectives find this person? Why, moreover, weren’t forensic linguists, and most of all, authorship analysts, all over this like cats on clean laundry? Surely their collective expertise could make some headway?
Well, there is a very clear issue with this case – one that likely wouldn’t daunt the journalists and bloggers on the hunt because they wouldn’t know of it. This is known as the open set problem.
We have to get a little bit technical for a moment. Authorship analysis works on a number of interconnected principles. I’m going to go through five of them:
- You need a closed set of possible authors who could have written your questioned text, the shorter the shortlist, the better. Typically, a sensible shortlist is gathered by, say, the police and a suspect’s place on that list will generally be supported by other evidence – they will have been “there on the night in question” metaphorically speaking;
- For each of those suspects, you need to be able to gather enough data that is as similar to the questioned text as possible;
- For each of your suspects, that data needs to demonstrate appreciably distinct idiolects – that is, the suspects needs to not only have linguistic habits and styles that set them apart from each other, evidence of that needs to occur in their texts;
- These idiolectal markers – these distinct habits and styles – need to occur consistently within your suspect’s data. A one-off feature is dubious territory to say the least; and
- Each of your suspect’s datasets needs to have enough similarities or differences to the questioned text – in this case the Belle de Jour blog – to either rule their texts in or out as possible matches.
How does the approach published in The Times match up? Let’s go back through the list:
- A closed set supported by other evidence: It’s difficult to be sure if Foster was given Champion’s name or discovered it for himself or some combination of the two. Even if this is a closed set of one, though, which is a positive, what was the prior evidence for suspecting her in the first place? Why is Champion even on this list?
- Suitable data for each suspect in the closed set: We don’t know how much data Foster looked at beyond Champion’s Amazon review. I assume it will have included Champion’s journalism. I’ll come back to this very shortly.
- Distinctive idiolectal features in the suspect’s data: Since a blog is an online venture, anyone, anywhere could be writing it. As I’ve said, we don’t have constraints like physical proximity to narrow down our potential suspects, so the list of potential authors is pretty much the English-speaking, literate, adult, online population. That’s pretty extensive. Foster’s chosen features – the commas, brackets, italics, cringe-worthy, suffice to say, and so on – even as a combination of factors, are not likely to be distinct at that population level. The biographical data in the blog helps, but only if it’s actually true and not a fiction. Even if we somehow knew it to be true, though, it is still so broad as to capture plenty of potential candidates.
- Consistent idiolectal features in the suspect’s data: If Foster also looked at Champion’s journalism, this is problematic. Articles for the press can be and often are heavily edited and interfered with by several third parties. There’s also, often a house style that is enforced and can change individual stylistic choices. This would substantially muddy the water for all of the linguistic features Foster considered.
- Clear similarities with or differences to Belle de Jour: We don’t really get any information on just how similar or different the datasets were to each other. We merely get the suggestion that the chosen features were alike, or that their similarities were notable. We’re lacking all the details we would like in a thorough forensic linguistic analysis.
And there are more problems, too. The exceptionally sharp listener will have noticed that in discussing this whole analytical process, I haven’t said anything about “identifying an author”. At the fullest extent, a sensible forensic linguist will usually only assess the similarity between texts. This is because, even if two texts are alike, it doesn’t guarantee that the same person wrote them. After all, people can and do successfully spoof other authors. We get fanfiction which is written in the style of other authors. Some of it is extremely good and very convincing. Saying something like, “we’ve got our woman” makes the leap from identifying similarities between two texts to assuming that they were written by the same person, which, as this case so clearly highlights, is risky to say the least. Sarah Champion does these things, Belle de Jour does these things, Sarah Champion did not write Belle de Jour.
At this point, having really combed over Foster’s work, I want to throw it an enormous lifeline. I’ve also had my work reported in the media, and journalists have sometimes mangled it horribly. Newspapers don’t care for the tedium of technical details. They are never going to print dull, extended methodologies, long tables of results, complicated discussions of confounding variables or limitations or ethical problems. They don’t like shades of grey and they really don’t like phrases like “it’s complicated”. They want big, loud, dramatic conclusions and juicy, speculative discussions. It’s entirely possible that lots of further analytical work happened behind the scenes that we simply haven’t seen.
On the one hand, this may have been bad reporting where the analysis and conclusions has been accidentally misrepresented. And it’s also possible that all of this was not so accidental. Foster may have been a very convenient name upon which to hang all the risk of a wild guess dreamed up by a journalist. This would allow them to claim success if they were correct, and it would give them a very convenient scapegoat if they were wrong. Again, though, these are speculations to which we are never likely to get answers but it’s another timely sidepoint to note that when you work with the media, you have to be extremely careful.
The actual reveal
Let’s return, now, to Belle de Jour herself. The Times piece seems to instil a little more caution in the media, but as Belle de Jour’s star continues in the ascendant, the attempts at finding her continue. In January of 2005, under her pseudonym, Belle de Jour releases The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. It is a best-seller in both the hardback and paperback lists. Of necessity, she must let a few more people into the secret, increasing the risk of exposure exponentially. Even so, in September 2006, another book is released: The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl. This too is a best-seller. Then, another success. In September 2007, ITV2 air the TV series, Secret Diary of a Call Girl – an adaptation of her books. Even now, somehow, she still remains anonymous, and yet another two years slip quietly by.
But then, in 2009, there are the first, faint howls of wolves picking up a scent. Remember the mention of a boyfriend? Whatever else may be true or fictitious in the blog, he, at least, is real, and at some stage, he and Belle de Jour split up. Suddenly, there is a person on the loose who knows her real identity and who has, arguably, few reasons to keep it secret. Could he be tempted to sell all he knows to a tabloid? Might he just blurt something one day in anger or grief?
Then, suddenly, the wolves are at the door. A week after the real Belle de Jour moves out of an office, tabloid reporters are caught trying to break into it and they are escorted from the building. Is this just a fluke? Does it mean anything? Perhaps it can be ignored. Maybe, faced with defeat, the journalists will go away.
But all at once the wolves are inside. Belle de Jour receives an email. It is someone who has worked out her identity, and he’s right. Is it suddenly all over? The message comes from a fellow British blogger, Darren Shrubsole. But he isn’t here to expose her. He claims that he worked out her identity six years ago, all the way back in 2003, and then, honouring her decision to stay anonymous, he too kept it a secret.
However, as a line of defence, all that time ago, he laid a small digital tripwire. He put both Belle de Jour and her real name on a page on his own blog, LinkMachineGo. It’s the only page online with both names together, so that when anyone googles both Belle de Jour and her real name, his page is the only hit – a phenomenon known as a googlewhack, for those who like amusing tech words. If they visit his page, he is able to log their IP address. It’s a clever way of keeping track of anyone else who may have made the connection.
And in March 2009, that tripwire is triggered. The origins of the IP addresses? Associated Newspapers – these are the owners of the Daily Mail. For non-UK audiences, the Daily Mail is the UK’s biggest tabloid. It is not above publishing scathing, vitriolic screeds and a high-class sex worker would be a perfect candidate for a hate piece. In short, this is not the sort of paper one wants to be exposed in, since the angle and tone of the piece are not likely to be all that friendly. Whatever the case, it seems journalists from Associated Newspapers are onto her – possibly even the same ones that tried to break into her office only days before.
A potential leak from a past boyfriend. A break-in by journalists. A warning email from a stranger. The UK’s biggest tabloid googling her real name alongside Belle de Jour. It would seem that the game is up. If so, there is very little time to act. One way or another, it looks like there is going to be an ugly tabloid exposé. The question now, is, who will get there first?
Deciding to take control of events, she calls The Times – yes, the very same paper responsible for the Sarah Champion investigation – and tells them that she wants to reveal her identity, but under her own terms. Understandably, already burned by the Foster affair, The Times is cautious, does a series of checks on her claims, and sends out a journalist, India Knight, who meets her at a hotel. After a long interview and a cryptic message posted to the Belle de Jour blog to further prove the matter, the paper is satisfied. At one minute past midnight on 15th of November 2009, they publish an extended reveal in The Sunday Times.
Who is Belle de Jour?
She is… Dr Brooke Magnanti, a scientist working in the field of child health. Born and raised in Florida, after university Dr Magnanti moved to Britain to study a Masters in genetic epidemiology, followed by a PhD in forensic science. After submitting her thesis, whilst awaiting the viva, to support herself, Magnanti says that she turned to working as a £300-an-hour call girl, and to blogging about it. In the fourteen months that she did this work, she is supposed to have made over £100,000.
But the story doesn’t even end here. Remember the ex-boyfriend? He turns out to be Owen Morris, a Flight Lieutenant at RAF Lossiemouth based in Moray, in north-east Scotland. After the big reveal, in a series of articles in The Times, Magnanti claims that he threatened and harassed her and her new partner. In response, Morris files a claim with the Scottish courts, suing Magnanti for defamation. He also claims that the blog is all a work of fiction based on their sex life together. After some acrimonious contention, The Times pays him an undisclosed sum in damages.
But it still doesn’t even finish here. Magnanti takes exception to Morris’ assertion that the blog is a work of fiction. In response, she files a defamation counter-suit on the basis that this claim damages her reputation – that it harms her integrity by presenting her as a liar, and that it casts doubts on her expertise in the sex-work industry – a field in which she is now widely considered to be an expert. At some point in the legal proceedings, Magnanti hires forensic linguist Dr John Olsson – a lecturer in law and criminology at Bangor University – to compare emails known to be by Morris against a diary to determine whether Owens had written that too. According to Magnanti:
I knew he had of course, not to mention his own handwriting was on the label of the disc that read Owens diary, but like a fool he denied it. We slam-dunked him.
In what feels like a particularly fitting end to this case, I have spent quite some time searching for the outcome of this final lawsuit, but… it has proven impossible for me to find.
This episode of en clair was entirely researched, narrated, and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. However this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior effort of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.
The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. Or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter DrClaireH.