Searching for Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt online will produce a plethora of articles detailing a sexist speech he made at The World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. Subsequently this produced an enormous number of debates supporting or condemning him and shortly after UCL announced the end of his position as an honorary professor. A respectable person in his field one day, a misogynistic old timer the next? Perhaps. In a time where equal rights movements are seeing strong support and progression throughout the western world, it might not come as a surprise that news headlines about his belittlement of women gained so much traction. How exactly does someone held in such high prestige who; maintained positions on notable scientific councils, earnt a Nobel Prize, and experienced a career in science that spanned decades, spark so much controversy? Or should we be asking how and why someone who allegedly holds such views was given those positions and honours?
Today it is heinously difficult to acquire a full, accurate and reliable account of what Tim Hunt actually said. Some reports claim that people present at the conference said he meant it as an ironic joke, others assert that the room fell silent and the atmosphere was stony cold. However it is concerning that primary evidence of the incident – such as a recording of the speech – was not initially reported on and instead the testimony of journalists was at the forefront of headlines. An event that mirrored a colossal game of Chinese whispers spawned and many began to use it as material to push for equality in science. When new evidence surfaced the media began to backtrack on its reports, but it was too little too late, as many Twitter hashtags had all but destroyed his public image.
The trends of social media vary rapidly, without warning and sometimes have grave consequences. In the internet age it is all about the ‘number of hits’ an article receives and it is not surprising that when a hot new topic arises, many websites produce similar articles at an alarming rate. The aim isn’t about accuracy, but to keep website traffic high. However the truth of the matter isn’t always immediately available and may require further investigation. Unfortunately that is the one luxury the media does not have: time.
An old proverb states that: A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. With current technology it is no longer about the lies that are spread but the truth that hasn’t yet surfaced. Was an agenda pushed by the media? Yes. However this isn’t surprising or unique to the incident, an agenda is always pushed by the media. The important question is whether it was done purposefully if the incident was reported on in a fair manner, If it wasn’t, why?