'Herald Tribune' jettisons escort agency ads as British 'madam' denies offences

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The Independent Online

Small-ads for escort agencies, which play a pivotal role in the trial of a British woman accused of running a top-class, international prostitution ring, were banished from its columns yesterday by the International Herald Tribune.

The American newspaper, based in Paris, said that it would "no longer accept advertising for escort services in light of a recent court case".

The austere, broadsheet newspaper, which is owned by The New York Times and circulates all over the world, has been described in a Paris court as the notice-board of choice for dozens of doubtful escort agencies, including one run by Margaret MacDonald.

On the second day of her trial for "aggravated pimping" yesterday, Ms MacDonald, 43, a multilingual, Bedford-born business graduate, presented herself as a feminist and a legitimate businesswoman.

Tolerated in many countries, escort agencies are illegal in France, where the government has also cracked down on prostitution under a wider anti-crime campaign. Touting for business on the street can incur fines and six months in jail.

Confident, smiling and dressed once again all in white, Ms MacDonald told the court in perfect French that she had set up her agency as a "partnership between women" and a "service for adults".

She provided escorts for men but it was up to the women to decide how far they wanted to go. "I am not naive but what happened after dinner was no business of mine," Ms MacDonald said.

She said that she had sometimes refused to sleep with clients when she herself worked as an escort. "If I didn't like the client, I just had a drink with him," she said. But Ms MacDonald, arrested 16 months ago, appeared to fall into a trap when she admitted under questioning that the price of the escorts she provided varied according to whether they agreed to have sex.

"The client did not pay the full price if he did not consume all that there was to consume," she said. (Laughter in court.) Angrily denying that she was a pimp, Ms MacDonald said that she set up her agency precisely to help women to escape the clutches of male pimps.

"I am against women working with men," she said. "It's better if it stays between women."

Taking a less serious tone, she said her marketing studies had helped to get the business booming. "You use the same skills to sell computers as you do to sell other activities," she said.

While clients paid anything up to €1,000 ($1,129) per hour for an escort, Ms MacDonald told the court she only made €3,000 per month from the business, once she had paid for adverts in the International Herald Tribune and other costs.

The hearing concluded last night but judgment is not expected until next month. If convicted, Ms MacDonald faces up to 10 years in prison.