The Lib Dem case: Sexual harassment reporting and how Radio 4 makes me shouty.

On Monday, I happened to be in the situation where I caught two of Radio 4’s flagship news programmes. I was driving in to work as World At One was on, and driving home as The World Tonight aired. (I’m a youth worker, my working hours are bizarre at best.)

The main story of the day was, of course, the claims around sexual harassment in the Lib Dems. Channel 4 News had run a story at the end of the previous week, stating women who worked for the Lib Dems had made allegations against Lord Rennard. They had accused him of sexual harassment through inappropriately touching and propositioning them, and nothing had been done about it. On World At One, Jasper Gerard, a former Lib Dem speech writer, was asked to comment on the allegations. After spending approximately five seconds saying “if these claims are accurate then it was a terrible abuse of power”, he then goes on to say “but isn’t it so convenient that these claims are coming out now, with a by-election on the horizon, hmmm?” He then used the words “not a major crisis” and “blown out of all proportion” in relation to the claims. At 20.30 on the show, he said:

“We’re still now going on about whether somebody put his hand or didn’t put his hand on somebody’s knee, this isn’t a Jimmy Saville case.”

21.13 into the programme, he says:

“I think there’s an element of sexism in a lot of this coverage, having met a lot of the female Liberal Democrat prospective Parliamentary candidates I think they’re pretty well capable of looking after themselves to some extent here…I think it’s been dressed up as some sort of Edwardian melodrama where young damsels are running out of a room fluttering, terrified that this beast Lord Rennard is after them. I think it’s a bit patronising about these women. I think most of them are quite capable, if somebody does make an inappropriate pass at them, to put that person in their place pretty sharply.”

So, not only does he say that this is being blown out of all proportion – effectively saying “well, it was just touching, it’s not like he raped them”, and putting a level of what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate onto sexual harassment which, as far as I can tell, all falls under the umbrella of “NOT APPROPRIATE AT ALL” – he then goes on to say that these women should’ve dealt with it themselves. That only frail and weak women are affected by sexual abuse and everyone else should just brush it off.

I’ll say it again in big letters just to push the point.

He then goes on to say that these women should’ve dealt with it themselves. That only frail and weak women are affected by sexual abuse and everyone else should just brush it off.

If you were driving through the South Cotswolds at any point during Monday afternoon and you saw a woman driving down the country roads screaming at her radio, I do apologise. A little Google work shows that there have been some repercussions for these comments.

It was also mentioned that these allegations had been brought to Nick Clegg’s attentions about five years ago, and that his response was to ask his Chief of Staff Danny Alexander to “have a word” with Lord Rennard about these allegations. The discussion then continued with Simon Hughes, the deputy leader, who spent a long time saying “well, if these women didn’t say anything about it, what were we to do?” and reiterated Jasper Gerard’s point of “Funny these allegations should spring up now, right?”

Senior members of the party went onto national media and said “we didn’t know. What do you want from us?” At no point did any of them say “We should be looking into WHY these women didn’t report it sooner” rather than shrugging their shoulders and saying “what more do you want from me?”

I felt furious all afternoon, and then I drove home with The World Tonight on the radio. Tim Farron, Party President, said the words “we screwed this up”. I cheered. Then Sandra Gidley, former party spokesperson on women’s issues, came on and repeated that point.

“I must admit I do think that was a slightly strange strategy, it smacks of Yes Minister and this really is not a funny situation at all. You send somebody off to ask if it was true: “Did you do this, old chap?” “No of course I didn’t old chap.” “That’s alright then, let’s have a drink.””

Finally. Sense. An admission that there were no processes for these women to report their worries. No formal structure to deal with the allegations. In every organisation I’ve ever worked in, any allegations like these would involve at the very least a formal meeting, and a probable suspension while they were investigated. The idea that the response to this was a quick chat is, quite frankly, terrifying.

There are people who are speaking about these allegations who are speaking sense, but there seem to be just as many, if not more, who are focusing on the fact that the allegations didn’t come out sooner. I understand that news stories are released at times when they are likely to cause the most harm to an opposing party. But to accuse that means accusing the women of spitefully raising issues of sexual harassment as political gain. The story is not “these women kept their allegations until they knew it would cause most harm”. The story IS “sexual harassment is still happening in politics, and that’s not acceptable.”

We need to have voices like Sandra Gidley’s in response to this story. Not like Jasper Gerard.