Rod Liddle and friends, a word in your ear about harassment

There's a difference between flirting over the photocopier and being a groper. So even if you think you're Don Draper, you might be Uncle Monty.

Gentlemen, a word in your ear please. As you all know, some of the chaps have been getting into a bit of bother of late, with all sorts of unfortunate allegations, sordid photos and lurid headlines on the front pages. Well, let me offer a bit of advice.

We all know what the newspapers are like. There we are, doing our jobs, working hard from morning till lunchtime running the country and protecting the mortal souls of the nation, and in they saunter, joking about their column inches and hinting that if we play our cards right, they could give our careers just the boost we need. Don’t fall for it. They’re not really interested in our talent, potential or future career, forgive my frankness but, they’re really just hoping for a chance to screw us. One minute you’ll be at a daily photo-call, cool and professional, the next moment you’ll be getting chased up the stairs by a paparazzo with a fully extended telephoto lens.  If you’re going into politics, it’s a very tough world, and if you want to survive the attentions of the press, you might find you need to toughen up a bit, play the game, if you get my meaning. Relax, try to enjoy it, it happens to everyone.

Steady on, I hear you say, perhaps these chaps have done nothing to invite the hot, heavy breath of a tabloid hack on their necks? What if their behaviour was entirely innocent? Won’t this type of unwelcome and unfair harassment put talented men off the notion of public service, to everyone’s detriment? Maybe advising people to toughen up isn’t quite enough, so let’s consider an alternative approach. 

Take a look at your employment contracts, chaps. You see that passage in the ‘benefits’ section, just between the pension plan and the holiday allowance? The bit saying you are entitled to squeeze every potential opportunity and sexual thrill out of any passing young colleague who takes your fancy? No? Perhaps that might be because it is not bloody there.

It’s all very well for the likes of Rod Liddle to declare breezily that all this is no big deal, that the work place has now become the venue within which we meet our sexual mates, because he sits on a moral high ground to which the rest of us can only aspire. It’s not as if he famously left his wife and two children for a 22-year-old receptionist from work or anything, is it? Is it? Oh.    

Rod Liddle.

Yes, people often form relationships through work, but there’s a big difference between inviting someone out for a meal or succumbing to some mutual flirting across the photocopier, and exploiting your power and position in such a way that the target of your attention feels degraded, intimidated and unsafe. Just for a moment, stop imagining yourself as Don Draper in Mad Men, all suave, sexy allure, wearing your dominant position like an aphrodisiac cologne. 

Chances are you’re not Don Draper, you’re Uncle Monty. Remember that scene in Withnail and I when Paul McGann’s character is being chased around an isolated cottage by a randy old goat, bursting with sweaty, menacing, terrifying lust and refusing to take no for an answer? That is much closer to the reality of sexual harassment for most of those who experience it. Now imagine being told that you might have to expect this to happen any day in the office, throughout your career, and that you should toughen up and get used to it. It is more easily said than done.

Finally chaps, since it is just us here together, one final chat about tactics. You know how we’ve been spinning the line about how men can’t help ourselves? That when the blood rushes to our loins it drains from our brains, rendering us incapable of behaving in a vaguely grown-up way? I know, I know, it is hilarious that we managed to pull that one off for so many centuries, but the bad news is I think they’re on to us. Seems women have noticed that there are lots of men, indeed a large majority, who are quite capable of going through life without sexually assaulting and sexually harassing their colleagues, who can treat women generally as equal human beings, which has rather blown the lid on the racket for the rest of us.

So, chaps, if we can’t just toughen up and ignore this, if we can’t dismiss it as trivial or excuse it as inevitable, what is there left to do? Perhaps there is only one way to stop such unpleasant media attention in the future. Those few of us who behave like the feral tom cats who got at the Viagra might just have to start acting like decent, self-aware human beings instead. The rest of us could stop excusing them, indulging them and covering for them. In one sense, those who say sexual harassment is no big deal have a point. It is not necessary, it is not inevitable, it is not the glue which holds the universe together, we could stop it in a second if we decided, collectively, to do so. Perhaps that time has finally come. 

Not Rod Liddle.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder