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.
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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser