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2 November 2017

Robert Peston’s Diary: There is nothing uniquely Tory about abusing women

May needs to take up the drains in her party and bleach them as fast as she can.

By Robert Peston

A well-known Tory MP said to me over a plate of guineafowl at the Savoy the other day that he just couldn’t help making remarks that his female colleagues regard as sexist and demeaning – and it wasn’t fair that he was constantly getting into trouble with them.

He meant no harm, he insisted, but his brain is wired in such a way that there is nothing he can do about it. What struck me most was the way that he saw himself as the victim. He wanted sympathy.

It is this refusal to take responsibility that makes the sexual harassment scandal gripping Westminster all the more toxic – and may further dent the authority of Theresa May’s government (yes, that is possible), because of her repeated pledges to combat gender and ethnic discrimination, in the way that the “back-to-basics” John Major was humiliated in the 1990s by tabloid revelations about extramarital bonking.

May needs to take up the drains in her party and bleach them as fast as she can – though it’s not as if her whips haven’t kept her pretty well informed about the smell for months. Here is the calculation of shame: are weeks of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse, which knock revelations about the Brexit civil war in the cabinet from the front pages, so terrible for her party?

As Donald Trump’s victory showed – sigh – voters can be remarkably forgiving of sexism that is considerably worse than the everyday kind. Anyway, there is nothing uniquely Tory about abusing women.

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My time on the bonfire

On Saturday night, I was burned in effigy. Or so a friend emailed me to say, attaching a picture as proof. She told me that I was the Guy at a bonfire night in the village of Firle, near Lewes in East Sussex – but she could not explain what I had done to so offend the burghers of Firle.

Yes, I know that my voice, hair, shoes, opinions, news stories, presenting style and pretty much everything else annoy lots of people. But it never, in my wildest imaginings, occurred to me that it would be me going up in flames where apparently more than a decade ago the revellers strayed seriously to the wrong side of propriety and decency by burning a mock gypsy caravan.

My friend said I should be flattered to be burned in what is probably the oldest known form of social media trolling. Maybe.

My explanation for what happened is that the folk of Firle felt that they could not burn my BBC opposite number, Laura Kuenssberg, for fear of being accused of sexism. And they could not incinerate my successor as BBC economics editor, Kamal Ahmed, because that would have overtones of racism. Yet who could object to an opinionated, white, middle-aged man going on the fire? Not me, anyway. Do I sound like enough of a victim to run for parliament?

People in glasshouses

Most conversations I have with women in my industry right now move swiftly to stories of how they lived for years with uninvited lunges from colleagues, lewd comments and schoolboy electronic messages (“I can see your knickers”).

TV and newspapers have a glasshouses problem in reporting the sexism and abuse endemic in parliament. The BBC, which employed me for years, has a tawdry history of putting the reputation of the institution ahead of the welfare of female staff.

Not that many years ago, women who complained about the predatory sexual behaviour of bosses were encouraged not to make a fuss – and were stealthily moved to new jobs. Their bosses might have been quietly told to show more common sense, but serious sanctions were there none (they remain “giants” in our world to this day).

There was similar unpunished harassment of junior female staff by male bosses at my other employers, the Telegraph and the Financial Times. But here is the unprintable truth: some of the cover-ups were perpetrated by women bosses. How could this possibly be? These same female bosses regaled me with tales about how, as young reporters and producers, they, too, had been thrown on couches by cravat-wearing executives – and I fear they didn’t see why the next generation should not also make the necessary sacrifice for career advancement.

The war of the Sunday shows

Very occasionally, Andrew Marr’s guests nip across town to be interviewed by me on Peston on Sunday. Whenever it happens, we are anxious that they may not arrive on time. Last weekend, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, turned up late. Why? Because Marr’s producers stalled him by insisting that he stayed to the end to listen to the music of an Alabama singer, Jason Isbell (yeah, me neither). This has never happened before. We were forced to change our running order midway through the show. Which, as luck would have it, did us no harm – and might have helped us by imbuing the programme with a bit of live-TV excitement.

I asked Hunt what he thought of the music at Marr’s: “A bit anodyne.”

Talking for ten hours

I stay sane by ignoring the Twitter trolls (I even declined to take action against a social media stalker who the police told me had plastered the walls of his room with photos of me). But I want to set the record straight on the canard that Audible, the audiobook people, didn’t want me to voice my new book, WTF, for fear that people would start bleeding from their ears at listening to me for ten hours. Audible wanted me to do it but I don’t have three free days to do the recording. So I recorded the first and last chapters, which are letters to my late dad – and an actor, brave chap, was me for the rest.

Even though WTF (or “Where’s the Fish?” as my sister Jul calls it) is my fourth book, it is the first one that has transported me back to that horrible time between sitting exams and waiting for the results. So, annoyingly, I care what you think about WTF, if you can be bothered to read it. 

Robert Peston’s new book, “WTF”, is out now. He is ITV’s political editor

This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over