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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Revealed: the inside story of the explosive BBC Newsnight report into bullying and harassment in Westminster

8 min read

MPs will on Tuesday vote on proposals for an independent expert panel to deal with bullying and harassment claims in Westminster. In an abridged extract from ‘Call to Order’, his biography of John Bercow, Sebastian Whale sheds light on the award-winning journalism that helped lead to this point

Journalists at BBC Newsnight were gathered for an editorial meeting on the third floor of Broadcasting House in central London. It was 31 October 2017, and a member of Theresa May's Cabinet had become the most prominent politician to face accusations of sexual harassment.

That morning, Michael Fallon had admitted to placing his hand on the knee of journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer at an event in 2002. He resigned as defence secretary the next day.

Senior journalists at Newsnight were adamant that they should not only expand their coverage of the Westminster harassment scandal but do a better job of it than the national newspapers.

But amid a perpetually fluid news cycle, the team was undergoing some changes at the top.

Ian Katz, who had served as editor since September 2013, was leaving to become director of programmes at Channel 4.

While a longer-term replacement was sought, Jess Brammar and Daniel Clarke were appointed as acting editors, supported by Lizzi Watson, who had taken on the position of executive producer.

After the morning meeting, Watson took aside Lucinda Day, Newsnight's planning editor, for a private conversation on a nearby sofa.

Day had started at the BBC in 2011, working as a researcher and producer for Radio 5 Live. She moved to the Today programme in January 2015, before joining Newsnight in February 2017.

Watson expected a report on Parliament to take around a fortnight. She asked her colleague: “Can you have a look at Westminster?”

Though the harassment scandal was in its relative infancy, there was a palpable tension in the corridors of Parliament. A dossier of alleged offences by MPs was circulating, and more victims were coming forward.

The first week of Lucinda Day’s investigation was spent calling up backbench female MPs. The off-the-record conversations would often go the same way. “Yes, there’s a massive problem with harassment,” the respondent would say. “But I can’t help you.” 

An article on Westminster harassment in The Guardian pricked Day's interest. Dr Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government and a former clerk, had illuminated a problematic power imbalance between MPs and staff in the House of Commons Service. This had fostered a culture in which bullying and harassment could take place without much by way of consequences.

Yes, there’s a massive problem with harassment... But I can’t help you

Theoretically, members of the House of Commons Service, unlike MPs' staff, had the power of recourse through a HR policy known as Respect. But, White argued, there was an “impossibly high bar for the incident to be investigated in a way that could lead to any repercussions for the MP involved”.

The article suggested a culture of bullying as well as harassment.

Realising she was onto something bigger than she had initially envisaged, Day went back to her team. 

“There’s definitely a story here because everybody’s telling me there’s a story but they can’t talk about it. So, I’m going to need more time,” Day asked.

Watson and Brammar responded: “OK, have a month off rota, see what you can find.” 

During this period, Day managed to convince Zelda Perkins, a former employee at Miramax Films, to break her non-disclosure agreement and speak to Newsnight about allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein.

The sensitive way in which Newsnight handled Perkins’s story would catch the eye of potential whistle-blowers in Westminster.

The first breakthrough came when a former clerk reached out to Day over email. The two arranged to meet in person, where the source confirmed that she needed to look into the experience of House of Commons staff. 

“Actually, bullying and harassment is really widespread with that group, and nobody has ever spoken about it,” they said.

Given there was an existing infrastructure in place to deal with such complaints, Day felt she could prove there was a systemic problem if, despite this, bullying and harassment was still prevalent. 

By the turn of the year, Day had spoken to more than fifty sources, and Chris Cook, policy editor at Newsnight, who had been working on stories relating to several MPs, joined her formally on the investigation.

Bullying and harassment is really widespread with that group, and nobody has ever spoken about it

Brammar, who continued to protect their time to work on the project, decided that the pair should collaborate.

A major development came in early February, when a previously reluctant staff member agreed to speak to the journalists.

The source proved crucial: they helped uncover a pattern of staff members being moved or opting to leave the House of Commons Service altogether after lodging a complaint, rather than action being taken against the MP in question. 

Cook and Day now had their evidence of a systemic problem.

After five months of investigation, which included speaking to upwards of seventy sources, the story was ready to go. 

Three MPs were going to be accused directly of bullying: Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, Labour MP Paul Farrelly and the Speaker, John Bercow (all three denied the claims). A week before the story was due to run, Cook issued the right of replies.

First would come a news feature on the BBC website, followed that evening by a twenty-minute report on Newsnight, presented by Cook.

With Watson now on loan to the News at Ten, it would fall to Brammar to give the final sign-off.

Late afternoon on Thursday 8 March, a report carrying Day and Cook’s byline was published. It began: “There is a bullying and sexual harassment problem at the House of Commons.”

By the time the investigation went live, Lucinda Day had broken her arm. She was in hospital for a check-up the following Monday when she caught wind of what had taken place in the Commons. 

Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House, had just announced an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in Westminster.

We felt like we couldn’t get any Labour MPs to speak on the record because of Brexit and the fact that Bercow was very useful to the Labour party on that front. 

In the days after Newsnight broke the story, Commons staff reached out to journalists on the programme. However, producers had a difficult time getting politicians to come forward to discuss the allegations. 

“We felt like we couldn’t get any Labour MPs to speak on the record because of Brexit and the fact that Bercow was very useful to the Labour party on that front,” says a BBC source. 

According to the insider, there was also an element of tribal behaviour, with MPs protecting their colleagues. Many would open up off-the-record, but few wanted their words to be attributed to them.

On 23 April, the House of Commons Commission announced that Dame Laura Cox, a High Court judge, had been made chair of the bullying inquiry. 

Her objectives included establishing the nature and extent of the claims, examining how complaints had been handled and advising how procedures could be improved.

“It is not the purpose of the inquiry to reopen past complaints of bullying or harassment or to investigate new ones against particular individuals,” the commission said in a statement.

Newsnight followed up on Westminster bullying over subsequent months. Emily Commander, a former clerk whose experience in lodging a bullying complaint led to a revisal of the original Respect policy, was among those to speak out, as was Angus Sinclair, a former private secretary to John Bercow, and David Leakey, the former Black Rod.

The investigation continued in August, when Jenny McCullough, a former clerk, accused Labour MP Keith Vaz of bullying her when he was chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee – accusations he denies. 

I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration." 

On 15 October 2018, seven months after Newsnight’s first report, Dame Laura Cox published her findings. The 155-page report was devastating.

The High Court judge had identified a culture “of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed”.

More than 200 people had come forward to provide testimony.

After quoting several contributors who said that meaningful change to the culture at Parliament would take "several generations", Cox argued: "On this basis, I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration." 

Newsnight’s investigation triggered a series of inquiries and a period of soul searching in Parliament (in July 2019, QC Gemma White published a report into bullying and harassment of MPs’ parliamentary staff). 

On Tuesday 23 June, MPs will vote on plans for a new expert panel to deal with bullying and sexual harassment complaints. Despite continued controversy over one element of the plans, the Government insist it meets the third key recommendation of the Cox inquiry for an independent system.

For its coverage, Chris Cook won reporter of the year at the Royal Television Society, and Newsnight was nominated for a Bafta and an RTS prize for investigative journalism.

This is an abridged extract of 'Call to Order', a biography of John Bercow. Previous extracts can be found here: 'The Bollocked by Bercow Club', and, 'John Bercow and the Clerks'

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