BBC Newsnight’s House of Commons bullying and harassment exposé was “old-fashioned” journalism that involved speaking to more than 50 sources over five months, according to one of the journalists behind it.
Policy editor Christopher Cook told Press Gazette he had been trying to stand up “two or three stories about MPs” for 18 months when, amid the #MeToo movement gaining traction last autumn, a number of allegations of inappropriate behaviour and harassment swept Westminster.
- October 20, 2020
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He decided it was time to “have another run” at the story, “because maybe people will speak now because they’ll feel that this is the moment”.
Working alongside producer Lucinda Day, under then acting Newsnight editor Jess Brammar, the team carried out interviews between November last year and March. They broadcast their findings on 8 March.
The story revealed a widespread problem of bullying and harassment in the House of Commons, including allegations against Speaker John Bercow and Labour MP Paul Farrelly.
Newsnight alleged that Bercow has a “reputation as a bully with staff” and that his private secretary from 2010 to 2011 was signed off sick due to his “bullying behaviour”.
A spokesperson for the Speaker told the BBC he “completely and utterly refutes the allegation that he behaved in such a manner, either eight years ago, or at any other time”.
Newsnight also reported that a number of complaints had been raised against Farrelly in relation to the bullying of committee clerks. He has denied bullying five women.
The claims resulted in an independent inquiry led by Dame Laura Cox, which concluded on Monday that the Commons is infused by a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive”.
Cook told Press Gazette that in the first 24 hours after broadcasting the story, the House of Commons tried to “minimise” it by focusing on a quote from a serving clerk who said she felt she was living in a “culture of fear”.
A Commons spokesperson told the BBC: “It is a grotesque exaggeration to suggest that members of the House of Commons service work in a ‘culture of fear’ in relation to dealing with bullying and harassment by MPs.
“The House of Commons takes pride in being a responsible and supportive employer and does not tolerate bullying or harassment of any kind.”
Said Cook: “We had spoken to a double digits share of their employees and we knew it wasn’t a grotesque exaggeration.” The Newsnight team responded by gathering more evidence from clerks to air the following day.
Reflecting on the Cox report’s conclusions, Cook (pictured) said: “We’re not advocates for an outcome, but we were confident in what we’d said.
“We’d had complete unanimity and I never doubted that she would find that this was a real problem.”
Speaker Bercow has said an independent commission should be set up to deal with all future complaints of bullying and harassment in the House.
Other MPs have called for Bercow to step down – including during a Commons debate on the Cox report – but Labour’s Emily Thornberry told Sky News it was “absolutely not the time to be changing speaker”.
Cook said sources had been in touch since the story went out to share their gratitude. He said one had told him: “Vindication is what I feel most – that all these years of being told that I’m overreacting is bullshit.”
He said other sources who had decided not to take part in the investigation had also contacted him to say they were pleased by the outcome.
“The big picture about all of this is there’s a group of women in the House of Commons who weren’t really listened to before,” he said.
“There were people who were really nervous about talking to us who didn’t really want to talk to us – to be fair they didn’t know what we were going to do with it, they didn’t know how we were going to treat it and whether we were going to be reasonable or sensationalist.
“Half a dozen people from that category have come back in the last week and said: ‘I’m really pleased you did this, I’m sorry I didn’t help’.
“It was quite nice… Because you feel like when you’re approaching these people you’re pestering them about private grief and the fact that they appreciate that we were trying to do something genuinely publicly-spirited is quite reassuring.”
Cook said a crucial part of getting the “incredibly old-fashioned” story was simply listening and ensuring sources saw him and colleague Day as trustworthy from day one.
“It is a cliché, but it is also the truth that your ability to do the stuff does depend entirely on the willingness of people to trust you,” he said.
“It sounds pious but there is no way around, there is no shortcut to trustworthiness, you just have to be trustworthy.
“You have to show it, you have to go and see people to show that you value their time, you have to listen to them, you have to actually take them seriously, you have to treat them – not just before publication and when you’re desperate to get that killer fact out of them – you have to treat them with decency.
“Lots of the subsequent reporting that we’ve been able to do off the initial story has relied on the fact that the people who told us stuff to begin with have come back and said: ‘Check out this, they haven’t fixed this’.
“It is sometimes difficult to deal with sources, but it’s been a real education on the importance of openness and honesty and trustworthiness with them.”
Cook, formerly comment editor at the FT, added that the story “would have been impossible” without the “brilliant” Day – proving the importance of diversity in the newsroom.
“It’s really helpful basically having a man and a woman working on a story like this as well because you do have implicit understandings of things that the other lacks,” he said.
“There are people I got on well with from our contacts, there are people Lucinda got on well with from our contacts, and I’m sure part of that’s down to gender.”
Cook revealed the story did require a lot of talking to BBC lawyers to meet the “very high bar for accusing people of bullying” before broadcast.
But he was helped by the “incredible consistency” of his source accounts and the fact clerks are, he said, “generally brilliant” at taking contemporaneous notes of events which could be used as evidence.
Cook said one of the biggest questions was deciding when the story was ready to publish after months of work, and whether to break the story in Newsnight’s 10.30pm slot or roll it out earlier in the evening.
“What’s your objective?” he said the team asked themselves. “Is it to maximise viewership of the programme or is it to have maximum impact that follows from other publications?”
The story broke on Newsnight, but other publications had been given advanced notice about it, Cook said, allowing them to ready coverage.