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August 2, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:11am

Nick Cohen’s Observer column on pause whilst he co-operates with investigation

By Dominic Ponsford and Charlotte Tobitt

Nick Cohen has paused writing his long-running weekly Observer column pending the outcome of an investigation by publisher Guardian News and Media.

In response to a question from Press Gazette following the suspension of Cohen’s weekly column, a spokesperson for Guardian News and Media (GNM) said: “Nick Cohen has agreed to step back from work for a period of time and co-operate with the company’s ongoing investigation.”

Meanwhile wider concerns have been raised about GNM’s handling of complaints, with one former employee telling Press Gazette she felt the publisher had “actively discouraged” complainants and that the “complaint culture is not fit for purpose”.

GNM declined to comment on these wider concerns. Cohen told Press Gazette he was unable to issue a statement until the company’s investigation had been completed.

Nick Cohen Observer column is on pause

Cohen’s most recent Observer column on 9 July was a diatribe against Boris Johnson and the right-wing newspapers that supported him. In it he said: “They pushed standards of public life so low that, however despicably future prime ministers behave, they will be able to say that they never sank to the level of Boris Johnson.”

A Cohen-penned book review appeared in the Observer on 24 July.

Allegations, which Cohen has described as “vile and untrue” in a legal letter, were circulating on social media at the start of 2020.

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In January 2020, Cohen engaged Patron Law over “seriously defamatory posts” that appeared on an anonymous Twitter account.

His law firm tracked down the individual thought to be behind the account and asked for a full retraction, public apology, payment of legal costs, £1,000 donation to charity and disclosure of the “identity of those who gave you the ‘evidence’ that you refer to”.

Barrister Jo Maugham QC contacted GNM late last year with concerns relating to Cohen. Because he was unhappy with the way those concerns were dealt with he went public with more information on Twitter on 13 July this year.

Maugham is the founder and executive director of the Good Law Project, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit campaign organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public”.

London-based law firm Baker McKenzie has contacted Maugham and others on behalf of GNM as part of the GNM investigation into the issues raised by Maugham.

Wider concerns raised about complaint-handling culture at Guardian

Since going public Maugham has since been approached by a number of women raising wider concerns about GNM which are unconnected to Nick Cohen.

He said that one person, who had worked in newsrooms at other national newspapers, “spoke of how, before she had joined the Guardian she had been warned about the culture but GNM was far worse than she had expected or experienced elsewhere”.

She said she had a “grim time” working at GNM and “also went through an HR process which was an utter waste of time”.

Maugham told Press Gazette that his main concern is around the culture at GNM, adding: “Senior executives at GNM are behaving like they are more interested in protecting their reputations than anything else.”

Lucy Siegle’s complaint over Nick Cohen encounter

Freelance journalist and BBC One Show presenter Lucy Siegle, who worked her way up at GNM from an admin role to write an Observer column on ethical living and launch the newspaper’s Ethical Awards, raised a complaint relating to Cohen with management in February 2018.

It related to a workplace encounter some 17 years earlier which she later wrote about on Twitter in October 2021.

She met with a senior GNM executive but described the meeting as “aggressive” and an “absolute car crash” in which she felt “gaslit” and like they “basically spent half the time trying to diminish what I was saying and then the other half of the time sort of putting their fingers in their ears and almost going ‘la la la’”.

“It was a really painful thing to go through because I knew that this was not the way to conduct this conversation,” Siegle said, adding that she left the meeting feeling “very confused” about what any subsequent process or investigation would look like. “Everything within that conversation, I think, was designed to distract, to delay, push me off the scent, muscle me off, intimidate me. I don’t think any of that was constructive,” she said.

She said the publisher has since claimed she rejected its offer of an investigation, but that in her view she was never told anything about how to move to a formal complaint procedure. “Technically did I say that I’m not minded to pursue further within Guardian Media Group? Yes, I did. But you give me one complainant in my position who would have said anything different given that horrific meeting.”

After Siegle raised her concerns publicly on Twitter she received an email from the same executive saying: “I recall that when we discussed this subject on a confidential basis, you did not wish the Guardian to investigate the matter at that time. However, given that you have now tweeted publicly, I hope that it means that your position has now changed, and that you would be willing to provide further information so that we can investigate the matter fully.”

Siegle pointed out that this was the first time the word “investigate” had ever been used and that the email also marked the first time she was formally pointed towards HR, and decided she did not feel able to speak further with this executive about the matter. She said: “I felt this was an outrageous rebuke and that it was disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that I was somehow blocking an investigation given the way I had been treated two years before.”

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