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June 13, 2023

Observer publisher apologises to women who made Nick Cohen complaints

Editor Katharine Viner and CEO Anna Bateson wrote to the women with an apology.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Guardian’s chief executive and editor-in-chief have apologised to several women who made complaints relating to the behaviour of long-time Observer columnist Nick Cohen.

The publisher has also pledged to improve its complaints-handling processes.

The women included freelance journalist Lucy Siegle, who complained about Cohen’s behaviour towards her when she was in a junior position at GNM in around 2001.

Her complaint was first publicly aired on Twitter in October 2021. She said: “…he ‘groped’ me at the photocopier (zero marks for originality) at work when I was an admin assistant in my early 20s”.

She told Press Gazette last year she felt a meeting with a senior Guardian News and Media executive that took place after she complained some 17 years later was “designed to distract, to delay, push me off the scent, muscle me off, intimidate me”.

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GNM chief executive Anna Bateson and Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner wrote to several women, including Siegle, on Monday.

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They said to Siegle: “We want to apologise for your experience of sexual harassment by an Observer member of staff, and for the way your complaint was handled,” according to the New York Times, which first reported on the apologies.

They also said: “Everyone should feel safe at work and in the presence of their colleagues, and the incident you describe is absolutely unacceptable.”

According to Siegle on Twitter, the message also said: “We know you feel very badly let down by GNM and that you have not felt confident in speaking to the company in the past about what happened to you,” adding: “We would like to understand what happened and to understand any failings on the company’s part.”

Other complainants have received similarly worded apologies from GNM, which confirmed it has written to everyone who had aired complaints publicly or been in touch directly.

Guardian making changes to ‘not fit for purpose’ complaints process

Siegle told Press Gazette last year the meeting with a senior GNM executive in 2018 was a “really painful thing to go through” and an “absolute car crash” in which she felt “gaslit”.

As a result she told management she was not minded to pursue the complaint further and no formal investigation took place at that time. Siegle said GNM’s “complaint culture is not fit for purpose”.

After receiving the apology, Siegle said on Twitter on Monday: “I am hugely relieved to get this because frankly I was struggling with the whole thing and acknowledgement makes a big difference.”

Press Gazette asked Cohen to comment on the news that GNM had apologised to the women who made allegations against him. He said: “I resigned on health grounds from the Observer last year.

“I am afraid to say that in the early 2000s, I was an alcoholic. After three years of trying, I went clean in 2016. Today, I look back on my addicted life with deep shame and enormous regret.”

The New York Times and the Good Law Project also first reported GNM is now making changes to its processes for handling claims of sexual misconduct – including using “independent, external third parties” to investigate complaints rather than senior managers internally.

An all-staff email, subsequently shared with Press Gazette, said: “Since last year, we have been working with Howlett Brown, a consultancy specialising in independent investigations and workplace culture, who found that our systems and policies are strong. However they recommended two changes to further improve our processes, which we intend to implement:

  1. From now on, all allegations related to sexual harassment will be investigated by independent, external third parties rather than by GNM senior managers.
  2. Disciplinary hearings relating to potential gross misconduct arising from these allegations will also only be heard by independent external third parties.

“We believe these improvements will give everyone more confidence and have started discussions with the unions.

“In addition, we have now asked Howlett Brown to act as an independent point of contact until the end of September for anyone who wishes to report any specific issues, whether current or historic, or raise any concerns about GNM’s policies or culture relating to sexual harassment.”

Timeline of Nick Cohen reporting

October 2021

Freelance journalist Lucy Siegle alleged in a Twitter thread that she was groped by Cohen in 2001 when she was a junior colleague at The Observer.

July 2022

Lawyer Jolyon Maugham KC of the Good Law Project revealed in a Twitter thread that he had details of further complaints relating to Cohen which he had raised with GNM.

August 2022

Press Gazette was first to report that Cohen’s weekly Observer column had been suspended pending the outcome of a company investigation into him. A GNM spokesperson said at the time: “Nick Cohen has agreed to step back from work for a period of time and co-operate with the company’s ongoing investigation.” We also highlighted concerns about GNM’s complaints handling process, as set out by Siegle and Maugham who had spoken to several women involved.

This story received little follow-up, although Siegle wrote in more detail about her allegations against Cohen and concerns about GNM’s processes for The New European. The Telegraph published a story but Siegle complained – unsuccessfully – to press regulator IPSO about the way it appeared to link Cohen’s suspension to a “trans rights row”.

January 2023

Press Gazette reported that Nick Cohen had officially left The Observer, although he and the publisher said he “resigned on health grounds” rather than because of the outcome of any investigation.

The Press Gazette report noted that Cohen’s departure followed complaints from female colleagues but faced criticism for including tributes from some of Cohen’s Observer colleagues and a comment from an unnamed staffer expressing sadness at the manner of his exit.

Observer editor Paul Webster said: “Nick Cohen has been a brilliant columnist whose incisive, emphatic writing has been a big part of the Observer for more than 20 years. On behalf of Observer colleagues, I’d like to thank him for his service and wish him all the best as he moves on to new opportunities.”

May 2023

The New York Times aired allegations against Cohen made by seven women, including Siegle, in detail for the first time.

Private Eye editor Ian Hislop told the New York Times that Cohen, a former contributor to the magazine, had received a “secret agreement and a big cash payment”.

The title also reported that the Financial Times’ special investigations team had looked into the Cohen story but that it was spiked by FT editor Roula Khalaf because Cohen did not have a big enough business profile to warrant coverage in the newspaper. The FT told the NYT: “Some reporting leads to published stories and some not.”

An FT spokesperson later told Press Gazette: “We were extremely disappointed by the NYT article, which was very unfair to the FT.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
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  • Retired
  • Other
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