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FT denies ‘whitewash’ over investigation into ‘toxic’ culture at How To Spend It luxury mag

By Freddy Mayhew

  • How To Spend It staff accuse Financial Times of “whitewash” over complaints about culture at the title
  • FT editor Lionel Barber accused of “lack of empathy”
  • Whistleblowers say they were portrayed as “liars” over complaints

Staff on Financial Times luxury magazine supplement How To Spend It have accused management of a “whitewash” after an internal investigation cleared editor Gillian De Bono of bullying allegations.

The complaints were made anonymously by current and former HTSI staff through the FT’s whistleblowing policy.

De Bono has a reputation as a hard-working and demanding editor.

She is described on HTSI’s website as “our supremo”, having edited the luxury lifestyle title since 1998, following 18 years editing lifestyle magazines. She has won editor of the year at the British Society of Magazine Editors three times, including twice for HTSI.

HTSI has been published as a glossy supplement in since 1994, but first appeared in the Saturday paper more than 40 years ago. It is distributed globally with the FT Weekend 33 times a year and in 2009 gained a free website – All are overseen by De Bono.

Whistleblowers are said to be concerned about a “toxic and dysfunctional culture” in the department, according to an email sent on their behalf to the FT’s global HR director Sarah Hopkins and managing editor James Lamont from Steve Bird, joint father of the chapel for the FT Group’s National Union of Journalists chapel, earlier this month.

The email, seen by Press Gazette, followed a report on the outcome of a lengthy investigation into the complaints against De Bono which ultimately exonerated her.

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In the email Bird said whistleblowers were “frustrated and angry” at the “lack of opportunity to provide evidence in greater detail” during the investigation and the company’s “failure” to interview them all.

He said staff were left “feeling like they are being portrayed as liars” following a summary of the report detailing the outcome of the probe, and shared their complaints that FT editor Lionel Barber had shown a “lack of empathy” in a meeting about it with staff.

Whistleblowers also complained that this, as well as giving De Bono “one of the few offices available” in Bracken House, London – where the FT will return this year – “undermined” reassurances about the future for the department offered in the summary report.

He also said staff felt their concerns would not be addressed following what they saw as a “whitewash” report by the company.

Bird said in the email that he had spoken with NUJ officials and representatives about the situation and was “very disappointed with the company’s failure to address” whistleblowers’ “important points”.

In an email response, also seen by Press Gazette, HR director Hopkins said use of a third party would have “made no difference to the process”.

She said it was whistleblowers’ choice what information to provide in their statements as part of the internal probe, which was the only information on which investigators could adjudicate.

Hopkins said a “thorough investigation took place” that included inviting all existing HTSI staff to provide statements, as well as recent leavers – including those still at the FT in other departments.

The investigation included a review of HTSI staff turnover and the 2017 employee engagement survey results, said Hopkins. She added: “A decision was taken that there was little value in taking statements from people who had left HTSI a number of years ago.”

She said the FT was aware of “whitewash” and “toxic” culture concerns and is “actively working with the relevant team and manager”. She said a team building session for the HTSI team had been scheduled, adding: “Steps are already being taken to move forward constructively.”

Hopkins said of the decision to give De Bono an office: “I don’t agree that having an office automatically leads to less transparency. We need to focus on leadership behaviours and ways of working.”

She said Barber’s meeting with HTSI staff was to inform them about the outcome of the investigation, “make it clear that recommendations had been made and would be actioned and that the team should put this behind them and move forward constructively”.

She added: “That is what he did. There was no suggestion that individuals had lied and I am sorry to hear that this was the perception of some people.”

Bird said whistleblowers had asked for the right to appeal against the findings of the investigation and were considering pursuing collective or individual grievances against De Bono or using the FT’s internal dispute procedure.

Hopkins said there was no right to appeal under the FT’s whistleblowing policy and that there was no intention to change this.

On possible grievance and dispute proceedings being pursued, she said: “I don’t see the utility of covering the same ground again via a different process. I would strongly advise whistleblowers focus rather on the future and the recommendations that have been made.”

She added: “There is also no value in further extending what has already been an extremely difficult period for both parties and revisiting what has already been a conscientious and comprehensive investigation and review…

“FT management hope to engage with the NUJ in a partnership that is constructive and fair, but which also recognises and understands that working towards a resolution is not only best and least damaging for our business, but also for the welfare of our people.

“We have listened to your concerns, we have investigated them and we have independently adjudicated on them.

“It is disappointing that your email and comments reflect only a desire to unnecessarily prolong the matter and to revisit matters which we have conscientiously and comprehensively investigated.”

The FT’s whistleblowing policy is due for review this month.

De Bono declined to comment when approached by Press Gazette over the claims against her for this article.

An FT spokesperson said: “We have responded in detail to all of the concerns raised and are proactively working to improve employee relations within the How to Spend It team.”

An NUJ spokesperson said: “The NUJ is still in discussions with the company about this.

“We are pressing for further efforts to be made to resolve it on behalf of our members and have been invited to put forward proposals into a review of the whistleblowing policy which we intend to do.”

Separately the Guardian has also been investigating claims against De Bono. A senior FT source told the newspaper: “We’re trying to bring the culture of How to Spend It closer to the rest of the paper … to improve its employee relations.

“Gillian is a tough cookie -the damn thing wouldn’t work unless she was. But she is not the easiest person.”

The Guardian said HTSI and De Bono were both still “mission-critical” to the FT and quoted former editor Julia Carrick as saying some of its previous issues were “way over £1m in profit”. The Guardian estimated that would put HTSI annual profits above £10m at its current publication rate.

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