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The Russell Brand allegations are reverberating through the TV industry and beyond. At a Royal Television Society (RTS) event earlier this week, Channel 4 CEO, Alex Mahon, told the audience that “terrible behaviour towards women was historically tolerated” in the media industry. I know that’s true; both from spending 20 years in the industry and because I’ve spent the past 6 months investigating the culture in British newsrooms and encountering many examples of the way executives scramble to stop whistleblowers, while publicly claiming to support them.
Mahon urged anyone with information about bad or even criminal behaviour to get in touch, anonymously if they need to, saying:
“They’re not empty words or gestures… what is clear to me is that terrible behaviour towards women was historically tolerated in our industry, and the clips we’ve seen as well provide a rather shocking jolt when one realises what appeared on air not that long ago.
The behaviour is less prevalent now, but it’s still a problem and it’s something that we must all confront. There is still more change that needs to come.”
Another influential voice in the industry, Dorothy Byrne, the former Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4, told Channel 4 News that the allegations against Brand should be “a MeToo moment for television”. She went on: “I know that many journalists have tried to tell this story over several years, both newspaper journalists and the BBC, but they came across the problem that, although some women were saying they had suffered abuse… they felt intimidated.”
“To what extent do you think that [people] have been intimidated by the television industry?” she was asked by Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Byrne said it was important that “we look back and give a voice to women”. Women, who worked in the very Channel 4 News newsroom from which Guru-Murthy was broadcasting, believe that the programme and ITN, which produces it, have failed to listen to women many times over the past decade.
ITN is a huge media organisation. It had revenues of £164 million in 2022 and has nearly 800 staff on its books; along with Channel 4 News, it produces ITV and Channel 5 News. Reporting about it is made particularly difficult by its size, its influence, and its resources.
At the start of September, Tory MP and former Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, wanted in Parliament that ITN had used controversial non-disclosure agreements as a means of silencing claims of sexual, disability, maternity, and racial discrimination.
When The Spectator recently published an op-ed by a former Channel 4 News producer discussing allegations of bullying and harassment, ITN provided a statement which read, in part:
… we reject entirely the suggestion that this historical allegation was not fairly and thoroughly investigated three years ago. We have a duty of care to all individuals involved in any workplace dispute and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment on specific circumstances.
Since April 2022, ITN no longer routinely uses confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements.
It’s worth noting that ITN promised staff in February 2018 that it would no longer use such clauses but that the statement provided to The Spectator – echoed in the responses it sent to queries put to ITN by Byline Times – says it has not used ‘confidentiality clauses’ “since April 2022”. That follows a Times report in February 2022 that revealed that the gagging measures were still being used.
I’ve spoken to several women subject to settlement agreements drafted by ITN’s lawyers; all of them say they did not request confidentiality provisions and continue to feel that they cannot speak out publicly without legal risks. One woman – who signed a settlement agreement after a successful claim for maternity discrimination – told me that she felt she had no option but to sign or she would have faced years waiting to be paid as well as the prospect of selling her home to fund a legal battle.
When top executives and editors leave newsrooms, they are often treated to lavish leaving dos and hyperventilating press releases about their brilliance. When people who have complained about discrimination are pushed out – they vanish. They get no leaving parties, no cards full of well wishes, and – in the case of several people I’ve spoken to – not even a personal reference.
‘Often Cosy, Claustrophic and Highly Interconnected’
In The Daily Telegraph this week, Allison Pearson wrung her hands about the “unpersoning” of Russell Brand because investigative journalists have put long whispered-about allegations into print, after a pair of long and in-depth investigations.
People who complain of abuse and harassment are far more often unpersoned in the British media; their names disappear from credits and work to which they have been major contributors is presented as though they were never there.
ITN says the complaints I have investigated are “historical” and points to its whistleblower line, while firmly defending its corporate culture and the climate in its newsrooms. But the stories I’ve heard from newsrooms across the UK – of star systems where presenters can behave appallingly but other staff are often harangued over the smallest mistake – suggest that there is a lot of work still to be done to promote that “inclusive, transparent, and respectful culture” ITN says it already has.
Beyond the perception that NDAs and confidentiality clauses can and do have a chilling effect on whistleblowers, there’s a wider sense that there is no one to speak out to and that it will not be welcomed anyway. One woman working in a major newsroom, who had previously complained about harassment and bullying, submitted a question to an event billed as a space for women at the company to hear from outside experts and talk about ‘issues’, which asked: “How do we treat women who make complaints about harassment?” She felt she was then made to vanish from that newsroom.
The British media is often cosy, claustrophobic, and highly interconnected. Rival newsrooms often have personnel who have worked at or have relationships with people in organisations under scrutiny. That’s before you consider the question of future employability. The Burning Bridges Tour that I first undertook in my twenties and continue today makes it easier for me to pursue stories about behaviour within the British media but for people hoping to further their careers that’s not easy.
When women from Channel 4 News offered a broadcast exclusive to the BBC about harassment allegations, the initial enthusiasm waned and the BBC never ran the story. It didn’t help their confidence in the system when they discovered that one of the presenters of the show they had approached was married to a senior ITN executive. Another complainant spoke about her experiences with a journalist at a major newspaper who was ‘conflicted’ because their partner worked at ITN.
There’s no suggestion of a conspiracy here, or of any conscious editorial complicity between journalists across news organisations – or even within them. The culture in newsrooms is a maelstrom of egos, aggro, and jealousies, but in the inter-related world of journalism, whistleblowers – especially women – often feel they have nowhere to turn. I think that’s justified. The lofty rhetoric of newsroom managers and the executives above them is often very different to the down-and-dirty daily reality.
Dorothy Bryne is right to talk about a prevailing culture where women – and other whistleblowers – feel intimidated. In the wake of the Brand investigation, Channel 4 women I’ve spoken with are calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the culture of British newsrooms and the wider TV industry. They have no faith in ITN, ITV, the BBC, or Channel 4 conducting internal inquiries, particularly as individuals named in some of their harassment cases have been publicly praised and promoted.
The Brand investigation has prompted lots of people to ask: “Why now? And why like this?” My experience reporting out stories about horrific tales in the TV industry more widely tells me exactly why now and why like this: Because to take on people with that kind of power and those kind of resources needs money and scale. There is more than one way to gag people who are trying to talk; stopping other journalists from raising the alarm is one of them.