20 Jan 2014

How my Rennard question to Nick Clegg got me booed

For almost a year, since breaking the story about allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” by Lord Rennard, I’ve asked repeatedly for an interview with the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to talk about the scandal. I’ve been denied such an interview at least as often as Lord Rennard has refused his party leader the apology he seeks.

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From the very start, this was a story not just about the allegations themselves, but about claims senior Lib Dem figures knew about Lord Rennard’s alleged behaviour and had failed to take decisive action after the women reported their concerns. So for months and months, there have been many questions to ask Mr Clegg and his senior team.

Just to recap, one of the women behind the original allegations, Alison Smith, says she complained to the then chief whip Paul Burstow in 2007, and the party president subsequently. Bridget Harris, until relatively recently the deputy prime minister’s own special adviser, complained to her line manager in 2003 – more than a decade ago. The women say, however, that they became embroiled in a “Kafka-esque” situation, and were repeatedly told by the party that nothing could be done because no one would make a complaint.

Last February, Nick Clegg spent days denying he was aware of allegations against Lord Rennard until Channel 4 News broadcast them. He then admitted that he was aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns” about the peer.

More from Channel 4 News on Lord Rennard

So the suggestion is that the Lib Dem leadership had every opportunity to deal with Lord Rennard years ago, but failed to take that opportunity. Hence my demands for an interview to ask Mr Clegg about his and his colleagues’ failings.

If there were questions 11 months ago, though, there are many more today.

Mr Clegg’s handling of the inquiry by Alistair Webster QC into Lord Rennard’s conduct and the subsequent fall-out has raised serious questions about his leadership. In fact, I think it’s no exaggeration to say this is the biggest crisis of his political life.

Why, when he ensured the Lib Dem peer Baroness Tonge left the party because of offensive comments over Israel, did he allow his chief whip in the Lords, Dick Newby, to shake hands on a deal to return the party whip to Lord Rennard today?

Why, when Mr Webster was given the remit for his inquiry, did the leadership allow the defining issue to focus on whether the peer had “intended” to behave inappropriately – something that’s clearly impossible to prove to any standard – criminal or civil – without venturing inside Lord Rennard’s head?

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Why hasn’t Mr Clegg talked to Lord Rennard for almost a year, leaving the peer quietly to go about gathering support in the Lords so that now the Lib Dem leader is engaged in a stand-off with some of his most senior colleagues?

And most pressingly of all, how on earth has Mr Clegg allowed a situation to develop where Lord Rennard appears to be running the party, not him?

Yes, there are many questions. But unfortunately, despite my repeated and regular bids, I was told this morning I wouldn’t get the chance to put them to the deputy prime minister. In fact, his aides advised me that the only chance I’d get to query him was at a speech he was giving on mental health.

I felt deeply uncomfortable about this. Mental health is an issue close to my heart – an issue, indeed, I’ve covered repeatedly for Channel 4 News. So to turn up at such an event and ask about politics, scandal and leadership crisis seemed to me unfeeling to say the least. But Mr Clegg’s aides had put me in an impossible position. Despite taking to the Daybreak sofa and swooping into the Today programme studio, they’d told me he wouldn’t be sitting down with me tonight or at any point during the day.

So when I asked my question I was, quite predictably, booed by an audience who’d come to here about mental health troubles, not party political ones.

Mr Clegg gave what can only be described as a dusty answer, so all my other inquiries will have to wait until another day. Is it the case that because I broke the story in the first place, and have spent months following every twist and turn, I’d ask one question too many to the Lib Dem leader at his sensitive moment in his career.

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Certainly, Mr Clegg is now stuck.

If Lord Rennard apologises, his supporters say he’s concerned about the implications of that. Would it be seen as an admission of guilt, leaving his alleged victims free to sue? If the Lib Dem leader finds some cojones and forces his peers to remove the whip from Lord Rennard on the grounds his refusal to apologise has brought the party into disrepute, the peer’s fans have given notice that he’d most likely take the matter to court. And if the Lords this afternoon defy Mr Clegg, and allow Lord Rennard to rejoin their merry band with impunity, the women who first had the courage to speak out won’t let the Lib Dem leader forget that.Furthermore, in that scenario, Mr Clegg would be sharing his parliamentary party with a man who’s openly defied him.

Events are moving so fast that the final question I now won’t get to put is this: is there room in the party for both Mr Clegg and Lord Rennard?

A version of this blog was first published at telegraph.co.uk


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24 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Cathy,

    Good on you. You did the right thing, uncomfortable as it was.

    Actually, this is a perfect demonstration of how politicians can attempt to control the media through structured access, staged press “conferences” and planted questions.

    The fact that the LibDem half of the Two Headed Boy scuttles away whenever you appear tells you all you need to know about his character, as does the general behaviour of that custard pie party itself.

    And to think some people were stupid enough to vote for them.

    Keep up the good work. You know you are onto the truth when they start running away.

  2. Aidan Turner says:

    As a former member and long-standing activist, I can say that I have become disillusioned with Nick Clegg’s leadership on this and other issues. I am afraid it is a case of “Shoot the Messenger” and this explains Nick Clegg’s “elusiveness” to your enquiries; but by failing to respond directly to the News Programme that has done all the running on this story, Mr Clegg’s sincerity must be surely open to question.

  3. Alan says:

    Has Nick Clegg ever shown any leadership?

  4. Andrew Debian says:

    One way or another it is the media – Channel News in particular, that has stirred up this hornets nestl It’s no wonder Nick Clegg is reluctant to talk to them. To suggest that the Lib Dem party is not a safe place for young women because of Rennard is ridiculous beyond words. Most women know how to deal effectively with unwanted attentions from a man and all the legislation in the world will not prevent the kind of incidents arising as have been described. This whole business is just another self righteous media crusade.

    1. Yvonne Rankin says:

      Mr Debian, I am appalled at your opinion and your stance on this matter. Correct me if I’m wrong but are you suggesting that its ok for any male to make unwanted advances to a woman and even sexually harass a woman because she should know how to deal with it? In my opinion, your attitude is Victorian and completely unacceptable in this day and age! If a girl or woman wears a short skirt does that mean she deserves to be the subject of unwanted sexual advances or even rape? And I would like to know your suggestions to any woman on how exactly should she deal with it? Slap his face? Scowl? Your opinions are outdated and, quite frankly, utterly offensive and you and others like you are ignorant, pigheaded morons. I have spotted a training need, you should be forced to attend a class on sexual harassment and by the way, men are also victims.

  5. Jeff says:

    Witch hunt…

    If there are allegations of sexual harassment then they should be dealt with by the Police and CPS…

    Otherwise, he has nothing to apologise for if he says he did nothing and the ‘complainants’ [NOT victims] will not take the necessary measures.

    You cannot convict people of crimes or in the court of public opinion when complainants will not step forward and take necessary action with the Police.

    Evidence needed, not witch-hunts…

  6. C Williamson says:

    Cathy
    It is the case that you are a fair and reasonable interviewer on the programme, but I regret to say that the left wing bias of the programme, and the hectoring and aggressive interviewing techniques employed by some of your colleagues has worked against you in this regard.

  7. 123Kid says:

    What exactly did you expect?

    This was a platform of patients and families of a criminally under funded and completely ignored issue of mental health. So congratulations on continuing to ignore it.

    The Rennard issue is obviously one that deserves a great deal of attention. Which it receives, countless hours of air time as it plays out like some perverse soap opera. With that in mind, I find it rather distasteful that you took the opportunity to high jack this import (often life and death) issue in the hope of getting a thirty second gambit for your news piece.

    This is not part of some male conspiracy to shut up women who complain about sexual harassment from men in power, it was a reaction from the families of people you offended by utterly ignoring the issue at hand. Some of these people have lost love ones, and you upset them. Well done you.

  8. David Battaliou says:

    Take a hint from all the groans, Cathy. Is this really national news?

  9. kate says:

    This story is not worth top billing on Channel 4 news and has been feeling like a vendetta. Afraid I’ve just turned off. What about more important news – Syria peace talks for example. How can you justify continuing to follow this story laboriously night after night. A minor story at best.

  10. rob smith says:

    Utterly disgusting. Mental health issues are rarely covered by television and especially not by channel 4 news unless a mental illness sufferer kills someone. So instead of covering mental health you instead hi-jacked it for your own agenda even tho you knew the president of the party was coming on to your show this evening. Frankly i am utterly disappointed by you lack of values. Cathy Newman should be ashamed. She basically said we will only cover mental health issues if nick clegg comes on to talk abiut rennard. Channel 4 news has lost its independence and its ibjectivity. Im not a lib dem supporter n wouldnt vote for either of the coalition parties but frankly i no longer trust channel four news either!

  11. Ola says:

    Cathy Newman behaved like a nuisance for her inappropriate question when subject like mental health is been discussed, shame on you

  12. Jim Hutchon says:

    It is clear that have been numerous complaints over a sustained period of time. This is not an hysterical witch-hunt, it is a serious attempt to bring allegations of improper conduct into the open.
    Clegg has as much chance of dealing with an experienced campaigner like Rennard as I would have fighting Mike Tyson. Glegg is weak-willed and vacuuous and lost the respect of his troops when he abandoned all the party’s principles in an unseemly rush for apparent power.
    It is perfectly valid to assert that women will feel they have no standing in such an assembly, and I imagine their long-standing grievances will be reflected in the European and General elections.
    It will take more than a generation for Liberals to recover from the Clegg disaster, if they ever do.

  13. Gordon Maximin says:

    Channel 4 News have gone down in my estimation over this issue. Very grubby to push into a mental health chat where you clearly weren’t wanted. Inappropriate behaviour.

  14. Liam says:

    Perhaps Cathy Newman or Jon Snow would care to comment on the story that appeared in The Guardian yesterday [20th January], about an email from a lawyer for one of the women proposing to write a letter which would then be leaked to Channel 4 amongst other media outlets?

    Or are you both really more bothered by the fact that Lena Dunham brought a hairdresser and make-up artist to the studio?

  15. Mike Biden says:

    Seems to me that Nick Clegg is the only calm sensible person in the whole saga. Despite all the media storm you have whipped up he was polite and courteous to you yesterday. You are clearly no friend to him or the Lib Dems so why should he give you any preferential access?

  16. Andrew Nash says:

    I have been a regular viewer of channel 4 news since the 1980’s and I’m now close to stopping watching it all together. I expect the news reporting from a public service channel to be impartial and proportionate – or is this outdated? I’m sure the Rennard ‘affair’ is very distressing to those closely involved but does it really merit being ‘top’ of the news? Cathy Newman has every right to be a champion for the women making the allegations or to expose what she sees as the serious failings of Clegg etc – but is this more appropriate for a commentator than the main presenter of an edition of the programme? Sexual harrasment and bullying of any kind is not acceptable anywhere but a culture of ‘allegation=guilt’ until proven innocent is equally dangerous……

  17. Neil Craig says:

    The interesting thing is the silence of 5 of the 6 female MPs – though Jo Swinson said “Its just what you have to do to get on in this party”.

    However Jenny Tonge’s remark was clearly anti-Semitic racism and in my opinion should have been considered a reason for expulsion. I suspect even the BNP would have removed her for that.

    On the other hand expelling somebody for supporting the principles of individual freedom, market freedom and the right of national independence, which were the founding principles of liberalism as a movement, is entirely inconsistent with any suggestion that the party are in any way liberal, or indeed honest.

  18. Sonia says:

    Mental Health is a serious issue – people do die. The Rennard “issue” – I don’t think anyone has died have they?

  19. Neil Craig says:

    Before we take seriously any claim by “LibDems” that actually reporting this news is C4 “bias” I would have to have an assurance that they have previously objected to how other parties (well UKIP) get reported. For example, though almost any mention of UKIP policy is censored from C4 (including but not limited to mental health) we have had a substantial amount of space given to the rather silly story of a councillor who thinks gay marriage causes floods. Does anybody think this councillor 1,000th as influential as Rennard? If not giving it proportionately more coverage is clearly C4 party propagandising.

    Incidentaly he actually said this when he was a Tory councillor. Normally “news” is more newsworthy when it is new, but it was never reported when he was a tory councillor ;-)

    The chutzpah of LibDems, who normally get an enormous amount of biased supportive reporting from state owned media like the BBC & C4, now complaining when the fact that the entire party have had an atmosphere of promoting sexual assault for decades, is disgraceful.

  20. Lizzy says:

    You got booed, Cathy, because you were bringing up something wholly irrelevant when he was making a statement about mental health services. Had I been there, I would have booed you too.

  21. David Battaliou says:

    I agree with Andrew Nash, Gordon Maximin, rob smith and kate. I’ve been watching Channel 4 news for years, but I am close to switching off because of its narrow ideological bias.

  22. Poppyseedbagel says:

    I have just sent the following message to the LibDems via their website:
    Dear LibDems I have written to you previously in light of the Rennard business, as someone who has always voted LibDem in every General Election since 1979, and in most local elections (I always vote). I note that you have suspended Lord Rennard. However the furore around the whole matter has shed light on a number of matters – eg your refusal to talk to Cathy Newman, over the past year and even worse your refusal to deal properly with all the complaints going back many years. It has also shed light on the fact that you have so few senior women – and the reaction of some of Rennard’s supporters, senior people in the party, has been so misogynistic that I can understand why. If you won’t treat women as proper equals you cannot claim to be a fair party – so I am not going to vote for any LibDem candidate, in any election unless and until you put in place positive action to encourage women to participate as equals in the political process. I live in a safe Conservative seat so this won’t have an impact on your MP-count, so you probably don’t care (also I am a woman so my vote doesn’t count, does it?) but anyway, I am off.

  23. andy says:

    I saw this program, and I’m not sure what Cathy’s problem is.

    Politicians and other people regularly refuse to give interviews to Journalists. CH4 news has not been without its LibDem representation, Tim Fallon was on one evening to talk about this very subject.

    As regards the booing, that was orchestrated by the audience, and Nick Clegg DID answer the question – maybe not to your satisfaction – but he did politely reply.

    With situations such as this when ever is a question sufficiently answered? journalists always report ‘there are more questions to be asked’, ‘more unknowns’, ‘the truth has yet to be told’. The ‘truth’ in this context seems to mean admitting the ‘story’ that the journalist is trying to peddle.

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