25 Feb 2013

Lord Rennard: why are we running the story now?


I’ve lost count of the tweets, interviews, blogs and longer articles questioning the timing of our investigation into Lord Rennard.

The latest salvo came from the Guardian’s Michael White, who said it may be rather more than coincidental that “a story which has been lying around for years …gets traction when something larger is at stake than knee-fumbling at a Swansea conference in 2003”.

I’ve known and liked Michael White for years, and respect his journalism. However, I’ve got to say raising questions over timing is unfair not only to the Channel 4 News team, but also to the women who had the courage to speak out.

Yes I was tipped off about it myself three years ago, and tried very hard to stand it up at that point. But the women wouldn’t go on record or on camera to talk about their allegations.

So that was that.

In January, however, Alison Smith, one of the women I had spoken to back in 2010, approached me again saying she was ready to speak. What had angered her, and – it transpired through my investigations with Firecrest Films – other women, was that Lord Rennard was still playing an active role.

Read more: Lib Dems - allegations of sexual impropriety

He was on the party’s federal policy committee, which draws up the election manifesto and Nick Clegg had also nominated him as vice president of an international federation for liberal parties. But what most concerned the women we spoke to was that he was attending events involving female candidates.

That was why Ms Smith and two other women, all current Lib Dem supporters, agreed to do interviews with me. So the decision to go ahead was taken in January, long before Chris Huhne resigned, triggering the by-election in Eastleigh.

In fact, when we filmed the interview with Ms Smith, the former cabinet minister was still denying asking his wife to take his speeding points. We first approached a senior party figure to tell them we’d done the interview and planned to run with the story the day before Mr Huhne changed his plea.

And far from “lying around for years” as Michael White claims, as if any hack could have just plucked it off the shelf and dusted it off at any time, the story took months of calling, checking, counter-checking – and above all winning the trust of the women we were talking to.

There were many legal hoops to jump through – a frustrating number of hoops for a former newspaper journalist like myself who’s used to rather less stringent constraints. But jump through them we did.

What happened to the story then, and how Fleet Street followed it, is something that neither we, nor the women who were brave enough to talk, can control.