Bullying, Brown and Bad Journalism
February 22, 2010 6 Comments
Having watched the “Gordon Brown, massive bully” story unfold on the BBC and the reactions to it a lot of questions have sprung to mind. Also a lot of doubt. The claims by the National Bullying Helpline that they have been contacted by members of Downing Street staff coincided very conveniently with stories in the national papers about ‘bully Borwn’ and the serialization of Andrew Rawnsley’s book in The Observer claiming that Brown, amongst other things, suffered from ‘volcanic eruptions’ (interesting mental image at that one) and physically assaulted staff. The viability of the claims and in fact the “charity” involved are frankly dubious at best.
When I first saw the stories about the new BBC claims and the figure of National Bullying Helpline frontwoman Christine Pratt openly declaring that the helpline had received calls from No.10. I had two main reactions; boredom, because this story seems to have been going on in several forms for weeks, without any defining evidence or proof and my second reaction was incredulity, that such a service would release what I would have thought to be confidential information to the BBC and have its executive director happily repeating the claims across the media. It all seemed incredibly strange and hard to believe.
No doubt I will be accused of ‘trying to smear a charity’ or a disgraceful attitude towards bullying or indeed a defender of bullying, as I have seen some Conservatives accuse Labour supporters and others of on social networking sites. Although all I have come across is people questioning Christine Pratt going public with what many regard to be confidential information and also questioning the credibility and political bias of the National Bullying Helpline – which is starting to look very shady and I shall come onto that in a minute. Just to clear things up, I do not support or condone bullying in any form. I do, however, like others find it incredible that a so-called charity helpline would give out information regarding who had contacted them.
I was bullied throughout high school and also more-or-less bullied out of a job a couple of years ago. I know it is not a pleasant experience and not something I’d wish anyone to go through. I never contacted any sort of helpline, I don’t remember it occurring to me to do so even though I was aware that they did exist. If I had I would have been mortified if it was then announced during the morning school bulletins that, “Reports continue that is a bully, in totally unrelated news somebody in Mrs Jennings form has contacted the National Bullying helpline”. The excellent Bullying UK have already stepped forward to criticise the actions of Ms Pratt and the National Bullying helpline and recently issued this statement,
Bullying UK is horrified at a story in today’s Daily Mail in which the National Bullying Helpline CEO Christine Pratt all but identifies someone from Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office who contacted her helpline for confidential help.
Mrs Pratt tells the Daily Mail: “At least one of the callers who we were in correspondence with was suffering from work-related stress and had time out of the office.”
Gordon Brown’s office is small and the National Bullying Helpline’s comment will almost certainly identify this person who turned to the helpline in despair.
It’s hard to imagine a more serious breach of confidentiality. And it’s extremely concerning that we’ve had emails and Tweets (Twitter messages) from people who think that this charity is responsible.
We’re not, we’re disgusted and upset and we’re writing to the Charity Commission today to complain about the National Bullying Helpline.
In the meantime, we suggest Mrs Pratt considers her position, given the damage she has caused to the anti-bullying sector where confidentiality is paramount.
A patron of the National Bullying Helpline, Prof. Cary Cooper, has also resigned citing his own disgust at the breaching of confidentiality as the reason. He is quoted as saying,
One of the things that is really important for any helpline or any counselling service is to retain confidentiality of the people calling up.” “She did not reveal any names, but that is irrelevant. She is revealing the employer, which is No 10,” he said.
“I just think that is wholly wrong and inappropriate. You don’t do that. I can no longer be a patron.”
”The point I am trying to make is that there is no way – any helpline or counselling service giving advice to people – do you reveal anything into the public arena about it.
“I am involved in a range of charities, none of whom do that kind of thing. It is not the way you behave.”
Indeed the actions of the National Bullying Helpline could damage the credibility of these kinds of helplines if people are worried that details of their calls could be made extremely public. Ms Pratt’s actions could prevent many people who need help and advice ringing helplines in the future. It is completely unacceptable behavior.
So why did she do it? And who are the National Bullying Helpline – because until yesterday I’d never heard of them? Well both questions can be answered in similar ways. This excellent blog post by Adam Bienkov covers what the BBC neglected to tell you about the National Bullying Helpline (probably because these details immediately shatter the credibility of their story),
In fact a quick look at NBH’s website reveals:
- A personal endorsement from Conservative leader David Cameron
- One of their patrons is Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe
- Another patron is Boris Johnson’s Chair of the London Health Authority, Conservative Cllr Mary O’Connor
- They have close ties to Conservative controlled Swindon borough Council.
There are also doubts about whether NBH is actually a functioning charity at all.
An even quicker look at the Charity Commission’s register reveals that
- They are 206 days overdue on registering their accounts.
- They have registered just £852 pounds in expenditure since they were established.
Now this doesn’t seem to be the operations of a national charity to me. In fact just a little more digging tells us that
This “charity” has very cosy links to the Conservative Party – which rather suggests a large heaping of bias about the whole thing and some of the latest press reports are now speculating on the close ties between Ms Pratt and the Conservative Party. So is this why she breached all rules and expectations of confidentiality, to bolster a political smear campaign against Labour? Surely not. Her own reasoning behind the move is,
“I saw the Lord Mandelson statement that had a categorical denial that bullying was going on in Gordon Brown’s office. I saw red.”
So basically she decided to disregard the rules and decency of confidentiality because she was annoyed that Peter Mandelson denied claims that had no substantive evidence behind them to begin with. Nothing at all to do with her close links to the Conservatives, the fact that the “Brown bullying” stories were high on the news agenda and guaranteed coverage which would give lots of nice publicity to her bullying business… erm… sorry, “legitimate charity”.
Ms Pratt seems to be backpedaling faster than Lance Armstrong pedals forwards today claiming that she never, ever, ever meant that anybody had mentioned or made an accusation about the Prime Minister during these phone calls, she also claimed not to know exactly how many calls they had actually received from Downing Street (hardly solid, compelling evidence). She said,
“I knew that there were two from the Deputy Prime Minister’s office and another two or more from the PM’s office. The number is irrelevant,”
So the facts are irrelevant.
“… nor have we said that Gordon Brown is a bully. Our concern here is the public statement from No 10 of denial … we would just want Gordon Brown and No 10 to lead by example.
“We would have hoped that Gordon Brown would have said that he was looking into this, that due process was being followed, and that he takes these issues seriously.”
Firstly, how does she know that No.10 and Brown aren’t looking into these claims – with the confidentiality you would expect – and why, if she is so keen to now deny that this is nothing to do with Brown, are all the related headlines about “Bully Brown” and why then did she state the reason she came forward is because of denials that Brown was a bully? The story she went for wasn’t “There may be a bully inside Downing Street who is not Gordon Brown” angle. The intention was clearly to further implicate the Prime Minister and add to the allegations that he bullied his staff.
In my opinion about the actual allegations I have yet to see any compelling evidence of actual bullying by Brown towards his staff. I have no doubt that No.10 can be a very stressful and tense place to work and there are incidences of high-tempers, rants and shouting, as the allegations state - but I’ve had that in most work places. It can make work hell, it can be intimidating at times but it’s not the same as bullying, in my view. I see bullying as more personal, more vindictive and more sustained. Of course if members of staff at No.10 are unhappy with their work environment and are stressed and upset by the atmosphere or conduct of others I do believe they have every right to contact a bullying helpline for advice on how to deal with the situation. I just wouldn’t say the behaviors of Brown that do actually seem to be true – his demanding nature and ranting etc – constitute a bully as people would imagine a bully to be and how the press are painting him to be. Other people may have different definitions but I think shouting and ranting – even though not a great thing – is part of the workplace at times and in itself does not constitute bullying.
As for the allegations of physical violence, surely that’s a police matter? Not an anecdote for a book you are trying to promote.
David Cameron is now, probably jubilantly, calling for an inquiry into the allegations of bullying so I expect this story will run for a while…