Anne Hailes: The Laurence Fox scandal is a reminder of the need to call out misogyny and the mistreatment of women in media
HE slapped me on my bottom (over my skirt) and announced, “Nancy girl, you have great child bearing hips.” I was 17, he was a senior member of management in Ulster Television, and in my innocence my reaction was, 'Good.'
If it happened today I would have challenged him for his invasion of my privacy. Such unacceptable behaviour is now recognised as abuse and in the media it has always been rife. I did a bit of investigation within television and radio companies and talked to women who have grown up with this.
These are typical experiences although certainly not on the scale of Jimmy Savile's crimes; I know a woman whose life was changed the evening she was told to take some papers to Savile’s room in a Belfast hotel during a charity event. What happened there caused her immense trauma from which she never recovered.
Then there are the allegations against Russell Brand, which he denies. Or the casual misogyny of Laurence Fox and Dan Wootton, which has seen them suspended from GB News.
THE INNOCENCE OF YOUTH
When I was a teenager we had modesty boards at the front of our desks, presumably so a man couldn’t look at our legs but they had other ways of making their presence felt, as I heard.
"When he was leaning over looking at papers on your desk, papers he’d placed there, he would slip a hand down your blouse or up your jumper," one woman told me.
"We did nothing, we would slap his hand away and he’d laugh, we were very junior and scared to cause a fuss."
At one time a manager would tour the building after a meeting and insist on kissing all the girls, so when the word went out we all rushed for the toilets...
Another woman in another media office told of how a member of the newsroom pursued her for weeks. He began with phone calls asking her out; she mentioned this to a colleague who pointed out that her admirer was married, so she met his approaches with a definite 'No'.
However, he didn’t accept her answer, even going to her home where, to save her parents from being embarrassed, she agreed to go for a quick drink so she could tell him to get lost. Instead she had a fight on her hands when he parked in a dark place and assaulted her; she had to work with him the next day.
“Old guys in corridors would stand in your way and squeeze you as you tried to get past and on one occasion I was upended, so this boss had his face in my cleavage and you can imagine where my face was..." another woman told me.
Christmas parties were a danger – too much drink taken and predators on the march. When a colleague touched my breast I slapped him hard across the face – it never happened again.
WOMEN DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES
There was a boys' joke in the BBC years ago that if a girl didn’t get groped in the lift she was disappointed – but I can tell you it’s not true.
With the 'Me Too' movement things have changed, to a degree. “Most men are afraid to take advantage now, with exceptions, but there are ways of bringing their behaviour to light,” one woman told me.
But is this always so? Think of the young girls on placements or trying to begin a career, terrified of losing their job knowing that men in media are powerful and will close ranks. With the insecurity of short-term contracts no-one wants to rock the boat.
Of course not all men are like that – for every rotten apple there are dozens of decent, principled males who will protect their female colleagues.
I was fortunate, when I was growing up in the media I had a mentor to turn to and she sorted anything I was worried about – and there was plenty – but she made it easy to talk and she carefully watched what was going on.
If you can be a mentor to younger women please do so – it makes a big difference.
OVER THE BRIDGE IN STYLE
Since coming back to work his phone has been red hot with listeners wanting to see him in action and asking if he brought his prize animals back to Belfast.
He may be 'Mr Music' in BBC’s Broadcasting House but in London he’s Farmer Yarr who drove his flock of sheep over the Thames across Southwark Bridge into the City.
Not everyone gets such an opportunity but Richard Yarr received the Freedom of the City of London for his work with young musicians in 2019 and so was granted this unique experience organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen.
“I miss them,” he says, “but they were happy to remain down on the farm they came from."