Philip Hensher: These are ugly stories of sexual harassment

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The Independent Online

I can't remember feeling such instant and justifiable contempt for anyone as on reading Alastair Campbell's comment, at the weekend, on the present trials of government ministers.

Mr Campbell said that "People are probably more interested in Wayne Rooney's foot than in any part of John Prescott's anatomy."

Whether this was supposed to be a serious comment or not, it seems not just foolish but wrong. I guess that many more people, over the weekend, have been discussing John Prescott's affair than have any serious interest in the injury of a football player. Even so dedicated a mock-populist as Mr Campbell can hardly expect us to believe he has paid no attention to the Prescott business.

The fact is that when a minister has an extra-marital affair, it may be a private affair, but there are numerous aspects of this particular relationship which cast serious doubts on Mr Prescott's fitness to hold any kind of public post. Take Tracey Temple's allegation that, before their affair started, she turned up in a black dress for an office party. "As soon as the boss arrived he lifted my dress jokingly to see my stockings." That alleged conduct, outside the context, would automatically trigger a case of sexual harassment in any office or business in the country.

There is a further allegation, from a journalist called Tricia McDaid, that the Deputy Prime Minister had sexually harassed her in 1993 - "he jumped on you when he felt like it at a party".

These allegations may be baseless, though anyone can see that they ought to be looked into. If we were talking about allegations of this nature being made about a permanent secretary, it would surely be a matter of a suspension and a serious investigation. And what is not under dispute is the point, surely one of public concern, that Mr Prescott's relationship was with a serving civil servant. If that doesn't grossly overstep the firmly-guarded boundary in the relationship between ministers and civil servants, I don't know what does. It obviously has implications not just for Mr Prescott's future, but for Miss Temple's career in the Civil Service. If Mr Prescott had an affair with a waitress, perhaps the Government could get away with saying that it was a private matter. In the current situation, it makes absolutely no sense at all.

In the past, government ministers have relied on a single defence when stories of this nature arose. When Mr Prescott punched a protester during the 2001 election, for instance, the official line was: "Oh, it's just John's way". It was quite an effective defence, for a while. After all, it just didn't sound reasonable to start saying that conduct of this sort demeaned high ministerial office. Anyone who had heard one of Mr Prescott's impromptu interventions in the House of Commons would have acknowledged that there was not very much to demean.

But when, two months ago, the relevant select committee said frankly that his department was "rife with bullying", revealing that one in 10 members of staff had complained of being bullied, and strongly hinting that the culture of bullying started at the top, the "It's just John's way" defence started to sound a little weak. Quite why was it that no one seemed to take this problem at all seriously in his department?

At the least, I think we need convincing rebuttals of these ugly stories of sexual harassment, which are coming from people who, if they were harassed, were not in any kind of position to say no. There may be a rebuttal to be had. But the accusations need answering. It just won't do any more to say "This is purely a private matter", or "That's just John." If such behaviour were to prove characteristic of someone, and everyone knew it, we might want to ask what such a figure was doing holding so important a public job.

That dress never stood a chance

Oh dear. Miss Keira Knightley, that very thoughtful and kindly actress, decided to donate her best Oscar frock to Oxfam to raise money for their East African famine appeal. A splendid Vera Wang number, it was much admired on the red carpet, left, and was expected to fetch up to £25,000 for the charity. In the end, it only reached £4,301.

How could this be? Well, Miss Knightley may be generous of heart, but she is tiny of waist; a minuscule size six. That would very much limit the number of women who could think of putting it on. But another factor might be simply that few women want to spend even £4,000 on a dress and think, "Well, I don't look as good as Keira Knightley did."

Miss Knightley is a generous soul, but I hope the next time she sells her clothes for a good cause, she's taken care to put on a few pounds, or choose one which could plausibly look better on someone else. This dress stood no chance.

* Piers Morgan bounces back with, of all things, a newspaper for children. First News promises to make the news accessible to children, explaining why we are in Iraq, why taxation has reached over 42 per cent of GDP, why Sammy the Squirrel is stuck up a tree, and so on.

A sickening proposal. I can well imagine who will be the main purchasers of this smug-sounding publication - doting grandparents of sullen pre-teens. I can well imagine the fate, too, of any kid caught reading it by his or her peers. It would be much the same fate visited on anyone of my generation prepared to admit that they'd ever made anything from Blue Peter ("ask mum or aunty to leave the room now") or had ever watched John Craven's Newsround. Mockery, derision, Chinese burns; no, let your kids spend their pocket money on something less worthy.

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