A former government special advisor, who left her position due to harassment from the media, shares her story
Like many people, my eyebrows were raised this week by reports of an apparently salacious affair at the height of politics, starring a “flirty” and “party-loving” “blonde bombshell”. No, it wasn’t Boris Johnson’s trademark shenanigans that had caught my eye, but the unbearable double standard in the way the media was treating him and his accused mistress: my former colleague, Carrie Symonds.
Last night I added my name to the open letter written by over 80 Westminster women urging the media to “be better”. Here’s why…
Politics is a funny old game and things like going to parties and working dinners are mandatory parts of the job, particularly when you work as a Special Advisor like Carrie and I did. Our role was to advise members of the Cabinet on politics and media relations, acting as the go-between amongst our respective Secretaries of State and the national press, and these meetings often took place in restaurants. Why then, was it appropriate or relevant to decorate the nation’s front pages with social media screengrabs describing Symonds, a first-class university graduate and well-respected political adviser, as “glamorous” and a “party girl”?
I am willing to bet that Philip Hammond has attended upwards of 1,000 such parties in his lifetime, probably more. But I can’t remember ever reading a story about Philip “Party Boy” Hammond, adorned with polaroid pictures of “flirty Phil” straight-arming a pint during his Oxford University days. And why would I? That should never be part of the narrative.
In SW1, journalists are the kingmakers as they know they have the power to make or break careers. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t speak up when they overstep the mark in either their language or behaviour? When it comes to political life, a lot of play is made about “sleazy” MPs and predatory Ministers. But for me personally, I have always found the media to be the most sinister and tangible threat to a woman in politics.
The fact is, you don’t need to be publicly embroiled in a sex scandal to see your political prospects go up in smoke (of course, Boris Johnson’s indiscretions have had a reverse impact on his trajectory, compared to the zero women in UK politics who have survived the same charges). Instead, politics is a reputation game and it is the private, behind-the-scenes slurs that are often the most damaging: whispers and allegations started by the media, based on nothing more than appearance or conjecture that can prevent you from being part of the club or getting promoted within it.
It can be more sinister, too. I remember laughing in pained incredulity at people’s surprise when the Harvey Weinstein scandal came to light last year. A powerful man abusing his position of influence to intimidate young women who knew their career depended on his favour? Imagine. It’s been happening for years right under our noses, as I can attest. My time in politics was littered with instances where I was harassed or made to feel uncomfortable; not by politicians, but by the male journalists who reported on them, safe in the knowledge that a pen-shaped sword of Damocles was hanging over me. My career depended on their favour, as too did that of my bosses.
There was the time that the editor of a national title asked me to sleep with him in exchange for a break in journalism. We were at a dinner to discuss my boss’ work and political priorities when he asked me about my career and ambitions. I told him that I had always loved writing and would like to do it for a living one day, and he started boasting about his connections and ability to make that happen for me. He then reached over and put his hand on my leg before whispering in my ear “will you kiss me?”. He told me that he had a room upstairs and that it might be worth my while to spend the night with him.
I laughed in his face and left the club, and initially I was so surprised by how brazen he was that I found it amusing rather than threatening. But the first time I saw him afterwards, at a reception at 10 Downing Street, I felt a chill; it was like we shared a secret that I didn’t want to be a part of, and he would have the power to ruin my career if I spoke up.
Another time, I received a call from a colleague in the press team at No. 10 informing me that a tabloid journalist had found me on the dating app, Happn, and was going to publish my name and photo in the Saturday paper. The plan was to claim that I represented a national security risk because I was susceptible to “honey trapping”: as a desperate young woman looking for love, I was more likely to spill official secrets.
Finally, a tabloid journalist broke into my apartment building in order to slip a threatening note under my door, because he believed I was having an affair with my boss – after all, how else would I have gotten the job? He worked for a major tabloid newspaper and through my work I knew senior people in his organisation. I e-mailed my contact there, explaining that I was surprised they condoned this kind of behaviour, but was told I should get used to it if I wanted to work in politics.
And so it was that, tired of having to work so hard to defend myself on top of my day job, I left politics to pursue a career in consulting. I kept up my passion for politics by blogging in my spare time, but of course the online world is the last place to seek solace from pervasive misogyny. After writing one piece, in which I dared to question the status quo, I was variously written off as an “airhead”, a “f**king teenager” and even a “slut” by online trolls. How dare I, as a young woman, have my own opinion?
I fought back. I wrote a follow-up piece calling out the misogynistic derision I received. I vowed never to let the sexist haters get me down. But, if I’m honest, they did. My self-esteem and my mental health suffered, and I resolved to “take a break” from political life.
But this week I have those very same people to thank for pulling me back from my self-imposed exile. Like the leading Westminster women who have written publicly in defence of Carrie Symonds, I cannot sit by and watch while someone’s career is smeared and distorted to suit a sexist trope. As the authors of the letter write, “It is often asked why women are hesitant to get into political journalism, become MPs, or simply start a career in Westminster; incidents like this go some way towards explaining why.”
To be clear, my criticism is not levied at all journalists, or at men alone. I don’t believe that every single editor who approved the Carrie headlines was a man, but doesn’t that just strike to the very heart of the issue? It seems to me that because women are not a minority group, the unwritten but acceptable threshold of misogyny is so much higher than for other forms of prejudice. There are so many of us, that if we don’t all speak together (or if we aren’t confident that we will), our voices become lost and society will go on thinking that it is OK to falsely shame and debase women to titillate and sell papers.
The reporting about Carrie this week was horrendous, but it gives me hope to see women now rallying together to say enough is enough. This outdated, crude and lazy journalism dashes dreams and kills careers, and we won’t be intimidated into standing for it anymore.
Images: Getty, Unsplash