MEDIA and politicians are belatedly turning their attention to sexual harassment, recognising it as a problem to be tackled urgently.
People may wonder why it took the furore engendered by a tidal wave of allegations against US film producer Harvey Weinstein for the issue to be treated seriously.
Diane Abbott’s recollections, in her excellent contribution to the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, of her early days in Parliament should serve as a reminder of how deeply rooted sexual harassment is in the seat of power and how badly those who opposed it were treated.
No politician in Britain has drawn the abuse and malice she has borne over three decades because of her sex, colour and class origin.
There are still male Tory MPs in the House who took part then in the intimidation of Labour women by making hand gestures to signify juggling or weighing their breasts.
Abbott’s colleague Clare Short led the campaign against newspapers carrying pictures of semi-naked young women, explaining how demeaning these images were.
Her reward was to be labelled “Killjoy Clare” by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, told that she was “fat and jealous” of the models and confronted by a bus plastered with Sun posters parked outside her home.
Short, Abbott and others including the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone were derided as “loony left” for their opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia.
Nor did this derision emanate solely from the Tory benches, with too many Labour members associating themselves with the idea that belittling people for their race, sex or sexual orientation could be passed off as banter.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has had to apologise for his assiduously prepared ad-lib that being interviewed by BBC presenter John Humphrys was akin to “going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom. You just pray you emerge with your dignity intact.”
Fellow interviewee and former Labour leader Neil Kinnock also apologised for his rejoinder that “John goes way past groping. Way past groping,” following which all three men chortled merrily at their shared laddishness.
What they failed to understand or appreciate is that their clumsy bid to be amusing trivialised the experiences of not only those assaulted by Weinstein but everyone demeaned sexually by those with power over them.
The Tory Party has announced an inquiry into International Trade Minister Mark Garnier’s conduct in telling his former secretary Caroline Edmondson, whom he addressed publicly as “sugar tits,” to go to a sex shop to buy vibrators while he waited outside.
Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison has called for evidence of sexual harassment in Scottish institutions to be brought into the open, while suspended Sheffield Hallam Labour MP Jared O’Mara is also under inquiry over allegations of using abusive language against women.
This underlines the observation by shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti that this isn’t a party political question. It stretches across the spectrum.
We know that the Tory media will take an unbalanced approach, demanding harsh action against Labour MPs while urging leniency for its own side.
The Sun is already posing as a defender of decency, demanding that Jeremy Corbyn sack O’Mara — while an inquiry is under way — or be “guilty of accepting and normalising misogyny.”
But the left cannot afford to mirror such hypocrisy. Women must be supported in speaking out and have their complaints dealt with seriously.
Sexual harassment isn’t a joke. It reflects a deeply embedded sexist culture and a gross abuse of power. It must be eradicated.