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Latest 30 May 2023

The power to tell the truth

Roberto Herrett / Alamy Stock Photo

Our Executive Director, Jo Maugham, writes about the power to tell the truth.

For years, management at the Observer failed to protect junior female colleagues from the sexual misconduct of high profile male journalists.

This is the story in today’s New York Times. But it is not just the Observer that has failed – it is so much of our media industry.

The Financial Times commissioned one of its own journalists to write about Nick Cohen – but then scrapped the piece, fearing the spotlight would be turned on the conduct of its own staff. A senior journalist at The Sunday Times told me it would struggle to carry the story because it would draw attention to the well-known conduct of a senior figure at sister paper, The Times. A senior journalist at the Mail, when eventually, Cohen left the Observer, contemplated running a story which sought to downplay his departure as reflecting the Guardian’s stance on Cohen’s hostility to trans rights. The Telegraph ran a false story suggesting this was the cause.

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Cohen’s misconduct had been an open secret for years. But his victims – the New York Times has spoken to seven but there are others who chose not to come forward – did not complain, believing it would change nothing. Indeed, they feared it would cause them professional harm.

That management at Guardian News and Media (GNM) – of which the Observer is a part – failed to take the sexual misconduct of senior male colleagues seriously is beyond real doubt. I have spoken to a large number of female journalists who told me how GNM’s Managing Editor actively discouraged complaints. And when Cohen eventually left, the Observer’s Editor, Paul Webster paid tribute to the “incisive, emphatic writing” of a “brilliant columnist.”

The cost of this culture for female colleagues was captured by the writer Jean Hannah Edelstein. She had left the Guardian because, as she put it, “senior male employees leveraged the power they had over the careers of young women to create a culture where sexual harassment was tolerated.” Responding to Paul Webster, she asked: “how many young women gave up hope of being described as brilliant and incisive because of the culture at this newspaper?”

Hitherto, when third parties had sought to publish details of Cohen’s misconduct, he censored them by hiring lawyers to threaten defamation proceedings. A letter I have seen from Cohen’s lawyers asserts he is a “long established advocate of free speech” before threatening the recipient with “inevitable bankruptcy” unless they took their stories down, apologised and paid costs.

Good Law Project has been gathering and publishing evidence of Cohen’s conduct since October 2021. Unlike those other third parties, we have received no defamation letters from Mr Cohen. I must assume that is because we could defend ourselves from his threats. Your support has meant we could put, and keep, in the public domain the stories of his conduct. And it helped the New York Times to expose the conspiracy of silence that protects powerful and privileged men in British media.

In April we backed Nina Creswell, who was sexually assaulted and then sued for defamation by her attacker. Her case created an important new defence for women who call out the men who attack them. Next month will see the launch of a project to expose the persistent and widespread sexual abuse of children in a national institution.

What Good Law Project offers, to those who cannot pay the prices lawyers demand, is the power to tell the truth. “The law can become a wicked thing,” I wrote in my bestseller Bringing Down Goliath. “What was once the subordination of the weak by physical force becomes instead the subordination of the poor by financial force.”

This work does not make us popular – but it is important. I am proud that, thanks to your help, we can speak truth to power, wherever it lies.

You can buy Bringing Down Goliath from your independent bookseller here.

We can only do this work with your help. If you are interested in supporting us to hold power to account, you can do so here.