'We are never going to eliminate the messy business of sexual attraction from the workplace'

Sir Michael Fallon resigned as Defence Secretary after admitting that he touched the knee of BBC radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer.
Sir Michael Fallon resigned as Defence Secretary after admitting that he touched the knee of BBC radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer.
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WHEN the news broke this week that Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon had resigned from the Cabinet following revelations that he had touched a female journalist’s knee 15 years ago I am sure I wasn’t the only one to think: “There’s got to be more to it than that!”

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And perhaps there is and the coming days will see further details that might help to make sense on what on the face of it is an absolutely extraordinary decision.

Because on the surface this is, as the journalist herself put it: “The most absurd reason for anyone to have lost their job in the history of the universe.”

The woman involved, the tough and respected Julia Hartley-Brewer, can certainly look after herself. During the incident – inevitably dubbed kneegate – she turned to Fallon and told him if he touched her again she would “punch him in the face”.

He stopped. Ms Hartley-Brewer says no one was remotely upset or distressed by the incident. Strong woman takes control of the situation. Job done.

This is not to make light of the slew of allegations that we have seen since Hollywood sleazebag Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a serial sex pest.

Some powerful people, particularly in the fields of entertainment and politics, have used their position to bully, intimidate and sexually humiliate younger, less powerful colleagues.

This is wrong and unacceptable. If the victims felt they could not report the incidents without damaging their careers, then clearly we need robust measures to protect whistleblowers.

But the problem with the current furore is that we are in real danger of conflating clumsy flirting with serious sexual assaults.

For example, the young Labour activist Bex Bailey claims she was raped by a senior party figure when she was 19, and an official later advised her not to report it to protect her career.

This is a billion miles away from another of the incidents reported this week in which Conservative activist Kate Maltby claims Theresa May’s deputy, Damian Green, made “fleeting” contact with her knee “so brief, it was almost deniable” and sent her a flirty e-mail.

At the risk of overstating the blindingly obvious, these two things are not the same. One is a serious criminal offence that could result in a long prison sentence and the other is, well, much ado about nothing. We should not lump them together.

Perhaps Ms Maltby could take a leaf out of Hartley-Brewer’s book and should have threatened to slap him if he didn’t keep his hands to himself?

This isn’t a party political matter. Bad behaviour knows no party boundaries, although it does seem the most assiduous virtue signalers who are always banging on about the latest trendy causes frequently turn out to be the biggest creeps.

We should always insist on proper professional behaviour in the workplace and people in positions of power have a special responsibility to ensure their dealings with subordinates are beyond reproach.

But we are never going to eliminate the messy business of sexual attraction from the workplace entirely. People are always going to fall in love with or lust after colleagues. There will always be flirting, dating and pairing off.

The big question is when does harmless flirting end, and sexual harassment begin? The answer perhaps lies in who has the power? If the recipients of an unwanted approach have the power to reject it without any impact on their careers, then there should be no harm done.

But the rules of the game have changed. Is it acceptable these days to compliment someone on their appearance? Can you put an arm around someone’s shoulder if they are upset? Can you ask someone out for a drink without having your collar felt?

I simply don’t know, and that’s why I thank the heavens that my days in the dating game are well and truly over.

As for the suggestion that we need workplace training to reduce inappropriate behavior - do we really need a training course to tell us to behave half decently towards each other?

Like most people, I suspect, my “training” came courtesy of my mother who told us to treat other people in the way we would like to be treated ourselves. It is the most important lesson I have ever learned.

To her it was simply good manners. And as the old proverb has it “manners maketh man” – in other words politeness, kindness and respect for others is what stops society descending into savagery.

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