The silencing of difficult women

Written by Leslie Francis | Published on: February 23, 2018

What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a ‘mistake,’ it was a strategic choice.

Justin Forsyth, ex-CEO of Save the Children UK. Credit: By DFID - UK Department for International Development, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It is now an acknowledged fact that women staff at Save the Children UK’s Headquarters in London suffered harassment and that their leadership failed them. In its public statements SCF-UK is now all about the implementation of policy reviews and a new dawn and a readiness for root and branch reform. Justin Forsyth, the former CEO, and Brendan Cox, his former number two, have both admitted that they mistreated women. But this stems from a crisis that culminated in 2015. Why is it only being acknowledged now? Why didn’t anyone speak up?

Well, that’s the thing. Many did speak up but they were silenced. What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a ‘mistake’, it was a strategic choice: achieving change for children, went the argument, needed Save the Children to be firmly led by powerful charismatic leaders who ruffled feathers and who should be followed obediently by staff.  

When staff started complaining about the bullying culture that was brought in by former Number 10 special advisors Forsyth and Cox, they were derided as moaners. Everyone learned that it was ‘their way or the highway.’ So when several women suffered repeated mistreatment, this was dealt with by leadership as part of the price of being an ‘effective organization’—and staff found out that it was dangerous to complain as a number of them later told the BBC.

Many kept their mouths shut, or at least complained to their peers through informal channels because they had no faith in the formal ones. The bullying and mistreatment was the worst kept secret in the development community. A great many NGO people knew about the ways in which the behavior of Cox was indulged and enabled by Save the Children’s leadership, who, as is now becoming known, did not do enough to stop it or to hold those responsible to account. But still people were reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, some did. Complaints were made about both Cox and Forsyth, but neither was fully or properly investigated because the trustees protected their ‘star players.’

Some of the women affected said that the Chair of SCF International’s Trustees, Alan Parker, discouraged them from speaking out and left them re-traumatised. He even brought in Brunswick, the PR agency he founded, to help fend off the communications challenges of the crisis. Both Cox and Forsyth were allowed to go quietly—Forsyth to become number two at UNICEF in New York until his resignation on February 22.

The victims of Cox and Forsyth and their allies didn’t stop at telling peers, senior management and trustees about what was happening. They also went to the media. You might be wondering  why all these stories of harassment and abuse are being broken by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph—it was the Mail that originally covered Cox’s departure from the charity back in 2015. Why didn’t the complainants go to somewhere like the Guardian? They did.

These victims are not typical Mail and Telegraph readers and they understood that a story about a lack of accountability in an aid organization will likely be followed in those newspapers by calls for less foreign aid. None of the victims support that goal. What they want is aid plus accountability.  

Almost all of the complainants went to the Guardian first. Different Guardian journalists were contacted, but all went quiet. One told me: “I just wanted to say I haven't forgotten about this. Unfortunately the decision to work on the story or not is above my station, so I'm just waiting for a decision either way…” Later, when I asked if they had heard back the same journalist said: “I haven’t unfortunately. It was passed onto powers that be. At the moment it’s looking like it’s not going to run... I presume after some weighing of pros and cons.”

Not only did the Guardian not run a piece about Cox and Forsyth, they actually ran a piece by Cox. This was three months ago. Still I and others kept pressing them. To those affected it looks like some senior media people protect those who are also their personal friends—both the BBC’s Andrew Marr and Sky’s Adam Boulton have publically spoken up for the two men. Perhaps they also think that they are protecting Save the Children, but you don’t protect charities by covering up the behavior of predatory men, only by helping them free themselves from them, and if you leave it to outlets like the Daily Mail then the story gets turned into another reason to cut support for charities.

So this has been a massive disservice, and also a shocking approach to the news, as though women being harassed by powerful men should not be reported on if those men are ‘one of us.’ When the Guardian sat on the story a subsection of the whistleblowers went to the Mail and the Telegraph, who ran it with many fewer sources. The Mail ran a new story about Cox’s behavior on February 17 2018 and the Telegraph followed suit the next day. Neither mentioned Forsyth.  But on February 20 the fuller story of the SCF scandal was broken by Radio 4’s PM programme by a dedicated journalist who cited three complaints by female SCF-UK staff members about threatening text messages and other behaviour. SCF-UK has admitted that these complaints were not dealt with in a satisfactory way.

Just a few hours before the PM programme, Kevin Watkins, the current CEO of Save the Children-UK and a former trustee who was one of the people supposed to be ‘governing’ Forsyth, appeared before MPs on the International Development Committee as a leader on transparency and accountability. He wasn’t asked a single question about Cox or Forsyth, or the role of Parker, or his own previous role on SCF-UK’s Board.

Several journalists told me how Forsyth and Parker can kill media stories. What made Cox so dangerous was his power, and that power came from Forsyth and Parker, but their power in turn came from how willing so many people were to participate in silence and in silencing: trustees, politicians, journalists, staff who kept quiet either out of fear of their careers or fear of hurting Save the Children, and ‘feminist leaders’ including Labour MPs like Lucy Powell and Jess Phillipswho publically praised Cox after his confession. 

But now it looks like all these silencers will be defeated by the persistence and courage of a few difficult women. One of them is Brie O’Keefe, who served under Cox and whose experience at Save the Children left her feeling broken. She spoke yesterday on the record and said this: “If you look at where I am right now I am in a town called Yellowknife in Northern Canada and I am so far away from it, and I am still afraid to speak out. But I am going to do it anyways.” 

When Save the Children does reform and return to its values and become a safe place for women, let’s not rewrite it as a story of how Cox and Forsyth ‘took responsibility’ and how Save the Children’s new leadership brought in a new approach. They were covering up key aspects of that story even yesterday—and still haven’t released the key documents prepared for the hearing that never happened because Cox resigned, nor those that look back and examine the whole crisis (SCF-UK has promised to release these documents later in 2018).

Remember instead the real heroes, the whistleblowers. Justin Forsyth remained the deputy director of UNICEF until February 22 2018. Alan Parker remains the chair of Save the Children International. Kevin Watkins, a trustee at the time of the scandal, succeeded Forsyth as CEO of SCF-UK and now insists that he has zero-tolerance of sexual harassment. Brie, meanwhile, lives in fear in a small town in Northern Canada. She and others like her are the real leaders of Save the Children. 

This story has been updated to reflect the resignation of Justin Forsyth from his position at UNICEF on February 22 2018.

Save the Children-UK responds 2pm February 22: "Brunswick was not instructed with regard to these matters. Save the Children has always sought to protect all employees from inappropriate comments and behaviour.  If concerns about behaviour occur, there are very clear policies and processes in place to deal with them.

In 2011 and 2015, concerns were raised about inappropriate behaviour and comments by the then CEO, Justin Forsyth.  In each case, the chairman instructed HR to manage the process in conjunction with an independent trustee. Two trustees carried out two separate investigations into a total of three complaints made by three female employees.

Both reviews resulted in unreserved apologies from the CEO.  All the parties agreed to this and the former CEO apologised to the women in question.  At that time the matters were closed.
Concerns were raised with trustees that matters should not have been left as they were and that a further review was required. The review found that HR processes had not been followed in every aspect.

In a statement on Sunday, 18 February 2018, Kevin Watkins—who was appointed CEO of Save the Children in late 2016—confirmed that he was commissioning a root and branch review of the organisational culture, examining the systems and processes that protect and preserve the safety and wellbeing of all staff, and addressing any behavioural challenges among senior leadership. 
A spokesperson for Save the Children said: ‘The review will commence by the end of this week and report in June 2018.  The final report will be published, shared with the Charity Commission and made available to Government and every single member of staff."

This article was first published on opendemocracy.