Hands up all of you who had heard of the National Bullying Helpline (NBH) before its chief executive hit the airwaves yesterday to claim that Downing Street staff had used the service as a result of alleged bullying at Number Ten? This previously unheard of charity now finds itself at the centre of a media maelstrom over allegations, which if definitively proven, could bring down the prime minister.
When I first heard and saw NBH chief executive Christine Pratt’s comments yesterday, I have to say I was immediately suspicious. Her use of the term “Mandelson” when commenting on the business secretary’s denial of bullying in Gordon Brown’s office, showed a level of barely disguised contempt that no reputable organisation’s spokesperson would ever show, not publicly at least.
On closer inspection of the NBH’s patrons and supporters, it was clear that the group had links to the current main opposition party. It had also failed to file financial records with the Charities Commission. While this in itself doesn’t disqualify the NBH from making allegations, it should certainly have set alarm bells ringing at the BBC who, given their vast resources, should have done a bit more homework on the organisation before allowing its chief executive to make those allegations live to camera.
Today, the NBH has been roundly criticised by many in the voluntary and charity sector for betraying client confidentiality in naming Downing Street as a source of calls to its service. Again, I would have thought that the media should have raised this issue much more than it did when the story first broke. In fact, it was left to bloggers and tweeters from the left and right of the political spectrum to bring the confidentiality question to the fore. Only then did journalists start raising it.
The woman at the centre of the story, Christine Pratt, has been portrayed, at best, as a PR car crash in slow motion and a maverick looking to boost her HR business and, at worst, as a politically motivated axe grinder who wants to damage Gordon Brown for party political ends. I have no doubt that there is more to come out of this story and it will be interesting to see what the media turns up over the coming few days.
Given the many unanswered questions about the NBH charity and the fact that it was hardly heard of before Sunday, I would expect journalists to dig a little more deeply into its activities and motivations. Hopefully, they will do so with the same degree of alacrity that they have shown in reporting the bullying allegations in the first place. That used to be what good, investigative journalists did and one hopes that there are still a few of those left.