When it comes to sexual scandal, little is new.
Published: 26 September 2023
Broadly, a lot of men try it on, vulnerable women often confuse lust with love, and uninterested women develop resistance strategies.
The startling revelations about how senior media people had indulged Russell Brand’s appalling behaviour because he was “TALENT!!!!!!!”, and all the ensuing hand-wringing about predators like him and Jimmy Savile who did what they liked in plain sight, sent me down memory lane.
In my early teens in Dublin and even more so in the Cork village of Banteer where I spent holidays with my aunt and uncle, the etiquette was to fight boys off physically and then tip off friends to beware.
Having loathed the parish priest who policed the dances, expelling anyone under 16 and searching ditches for couples who were up to no good, I feel apologetic. He knew about pregnant girls disappearing to mother-and-baby homes or England and was trying to save another generation, however ham-fistedly.
Omerta was the order of the day. You didn’t dream of complaining to adults lest they called you a liar or made a big fuss and tried to keep you indoors.
Later, at university, one mostly could reason with male students: like me many young women took the precaution of acquiring a steady boyfriend and therefore being mostly seen as off-limits.
I had also learned at my mother’s knee that it was foolish to think men meant seriously what they said when they were trying to charm you.
She had taught me that you could say no without hurting their feelings by telling them to ring you in the morning. This was a particularly effective deterrent with Irishmen who wanted to forget any incautious words or passes from the previous evening. None who tried it on with her at dinners and parties ever followed up until a German academic bucked the trend with a disconcerting call that began “You have instructed me to telephone you this morning”.
I moved to England where I was taught the useful acronym NSIT (Not Safe In Taxis) which you could whisper to another woman about a man who had form.
Women were complicit in covering up male indiscretions. I did it myself. From the early 1980s I began to attend a lot of ‘What is to be done about Northern Ireland?’ conferences with diplomats, politicians and academics. Women were in short supply and men with a sense of entitlement were on the prowl. Like many women, I had been socialised into protecting fragile egos and anyway was fed up with the arguments that followed ‘No, I won’t’ with an insistence that I didn’t understand what I was missing.
And then I had a magic moment of inspiration and henceforward said ‘No, I don’t’, which worked brilliantly since it saved their faces.
I like and love as friends both men and women and was fortunately never attracted by narcissistic celebrities that prospered in a lads’ mags culture. When I first saw Russell Brand on television I enjoyed the novelty of his exotic play with language, but his self-regard and misogyny were swiftly repelling.
I don’t think I ever watched him or Jonathan Ross again after their astonishing cruelty when on air they humiliated the actor Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter with sneering messages. It was gross, gross, gross, the adults in the BBC room had three days to axe it, but they did nothing, for Brand was a favourite and spoiled child.
Last week the (undervalued) radio presenter Liz Kershaw criticised “the BBC management culture that prevailed and permitted Brand’s antics at Radio 2 and 6 music from 2006 to 2006, when he was allowed to indulge in narcissistic and reckless behaviour on the shop floor and to serve up his own brand of childish, self-serving, point-scoring bile on air — leaving behind him a trail of ruined careers and shattered lives”.
Sir Mark Thompson, the former BBC Director-General who defended Brand’s show as “edgy” and following “tight compliance procedures”, has had a glittering career in the US and is about to become head of CNN.
The present unfortunate director-deneral, Tim Davie, has inherited a huge can of scandal and a company tradition of over-paying and over-indulging a small cadre of celebs. May this furore bring home some truths and do some good.