AS the Lord Rennard fiasco continues to haunt the Lib Dems, the journalist who first raised the allegations of sexual harassment against the peer, Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, has re-entered the fray today. She says that Nick Clegg has refused repeated requests for an interview and that this morning this led to a huge embarrassment when she was forced to ask questions about Rennard at a press conference about mental health reform - and was booed as a result.
It was Newman who, in February 2013, presented an item on C4 News alleging not only that various women had complained about Lord Rennard harassing them, but that senior figures in the party knew about their complaints and had failed to take them seriously.
The women became embroiled in what Newman calls "a Kafkaesque situation”, repeatedly being informed by the party that nothing could be done because no one would make a formal complaint.
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Only after C4 broadcast Newman’s item did Nick Clegg admit that he was aware of "indirect and non-specific concerns" about the peer.
In the days following her report, Newman managed to get in contact with Clegg by posing as ‘Cathy from Dulwich’ and phoning into the Lib Dem leader’s Call Clegg show on LBC radio. “That was the closest I've got to a full, forensic interview,” says Newman in an article posted by the Daily Telegraph at lunchtime today.
Newman’s point is that the Lib Dem leadership “had every opportunity to deal with Lord Rennard years ago, but failed to take that opportunity. Hence my demands for an interview to ask Mr Clegg about his and his colleagues' failings.”
But if there were questions to be asked back then, there are many more today, when it has become, in Newman’s view, the biggest crisis of Clegg’s political life.
“How on earth,” she asks, “has Mr Clegg allowed a situation to develop where Lord Rennard appears to be running the party, not him?”
That was one of the questions Newman would have put to Clegg today if he and his team had been amenable to an interview. Instead, his aides apparently advised her that the only chance she’d get to query him was at a speech he was giving on mental health – the issue which, as The Mole explains elsewhere, Clegg was supposed to be addressing when he gave media interviews this morning.
“I felt deeply uncomfortable about this,” says Newman. “Mental health is an issue close to my heart - an issue, indeed, I've covered repeatedly for Channel 4 News. So to turn up at such an event and ask about politics, scandal and leadership crisis seemed to me unfeeling to say the least.
“But Mr Clegg's aides had put me in an impossible position. Despite taking to the ITV Daybreak sofa and swooping into the Radio 4 Today programme studio, they'd told me he wouldn't be sitting down with me tonight or at any point during the day.
“So when I asked my question I was, quite predictably, booed by an audience who'd come to hear about mental health troubles, not party political ones.”
Newman concludes by suggesting the big question she won’t get the chance to put to the Lib Dems' embattled leader is this: “Is there room in the party for both Mr Clegg and Lord Rennard?”
With the Rennard story dominating Westminster today, there will doubtless be many journalist colleagues happy to put that question on Neman’s behalf.
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