A British reporter had a big #MeToo scoop. Her editor killed It

A British reporter had a big #MeToo scoop. Her editor killed It

Inside The Financial Times newsroom this winter, one of its star investigative reporters, Madison Marriage, had a potentially explosive scoop involving another newspaper.

A prominent left-wing columnist, Nick Cohen, had resigned from Guardian News & Media, and Marriage had evidence that his departure followed years of unwanted sexual advances and groping of female journalists.

Marriage specialized in such investigations. She won an award for exposing a handsy black-tie event for Britain’s business elite. A technology mogul got indicted on rape charges after another article.

But her investigation on Cohen, which she hoped would begin a broader look at sexual misconduct in the British news media, was never published. The Financial Times’ editor, Roula Khalaf, killed it, according to interviews with a dozen Financial Times journalists.

It was not spiked because of reporting problems. Two women were willing to speak openly, and Marriage had supporting documentation on others. Rather, Khalaf said Cohen did not have a big enough business profile to make him an “FT story,” colleagues said.

Cohen’s departure and the death of Marriage’s article offer a window into the British news media’s complicated relationship with the #MeToo movement. Leading American newsrooms – Fox News, CNN, NBC, The New York Times and others – have confronted misconduct allegations. British journalism has seen no such reckoning.

For Lucy Siegle, the death of the Financial Times article hit especially hard. In 2018, she had reported Cohen to The Guardian for groping her in the newsroom, but nothing had happened. Now, it seemed the whole industry was protecting itself.

“It just amplified this sense that #MeToo is nothing but a convenient hashtag for the British media,” Siegle said. “The silence on its own industry is just really conspicuous.”

The British news media is smaller and cozier than its American counterpart, with journalists often coming from the same elite schools. Stringent libel laws present another hurdle. And in a traditional newsroom culture of drinking and gender imbalances, many stories of misconduct go untold, or face a fight.

In July 2016, for example, The Daily Mail reported that a court had granted a domestic violence restraining order against a former Financial Times executive, Ben Hughes. The article vanished from the internet without explanation.

Then, in 2019, The Sun reported that a former Guardian executive, David Pemsel, had sent messages to a former employee, pestering her for a sexual relationship. After he complained, the newspaper apologized and, although it did not say the article was inaccurate, deleted it.

In an email, Marriage said she could not comment on “FT decision-making” and referred questions to a spokesperson for the newspaper, who would not comment on internal discussions. “Some reporting leads to published stories,” the spokesperson said, “and some not.” Khalaf did not respond to requests for comment.

Cohen spent two decades as a columnist for The Observer, The Guardian’s Sunday sister paper. He won a prestigious award for writing about right-wing politics in the run-up to Brexit. His book “What’s Left” was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top political journalism award. Inside the newsroom, he was seen as influential, colleagues said, someone who could help your career.

His resignation in January cited “health grounds.” Secretly, the newspaper group paid him a financial settlement for quitting and agreed to confidentiality, according to three colleagues and an editor with whom Cohen spoke.

In his farewell, editors praised his “brilliant” and “incisive” coverage.

Seven women told The New York Times that Cohen had groped them or made other unwanted sexual advances over nearly two decades. Four insisted on anonymity, fearing professional repercussions. In each case, the Times reviewed documents or otherwise corroborated their accounts.

Siegle recounted Cohen grabbing her bottom in the newsroom around 2001. Five other women described similar encounters at pubs from 2008-15. One said Cohen pressed his erection against her thigh and kissed her uninvited when they met to discuss her career. A seventh said Cohen repeatedly offered to send her explicit photographs in 2018 while she worked as an unpaid copy editor for him.

Cohen’s reputation was widely known in the newsroom, according to 10 former colleagues, both male and female. One former colleague said she and other female journalists used a different entrance to a pub to avoid being groped by him. Another woman said she avoided the bar downstairs from the newsroom after Cohen grabbed her knee during work drinks.

“There is so much sexism in a lot of British newspapers, and it seems, unfortunately, that many women believed sexual harassment was something you just had to put up with,” said Heather Brooke, an investigative journalist who told the Times that Cohen groped her at an awards ceremony in 2008, before she had a high profile.

Guardian News & Media did investigate Cohen, but only after Siegle wrote on Twitter in 2021 about her experience.

Even then, it was a story few in the British news media wanted to tell. The Guardian signed a confidentiality agreement with Cohen. The Financial Times spiked its story. Even investigative magazine Private Eye did not cover his departure. When a reader emailed asking why, the editor replied: “Coverage of Nick Cohen’s departure from The Observer is obviously more problematic for The Eye than the others that you mention due to the fact that he used to write a freelance column for the magazine.”

Cohen’s departure got a mention only in The Press Gazette, a media trade website.

In a phone interview, Cohen said he did not have the “faintest idea” about Siegle’s accusation and questioned why she waited so long to report it. He said the conversation with the copy editor was “joking” among friends. He blamed their accusations on a campaign by his critics, including advocates for Russia and for transgender rights.

Informed that seven women had come forward with sexual misconduct complaints, Cohen exclaimed, “Oh, God.”

“I assume it’s stuff I was doing when I was drunk,” said Cohen, a recovering alcoholic.

In a subsequent email, Cohen did not respond to specific accusations. “I have written at length about my alcoholism. I went clean seven years ago in 2016,” he said. “I look back on my addicted life with deep shame.”

Many of the women and their colleagues were especially disappointed in The Guardian because of its extensive #MeToo reporting. One week before Siegle’s complaint in 2018, it solicited tips about workplace sexual harassment.

“We take all allegations of workplace harassment extremely seriously and aim to support victims in all circumstances,” a Guardian News & Media spokesperson said in a statement. “We have processes which anyone can use to raise complaints so that they can be fully investigated.”

The company did not respond to specific instances identified by the Times. It said that only Siegle complained to senior managers about Cohen, and that she had chosen not to pursue the complaint – something she denies. As soon as Siegle went public, the company said, it opened an investigation.

Cohen left the newspaper and told the Times that he accepted a deal after considering the financial implications for his family, in particular his son, who has autism.

“I’m the only person whose life is turned over because of this,” he said.

The Least Powerful Person

The #MeToo movement was sweeping through society on February 1, 2018, when Siegle met with The Guardian’s managing editor, Jan Thompson, to report her experiences with Cohen.

Siegle had started at The Guardian around 2001 as an editorial assistant. She described standing at a photocopier when Cohen appeared behind her, cupped her bottom with both hands, grunted and breathed heavily into her ear.

Siegle remembers returning to her desk, humiliated. She never considered reporting him. “I’m literally the least powerful person in the entire newsroom,” she said.

For 14 years, as she advanced at The Observer, she said she avoided his desk and chaperoned interns “like a mother hen crossing a busy road.”

At the Feb. 1 meeting, Siegle said Thompson responded by talking about the abuse that Cohen faced for his political views, according to notes Siegle wrote afterward. She described the meeting as a “chaotic mess of defensiveness and attack.”

The Guardian spokesperson said Siegle, who was by then a freelancer for the newspaper, opted not to pursue her complaint. Siegle says an investigation was never offered. A week after the meeting, Thompson emailed to let Siegle know that she was “here if you want to discuss further.” Siegle declined.

In interviews, former Observer and Guardian managers said they knew Cohen had a drinking problem but could not remember anyone reporting sexual misconduct. “In a way, I’m puzzled,” said Chris Elliott, a former managing editor of both papers. “Because I should have heard something about it on the grapevine.”

Jean Hannah Edelstein, an assistant at The Observer from 2007-09, said Cohen was not alone in his behavior. She recalled her editor hitting her with a sex whip as she walked by. Over one boozy lunch, she said, the same editor offered to help her career and suggested she pose naked to promote her book.

Several journalists said Cohen’s reputation for groping was far from secret and five women said he groped them after work at pubs, including one who said he groped her “five or six” times in 2008.

Another woman, a freelance journalist who had recently been homeless and had depression, said she met Cohen at a pub in 2010 to discuss her career. As they chatted, she said, he suddenly kissed her on the mouth and pressed his erection against her thigh. She said she fled.

“I just remember walking along Waterloo Bridge and thinking, ‘I can’t go to The Guardian with this. Who would they believe?’” she said. “He was one of their stars and I was a freelance journalist with mental health issues.”

Brooke, the investigative journalist, said she initially dismissed her encounter with Cohen at the 2008 awards ceremony as “a one-off drunken mistake and didn’t take it further.” (“Nick Cohen got drunk and slapped my ass … ugh!” she wrote in her diary the next day.)

But she said that “now I know that this is a pattern of behavior over 20 years. I think it’s really important to speak out.”

Rebecca Watson, a writer and commentator, said Cohen grabbed her bottom at a book party in 2009. Her now-former husband said he witnessed it but did not confront Cohen because he did not want to cause a scene.

“To sexually assault a stranger at a book launch, to be one of the more prominent people there, and to just assume there will be no comeuppance,” Watson said.

Not long after Siegle lodged her 2018 complaint with The Guardian, records show that Cohen began working with a freelance copy editor, a single mother with autism.

She worked remotely for Cohen, unpaid. On June 29, 2018, a work conversation over direct messages on Twitter became punctuated with mutually flirtatious jokes. Cohen offered to send an explicit photograph. The woman declined. Cohen persisted and she deflected again.

In the following days, the copy editor said, Cohen turned cold. In messages, she apologized if she had misread the situation. Eventually, she told him continuing to work together “would be at a cost too high for my own mental health.”

Cohen, in his email to the Times, said this was the only accusation to surface since he quit drinking and said it had been misrepresented. “It involves a friendship with a woman I never met that, sadly, went badly wrong,” he said.

In 2019, the copy editor asked The Guardian’s human resources team about the process for raising sexual misconduct claims, emails show. She described the incident without naming Cohen, saying she felt “huge pressure” to go along with his “banter.”

Because she was not a Guardian employee, the copy editor said she was told that she would not be informed of the investigation’s outcome. Being frozen out of the process terrified her, so she backed off.

Going public

In fall 2021, Siegle wrote on Twitter about her experience. Her lawyer, Jolyon Maugham, began making noise. Thompson immediately emailed.

“Given that you have now tweeted publicly,” Thompson wrote, “I hope that it means that your position has now changed, and that you would be willing to provide further information so that we can investigate the matter fully.”

Siegle said that was misleading, that The Guardian had not offered to investigate in 2018.

Eventually, Cohen was suspended and The Guardian hired a law firm to carry out an independent inquiry. Neither Siegle nor the copy editor agreed to participate.

Cohen confirmed that he signed an agreement to leave the newspaper, but would not discuss the terms.

Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, said he discussed the terms of The Guardian’s deal with Cohen, who no longer writes for Private Eye. “Instead of any conclusion,” Hislop said of the Guardian investigation, “it ended up with a secret agreement and a big cash payment.”

Inside The Financial Times

In December, the Financial Times editor, Khalaf, emailed the newsroom about the coming year’s priorities. Among them were Marriage’s investigations into abuses of power.

Publicly, the newspaper had declared “no topic or scandal off limits.” Privately, there were limits.

Marriage had already begun investigating Cohen and sexual misconduct across the British news media, but Khalaf shackled the investigation, telling Marriage not to contact any new sources, according to two colleagues with whom Marriage spoke. Her team had already interviewed five of Cohen’s accusers.

In February, Khalaf said she would not run the investigation as a news article, several journalists recalled, and suggested Marriage file it as an opinion piece. She did, but it still did not run.

A half-dozen Financial Times journalists said they saw it as part of a wider reluctance to expose bad behavior within its industry.

The Financial Times, like others, has wrestled with gender issues. In June 2020, 56 female staff members wrote to Khalaf about a “bro culture” that excluded women from decision-making.

Khalaf was sympathetic, one employee said. Since becoming the newspaper’s first female editor in 2020, she has increased the number of women in senior positions.

A native of Lebanon, Khalaf is not a British media insider. Colleagues described her as a cautious editor, and some said the Cohen article had fallen victim to an institutional conflict between the newspaper’s investigative aspirations and its conservative, business roots.

Days after Marriage’s article was dropped, the newspaper ran an investigation into sexual harassment claims against a former TikTok manager. The next month, it ran 23 articles about sexual misconduct accusations inside Britain’s business lobbying group.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.