It’s not a witch hunt.
The thing about a witch hunt is that it’s driven purely by hysteria. There aren’t really any witches.
But there is sleaze at Westminster. Bullying and harassment does happen.
So it’s wrong to call it a witch hunt. However, there’s a sense of panic - and fears that the innocent as well as the guilty are being targeted.
Like many journalists, I spent part of last week calling MPs whose name had appeared on a list of wrongdoers. The public version of this list had the names blanked out, but journalists at Westminster found ways to get hold of the uncensored version.
Why can’t we print it? The laws of libel prevent us. A newspaper or website which claimed an MP was “handy with females” without proof would face legal action and could be forced to pay huge sums in compensation.
And maybe those laws are right. Because we have no way of knowing if the claims are true. All we know is that a researcher drew up a list based on comments staff had made in a WhatsApp group (a mobile phone messaging service).
But, being journalists, we also want to run the story. Hence, we rang round or texted MPs on the list to see whether, by any chance, they would like to talk to us about it.
That way, we could run a story about their comments and avoid being sued. Don’t feel sorry for the MPs, by the way. They understand perfectly well how it works, and most declined to comment.
Exceptions included Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield, who chose to speak about an entry on the list claiming he was “inappropriate with male journalist in a taxi”.
He said he had no idea what it was about.
A few others would only talk on condition that they not be quoted.
An MP on the list told me privately that he had begged his secretary to tell him if he had ever done anything wrong.
But there is a problem. Former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon quit after admitting his behaviour has “fallen short” in the past - though he denies claims he told a colleague who complained her hands were cold: “I know where you can put them to warm them up.”
Labour suspended MP Kelvin Hopkins after it was alleged he sexually harassed a party activist three years ago.
Former Cabinet Minister Stephen Crabb sent a young woman sexually explicit messages after rejecting her application for a junior role in his parliamentary office.
And a Labour activist revealed she was raped at a party event, not by an MP, and a party figure told her not to report it.
Perhaps not every allegation is true. But there is a real issue at Westminster.