Brown bullying may involve a few. Breach of confidentiality affects thousands

By Jonathan Bartley
February 21, 2010

More disturbing than the allegations in today's Observer from Andrew Rawnsley about bullying at Number 10, has been the response from a bullying charity.

For those working with both children and adults who suffer from bullying, it is of course an incredibly serious issue, which at its worst can result in death, as the Telegraph and Mail were quick to remind us at the end of last year.

The National Bullying Helpline waded into the debate this afternoon by telling the BBC and other news outlets that "Several people in Gordon Brown's office" had contacted them. Its boss Christine Pratt said "three or four" calls had been made to the Helpline in recent years. "We are not suggesting that Gordon Brown is a bully, what we are saying is staff in his office working directly with him have issues, and have concerns, and have contacted our helpline" she told the BBC. "Some have downloaded information; some have actually called our helpline directly and I have spoken to staff in his office."

Whistleblowing in the name of caring for the individuals concerned? Anyone who seeks to justify it in such terms will have a hard time doing so. Whistleblowing is usually done by people within the organisation that is committing the alleged injustice. Put it another way, if it was a GP or a solicitor the breach of confidence would be clear (unless of course the individuals concerned have requested that their stories be made public which so far in this case has not been suggested).

Nor is whistleblowing the reason given by Ms Pratt herself. According to the BBC Ms Pratt's explicit concern was the denial by Downing Street and Peter Mandelson whom she named in the interview. This sent out 'the wrong message' to other chief executives or bosses accused of bullying. "Outright denial is just non-credible in today's age" she told the BBC.

The Helpline denies it is political. The charity however has several prominent links with the Conservative Party. Ann Widdecombe is a patron and their home page carries two main endorsements - a quote from David Cameron as well as one from Widdecombe. The other patron is Councillor Mary O'Connor who is Boris Johnson's chair of the London Health Commission.

But this is not the central point. The most important thing is where this leaves other adults and children who are being bullied. A cornerstone of the work in this area is the guarantee of confidentiality that can inspire people to seek help in security. The charity itself champions this on its website. "We never share your details with anyone else. All correspondence is confidential" it states. It then repeats it again. The slogan on its home page states: "Where confidentiality is sought it is always given - unconditionally".

Not so it seems. The charity could perhaps not have breached its assurances of confidentiality in a more public way, by wading into the bullying row. The "3 or 4" could potentially be identified in the small workplace that is No.10. Will this instill confidence in others who are suffering bullying and wanting a safe space in which to talk about it and seek help? It's a big call. This could potentially go way beyond this charity and affect all those working in the field. Some may argue that it might give prominence to the issue of bullying and cause more people to seek help. But the original allegations would have done that on their own - without the charity's involvement.

One last thing. Who is going to stand up for the bullied - I mean really stand up for them in the political fray? In this context it should surely be the Opposition. What has emerged instead has been another spoof poster from the Conservatives. Is this 'Compassionate Conservatism' in action once again? A demonstration perhaps, that despite the Conservatives' proud endorsements on the anti-bullying charity's web site, the party actually has little real care for the issue - at least when it could be scoring political points.

[Update 21.50 Another charity Bullying UK have just issued a statement challenging the National Bullying Helpline. It states: "We think it's a serious breach of confidentiality for an anti-bullying charity to reveal details like this where such a small number of people are involved and - much worse - could potentially be identified."

"It's important that when people come forward to speak about an issue as distressing as bullying they can do so in absolute confidence and even if their problems are resolved, that they know their confidence will be respected and maintained and not splashed all over the media."

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