Presidents, clubbed

by Rachel Gardner

1st February 2018

For the past 33 years, the Presidents Club Charitable Trust has organised fundraising dinners, raising over £20 million for worthy causes including Great Ormond Street Hospital. What a marvellous institution, you might remark. Whatever they’re doing, let them continue—for the children’s sake.

At this year’s event in central London, a smart journalist was uncovering an ugliness behind the clemency—a lesson that took the BBC the best part of 50 years to learn. That sometimes the shiniest of coats are designed that way to distract from a very dark underbelly.

Madison Marriage’s report revealed a world the public told itself was long in the past. A world full of handsy, cigar-wielding megalomaniacs, drunk on a false power over the women who served them. A world indivisible from sexual harassment and fear.

For the Presidents Club was not a shred of what it claimed to those liberal, metropolitan noses walking blithely past its door; but a Playboy mansion dressed up as the Institute of Directors.

She wrote how hostesses were told to wear skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels, their physical attributes measured against three criteria: ‘tall, skinny and pretty’. Women were groped, harassed and propositioned, including one who was handed a glass of champagne and told to “down that, rip your knickers off and dance on the table”.

Auction prizes ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: from lunch with Boris Johnson and afternoon tea with Bank of England governor Mark Carney, to a night out at a lap-dancing bar in Soho and a course of plastic surgery—described as an opportunity to “add spice to your wife”. What a day that would have been.

Within hours, the House of Commons had announced its own investigations, Theresa May had expressed her disgust at “the objectification of women,” and calls were abounding for organiser David Mellor’s resignation from his advisory position within the Department for Education. Charity donors and attendees from the night were quick to distance themselves and late Wednesday evening, the Trust was shut down with immediate effect:

“The trustees have decided that the Presidents Club will not host any further fundraising events. Remaining funds will be distributed in an efficient manner to children’s charities and it will then be closed.”

In the days that followed, the story dominated the front pages of the national newspapers and websites, lighting social media ablaze in the process. Predictable debates in the Guardian and the Washington Post questioned the continued acceptability of men-only clubs still thriving across western Europe.

Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality party, said the event needs to be seen in the context of the recent abuse and harassment claims emerging not only in Westminster, but also in Hollywood and international sport:

“The shock that has been expressed at this event is revulsion at something we walk across the top of every day. It’s not just the City, it’s everywhere. The scene described in the FT is just the rotten underpinning of it all. And when we raise our voices to protest, we are told we are being shrill.”

Anyone who questions the power of investigative journalism in 2018 just isn’t paying attention. Madison Marriage’s undercover reporting for the Financial Times was as brilliant as it was distressing.

No matter what your opinion of the story – and a glance at comments below the line on the websites of the Guardian and the Mail reveals extreme opposites of thought –  there is no questioning the power quality journalism has on the national conversation.