UPDATE: Jan. 24, 2018, 5:12 p.m. GMT This article has been updated to add that the Presidents Club will no longer host fundraising events.
Some of Britain’s most powerful men went to a male-only charity event last week where hostesses were groped and harassed, an exclusive investigation by the Financial Times has revealed.
The report makes allegations of sexism, harassment, and sexual misconduct at the Presidents Club Charity Dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in London. The event presents itself as a glitzy charity bash, where government decision-makers and some of the country’s most influential businessmen donate cash for “underprivileged children.”
Per the Presidents Club website, its vision is “to help as many as possible.” But, as the report reveals, beneath this veneer, an alarming underbelly of misogyny and harassment lurks at the very apex of British society.
Until now, it seems, Britain’s male elite has carried on despite the recent #MeToo movement.
The explosive report has prompted an enormous backlash, and one attendee has already lost his job. Rather tellingly, organisers, attendees, and anyone associated with the event are all responding using the same vocabulary—they are “appalled.” But, one thing that was missing from the initial responses was a declarative statement that behaviour like this will be put to a stop once and for all.
The Presidents Club has subsequently released a statement to say it will “not host any further fundraising event.” “Remaining funds will be distributed in an efficient manner to children’s charities and it will then be closed,” the statement continued.
The event’s seating plan—seen by the FT—read like a glittering roll call of some of the most high-profile male financiers, politicians, and businessmen in the country. Per the report, Philip Green of Arcadia Group, which owns Topshop; government minister for children and families Nadhim Zahawi; and Dragons’ Den star Peter Jones were listed on the seating plan. And, British comedian David Walliams was the host. The event’s co-organiser David Meller is a non-executive director at the UK government Department for Education.
The supposed purpose of the event, which has been running annually for the past three decades, is to raise money for charity through an auction. “During the three decades The Presidents Club has been running, it has raised more than £20m for charity. Thursday’s event alone raised more than £2m,” reads the FT report.
Prizes on offer at last Thursday’s event included “afternoon tea with Bank of England governor Mark Carney,” and “lunch with Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary.” WPP, the biggest advertising agency in the world, “sponsored a table” at the event.
FT journalist Madison Marriage, who went undercover as a hostess at the event, wrote that she was told by organisers beforehand that the men attending might be “annoying.” But, during the event, she was groped by multiple male attendees, and heard from other hostesses that men had exposed their genitals to them, and propositioned them for sex.
All of the women were told to wear skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels. At an after-party many hostesses — some of them students earning extra cash — were groped, sexually harassed and propositioned.
“I was warned that the men might be annoying,” Marriage told BBC Newsnight. “I was groped several times, and I know that there are numerous other hostesses who said the same thing had happened to them.” Marriage said that the event was rife with “hands up skirts, hands on bums, but also hands on hips, hands on stomachs, arms going round your waist unexpectedly.”
“The worst I was told by one of the hostesses was a man taking his penis out during the course of the dinner,” Marriage said. “The other one was another man telling a hostess to down her glass of champagne, rip off her knickers, and dance on the table.”
One 19-year-old hostess, recounted a conversation with a guest nearing his seventies: who had asked her, directly, whether she was a prostitute. She was not. “I’ve never done this before, and I’m never doing it again,” she said later. “It’s f***ing scary.”
Marriage told the BBC that it was not made clear during the hiring process that hostesses would be subjected to this kind of behaviour, and “plenty” of the women were unaware what they were letting themselves in for. Marriage said that one hostess told her after the event that it was the “worst job she has ever done in her entire life.”
The after-party was held in a smaller room off the main lobby at the Dorchester, packed tight with guests and women. According to the 28-year-old hostess, while men danced and drank with a set of women on one side of the room, a line of younger women were left seated on a banquette at the back of the room, seemingly dazed. “They looked shocked and frightened, exhausted by what had happened,” she said.
In a statement to the BBC, the Presidents Club said the organisers are “appalled by the allegations of bad behaviour at the event.”
“Such behaviour is totally unacceptable. The allegations will be investigated fully and promptly and appropriate action taken,” the spokesperson continued. A spokesperson for The Dorchester Hotel told the BBC it was “deeply concerned.”
The fallout from the egregious behaviour at the event has been far-reaching.
Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), one of the charities for which the event has raised money, has said it will return previous donations from the Presidents Club Charitable Trust. While GOSH is keen to distance itself from the event, it seems egregious that a hospital for seriously ill children must now undergo monetary losses because of these men’s behaviour.
The co-organiser of the event David Meller has stepped down from his non-executive role at the Department for Education.
Conservative MP Anne Milton says co-organiser of the Presidents Club charitable dinner David Meller is stepping down from his role as non-executive director at the Department for Education after allegations of sexual harassment at the event
— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) January 24, 2018
Comedian David Walliams took to Twitter to clarify his reasons for attending the event, and stated he didn’t witness any of the behaviour mentioned in the FT report. “I agreed to host as it is one of the biggest charity fund raising events of the year. I was there in a strictly professional capacity and not as a guest,” wrote Walliams.
2) I left immediately after I had finished my presenting on stage at 11.30pm. I did not witness any of the kind of behaviour that allegedly occurred and am absolutely appalled by the reports.
— David Walliams (@davidwalliams) January 24, 2018
Female politicians have condemned the actions which took place at the event. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that it’s “so depressing to think that this still happens in 2018.”
“Every penny raised at the gropey event should’ve donated to children and adult sexual violence services,” wrote Jess Phillips, chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party. Phillips told the BBC that it’s “unacceptable” that women should be “hired in as a herd to entertain a group of entitled rich men, because it’s not what we’re teaching our kids is an acceptable thing.”
During a 40-minute parliamentary debate, Anne Milton, the minister for women, addressed the report and said she “thought things had changed.”
“There is an association between rich, wealthy people and this sort of behaviour. We have to send a clear message that this is unacceptable,” said Milton.
She stated that Nadhim Zahawi, a government minister in attendance at the event, was “equally appalled” and “found the event extremely uncomfortable.”
“This is an event that is attended by men of various party political allegiances who do not know any better. That is the tragedy,” added Milton. She went on to defend Boris Johnson, stated that he “knew nothing of his inclusion in any auction” and that he “in no way endorsed the event.”
The Bank of England has since “revoked” the auction prize of tea with its governor Mark Carney, according to a statement sent to the Financial Times. According to the statement, Carney was “deeply dismayed that such an event could take place.”
So far, what we’re missing in this echo chamber of claims of being “appalled” and “horrified” is some decisive action. This is the #TimesUp era, so isn’t it high time we said time’s up to events such as these. Let’s banish elite-sponsored misogyny to the past, where it belongs.