The poorly judged analogy – labelled a “rape joke” by critics – was attacked by MPs on all sides. It prompted a furore on social media that also engulfed the BBC’s flagship radio programme, with one of its presenters, Nick Robinson, lambasted for re-tweeting Gove’s comments without criticism. Lord Kinnock was also caught up in the row, having appeared to make light of Gove’s remarks by likening Weinstein, who faces multiple accusations of rape and sexual abuse, which he denies, to a “groper”. The extraordinary row came as concerns about the Westminster bubble’s “misogynstic culture” were raised by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Gove was being interviewed by Humphrys in front of a live audience at the Wigmore Hall in London to celebrate Today’s 60th birthday. Asked by Humphrys about appearing on Today, he replied: “Sometimes I think going into the studio with you, John, is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom. You just pray you emerge with your dignity intact.”
Kinnock, who was being interviewed alongside him, joined in, saying: “John goes way past groping. Way past groping.” On Twitter listeners described the comments as “revolting” and said they were “gobsmacked” by the politicians’ behaviour.
Labour MP Jess Phillips, commented on Twitter: “Michael Gove just left the studio without his dignity.” Actor Stephen Mangan wrote: “Morning. Here’s a rape joke from Michael Gove to start your day.”
Tory MP Anna Soubry tweeted that Gove’s comments “insulted victims of rape & other sexual assaults & perpetuated pathetic notion that these crimes are not to be taken seriously”.
One of her followers responded: “Neil Kinnock’s intervention wasn’t his finest hour either.” In a tweet posted a couple of hours after his appearance on the programme, Gove said: “Apologies for my clumsy attempt at humour on R4 Today this morning – it wasn’t appropriate. I’m sorry and apologise unreservedly.”
Robinson’s decision to tweet Gove’s comment also came under attack. One listener wrote: “For heavens sake, Mr Robinson, do you really consider a ‘joke’ by Michael Gove about sexual assault to be worthy of a tweet?” Another said: “This is a disgraceful comparison by Gove – and it’s also disgraceful to repeat it without censure.” As the row started trending, Labour peer Lord Adonis tweeted: “Seriously inappropriate ‘joke,’ sums up a discreditable episode of @ BBCr4today self-congratulation.”
Robinson defended his actions, but did not offer an apology. He tweeted: “Know many people are offended by this. To be clear – I tweeted a newsworthy quote without comment.”
The row erupted at a time when the conduct of politicians is under intense scrutiny amid reports that at least four have been the subject of sexual misconduct allegations. The MPs, two Labour and two Conservative, have been accused of harassing or propositioning young women inappropriately, according to the Times.
Labour backbencher Jared O’Mara has had the party whip suspended over a series of misogynistic and homophobic online postings. He has also been accused of calling a constituent an “ugly bitch” – a claim that he denies.
In a speech on Saturday, Corbyn said that a “warped and degrading culture” where the abuse of women is accepted and normalised is thriving in the corridors of power. In an address to the Unite union’s Scottish policy conference in Aviemore, Corbyn pledged that Labour would “not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment”.
He added: “The problem doesn’t stop with those who make unwanted advances on women – it extends to a culture that has tolerated abuse for far too long.”
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