John Humphrys has caused outrage by asking if male politicians could soon be unable to date because of the growing Westminster sexual harassment scandal.
Westminster has become the focus of sexual harassment claims in recent days with allegations being made against ministers as a so-called “dossier” of names circulates with accusations that range from serious misconduct to romantic relationships with others who work in parliament.
Humphrys put the question to William Hague, the former foreign secretary and Conservative Party leader, during Wednesday’s edition of The Today Programme.
He started the interview by asking about the terror attack in New York and his efforts to fight the illegal ivory trade.
After five minutes on these subjects, Humphrys then asked about the “very topical issue” of sexual harassment and assault in politics.
“What do you think is going on here,” he asked.
Hague said he hoped for a “great change” in Westminster’s culture. “I hope we’ve entered an era of greater accountability,” he added.
Humphrys then asked if MPs were worse behaved than anyone else and then, as Hague gave a cautious answer saying he did not know and that some accusations could be untrue, Humphrys asked if it was a “witch hunt”.
“It mustn’t turn into that but there’s clearly a legitimate issue here. Sexual harassment and assault are unacceptable,” Hague said.
Humphrys then asked: “Is there a danger we could go too far in the other direction and people will be afraid to ask somebody else out for the evening or indeed ask them out for a proper date or maybe eventually ask them to marry them?”
He added: “Or something. I mean, there are risks in this aren’t there?”
“I don’t think we’ve reached that point,” Hague said.
But Humphrys was insistent: “We’re heading in that direction where MPs would be terribly nervous... an unmarried MP asking an unmarried assistant for a date?”
Sounding unconvinced, Hague said he met his wife at Westminster and told Humphrys: “You are absolutely right to raise that.” Twitter didn’t agree.
PoliticsHome’s Kevin Schofield called the exchange “quite possibly the weirdest moment” in the 60-year history of The Today Programme.
Bloomsberg’s Robert Hutton said of Humphrys’ claim: “We’re really not.”
Senior political journalist Jane Merrick said: “FFS”.
CNN’s Tara Mulholland noted that journalism itself was going through a sex harassment scandal and said: “Imagine being a senior journalist during the past month... and having this be what you would address about it.”
Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff said she did not want to hear Humphrys do an interview on the subject.
She set out the differences between sexually harassing someone and asking them out, a concept so complicated it took one tweet.
Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker called Humphrys “part of the problem”.
LBC host James O’Brien did a segment on his show in which he set out the difference between appropriate and inappropriate compliments and approaches, which he summarised as “I love your shoes versus I love your boobs”.
“These are not difficult things to police,” he said.
During the Today interview, Hague told Humphrys: “You’re really inviting me to say the whole thing has now gone too far. I don’t think it has gone too far because I think there is a legitimate problem.”
Humphrys’ question echoed comments from Tory MP Colonel Bob Stewart, one of the MPs accused of inappropriate behaviour on the dossier.
He denied he was a “sleazebag” and told The Sun: “What we’ve got now is a situation where we are soon going to be in a situation where people that work together can’t say ‘can I take you out?’ How far away are we from that?”
Stewart caused a sexism row in Westminster last year when he called a female journalist “the totty”.