After The Storm

Whatever Channel 5 had planned when they sketched out plans for a Celebrity Big Brother series with Stormy Daniels, they probably didn’t imagine it would ever lead to them accidentally rehabilitating the career of a prolific workplace sex-pest. Yet that is exactly what came to pass. So the question remains: what the fuck were they thinking?

It was one of the weirdest reveals in television history. After weeks of trailing this latest series of Celebrity Big Brother with a ton of storm-related imagery, the foreboding slogan “A STORM IS COMING” and the hashtag #EyeOfTheStorm, the nation tuned in with bated breath to see if Channel 5 had indeed managed to secure the extra special housemate they were heavily implying they’d signed.

Could it be? Could it actually be? Had they really managed to bag… Hardeep Singh Kohli?

Celebrity Big Brother line-ups are notoriously some of the worst kept secrets in showbusiness, yet this one genuinely came as a huge surprise. Everyone thought it was going to be Stormy Daniels – the American porn star who busted open her non-disclosure agreement with President Donald Trump to uncover a juicy extramarital affair, details of spanking to Shark Week, and potentially criminal campaign finance violations.

Instead, they got a Scottish Sikh man in kilt and turban who they maybe vaguely remembered from The One Show, or maybe some Glastonbury coverage, or The Wright Stuff, or something? (What is it he does again?)

Yet as perplexed as the viewing public might have been to see Hardeep enter the Big Brother house instead of Stormy, it wasn’t a patch on the bafflement his former colleagues felt.

Almost immediately we were bombarded with texts and emails from people who had had dealings with HSK in the past asking us “What the FUCK?”

We are used to such messages whenever a celebrity reality show announces its line-up, or a big story breaks, but in 18 years of running Popbitch, we have never seen anything like this. An unprecedented number of people got in touch.

As mentioned in his introductory VT package (in between close-up shots of him licking his lips) Hardeep was dropped from The One Show in 2009 after a complaint was made by a female researcher about inappropriate conduct. He apologised and conceded he had “overstepped the mark”.

The suspension was supposed to last for six months but he never returned, so the whole story was left sort of dangling.

He brushed past the incident pretty swiftly in his pre-show interview, saying that it was “a tricky time, a challenging time – but a time from which I learned a great deal.” He doesn’t expand upon exactly what he learned but, from all the available evidence, it seems that the only lesson he took from his suspension was how to continue sleazily bothering colleagues without the public getting wind of it.

His extended pre-show interview was even more eye-popping.

In one section of that (2’06) he talked about how he never really had to stop working as a result of his enforced leave of absence – either at the BBC, at Channel 4, or from doing other “lovely, lovely things”. In another (3’49), he talked about how he finds it hard to learn things because people never tell him ‘no’ – before finishing up by expressing his hope that there will be “an amount of self-awareness among the housemates” (4’12).

Seeing as self-awareness is his jam, he’ll no doubt delight in the opportunity to develop a bit for himself – and we’d be only too happy to help. For over the time he was in the Celebrity Big Brother house, multiple former colleagues, associates and other co-workers have come to us with stories of their experience at the hands of Hardeep.

But there’s also a wider story that’s worth examining here. One that lies beyond the sweaty grasp of just him alone.

In the very same show, CBB offered an olive branch to Dan Osborne – a man who was axed from The Only Way Is Essex after recordings emerged of him verbally assaulting his wife, calling her a “dirty little cunt” whom he would like to stab. (He ended up finishing third overall.)

Channel 5 have also recently hired another outspoken media pundit on a different show who has a very shady history of workplace misconduct with junior staffers, and it hasn’t made a single splash.

It’s been less than a year since the Harvey Weinstein/#MeToo scandal broke. It seems crazy that people like this are somehow still on producers’ call lists – yet here we are.

How can someone who appears to be well-known in the industry for being such a pest still get the red carpet rolled out for them?

The answer, sad to say, is pretty fucking bleak – but it’s worth working through.

Grim Pickings

Obviously when you have a last-minute dropout on a live show like Celebrity Big Brother, you can’t really afford to be too choosy with the replacement. But hopefully even Channel 5 would concede that a ticking clock is no excuse for hiring a known sex-pest. So how did it happen?

One possible explanation is that the producers don’t care enough and hire these people specifically to stoke outrage. While it’s tempting to believe that this is at the root of it all, the idea doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Why would Channel 5 risk what little reputation it has trying to rehabilitate the career of someone they know to be a danger? And if they were going to take that risk, why take it on someone as small fry as Hardeep Singh Kohli? It’s not like they’re taking a punt on Louis C.K., or Dustin Hoffman, or even Dave Lee Travis. If they really wanted to pick a provocative contestant, they could have done much better.

Similarly, if you want to get a rent-a-gob pundit on your daytime panel show, there’s no shortage of them kicking about. You don’t need to hire people with “known tendencies” to offer their two cents. The potential blowback you’re exposing yourself to if/when they’re unmasked makes it a needlessly perilous choice.

A more charitable interpretation of this same rationale is that producers are often keen to “spark a debate” by inviting these sorts of controversial people on. Sparking debates is a very fashionable thing to do at the minute, so it’s not outside the realms of possibility that their bonk-on for debate-sparking took priority over relatively unsexy considerations like safeguarding fellow contestants, considering the emotional impact it might have on any former victims who might be watching, and preventing the wider world from becoming emotionally invested in a serial sex-pest.

Even then though, that still oversimplifies the problem. Because while stories of certain stars’ professional misconduct may be common currency among some media types, it is quite possible that a number of important commissioners and execs truly aren’t aware of the scope and severity of them. And, unless that changes, we’re probably doomed to keep running these same stories.

Perhaps an example is in order.

It may not surprise you to learn that The One Show was not the only workplace in which Hardeep Singh Kohli engaged in inappropriate conduct with female colleagues – and it definitely wasn’t the last.

Over the last few weeks we have had multiple people complain to us about his behaviour in a whole range of jobs, in a series of incidents stretching back nearly three decades. These stories start in the 90s when he was trying to strike up affairs with colleagues on kids TV; through the 2000s in advertising, live comedy, TV and radio, right up until at least 2016 when he was let go from another job for it.

You probably haven’t heard about this more recent dismissal, because the company in question wanted to keep things quiet – for obvious reasons. But therein lies part of the problem.

Among the many stories we’ve now heard of unrequested workplace cuddles and massages (often performed during live broadcasts so they had no option to vocalise any reaction) we spoke to one woman who Hardeep pounced on and kissed against her will when they were working together. He wrapped her up in a hug that allowed him to place his hands across her chest too and the incident rattled her so much that she took it to her bosses.

Her employer acted swiftly and decisively. Hardeep was fired with immediate effect. The woman was therefore able to return to work the next week and has never had to see him again.

However, that wasn’t really the end of it for her. The experience left her distressed and devastated. It affected her emotional well-being at work, and at home, and in-between. Taking the tube each day became fraught with discomfort, where any sort of brush-in with a stranger would spike her anxiety.

It has taken a long time for her to come to terms with what happened that day, and the emotional effect it had on her, before she felt ready to speak to anyone else about it.

In this instance, her employer acted in the way that you’d hope they would when one of their staff wantonly assaults a colleague (especially when they have form in this area) but this is not always the case with media companies.

In other, less scrupulous organisations it is not unheard of for people who file complaints about golden boy employees who grope and paw to be given some sort of sideways ‘promotion’; one that quietly relocates them out of harm’s way, rather than making any attempt to get rid of the problematic talent in question (mentioning no national tabloids in particular…).

In some of the worst ones, they’ll actively try to find a way to get rid of the complainant instead. If it’s one of the money-rich, morally-bankrupt places (the Weinstein Company in 2005, e.g.) it will usually involve a lump sum pay-off. If it’s one of the doubly-bankrupt places (the Weinstein Company in 2017, e.g.) it may not.

Incidents of alleged sexual misconduct reflect badly on a company at the best of times, but when the person has already been publicly called out for it once, it looks extra careless. So while a discreet termination helps spare the blushes of both employer and employee (and prevents the whole thing from becoming unpleasantly drawn out for the assaulted party) it can lead to a couple of unintended complications.

Pest Control

Modern media companies are often sprawling, fragmented operations and their corporate architecture is extremely complex. As we have seen with the unfolding story of Donald Trump and the National Enquirer, the lack of transparency this creates can be consciously abused by bad actors. They can use the expanse of a media empire to dilute evidence (and culpability) of wrongdoing in such a way that the casual spectator wouldn’t spot anything.

However, it is also completely possible that these complicated structures can create other, unexpected problems. As many media organisations work with multiple creative teams, off-site production houses and other independent contractors – who are not always part of the everyday office politics – suspect individuals can easily get swept back into the fold, totally inadvertently.

For example, just this week, Hardeep was lined up to appear as a guest on a podcast that’s produced by a different wing of the same company that previously sent him packing. Booked by people unaware of the issue, the interview was quickly nixed when the parties privy to his departure found out.

If that sort of thing is happening within just one company, imagine how much trickier this stuff is to pin down when the offender is freelance, moving between different offices, day in, day out.

It becomes exponentially harder again when they have a multi-hyphenate career. Whether that’s as a DJ/TV host/hospital porter/mortician’s assistant, or a comedian/radio host/journalist/reality star – they slip between many industries.

There was a second woman who came to us with a story of a similar sort of forced-kiss from Hardeep, which dates back to the early 2000s.

While the two of them were working in the same office, Hardeep – unprovoked – stepped behind her desk, pushed her up against a wall, kissed her full on the lips and slipped his tongue into her mouth. As soon as he finished, and she could slip away, she ran to find a colleague who ensured that she was never left alone with him again.

He left when his project wrapped, but years later she found herself in a new job where her path had cause to cross with his once again. There he tried exactly the same trick – this time trying to kiss her in front of her new colleagues – all the while trying to pretend that the two of them were old friends, and that this was all a private in-joke.

Even if any of her new colleagues did catch wise to what he was doing, it made little difference. He did his piece and was soon on to the next job.

The grim reality of it is that there is such demand in our modern media for people (men) with a vague profile, who are available at short notice and happy to turn their hand to anything, that an oblivious offender could easily stagger through 30 years of a career, burning bridges at almost every turn – and still have enough options left open to them to continue to plough on regardless, never once needing to stop and consider how much damage they might be leaving in their wake.

This stuff is everywhere. Maybe it starts with them writing a regular freelance column in a tabloid, which runs until they drunkenly molest a couple of staffers at the company Christmas party. They might find that they don’t really get many more commissions come the New Year, but no matter. Why would they need that gig anyway when they can command just as big a fee appearing on daytime TV, or on a radio discussion show? And if those calls start to dry up right around the same time that the show’s graduate intern stops responding to their sexts, by that point they’ll probably have a book deal for their controversial, telling-it-like-it-is essay collection; or their agent will have them working the after-dinner speakers circuit.

The problem then is compounded further by the fact that many of the junior staff at these media companies are often on precarious, short-term contracts themselves. They will be moved on every three months, six months, twelve months to a new project, a new team, a new company.

This constant churn means that, as well as having little job security, they have no real corporate protection either, leaving them vulnerable to opportunists at every turn of their early career.

The atomised nature of it all means that these stories never really amass into one, useful, centralised repository. Journalism is supposed to be there as a backstop for this, a place where victims and whistleblowers from all walks of life can go and tell their story. But these stories – as we keep seeing – need a lot of work and care to stand up and write. At a time when resources are stretched ever thinner at serious newsdesks, it becomes increasingly difficult to run with them.

In short: the entire set-up of the media industry, from top to toe, is ill-adapted and unprepared to deal with such problems.

Fucked, basically. Absolutely fucked.

The Forecast

If it seems like any of this is said to excuse Channel 5 from not having done thorough due diligence on Celebrity Big Brother, it isn’t. They spectacularly shat the bed there.

You know your vetting process is beyond bad when you are forced to evict a human Ken Doll from the house for being persistently racist and otherwise ‘inappropriate’ – and that isn’t even the biggest scandal of the week.

This only serves to make matters worse because, as Roxanne Pallett’s behaviour was what created the biggest, most outrageous spectacle of the show, we have ended up in a situation where Hardeep Singh Kohli is now giving interviews to the media on the topic of women making false accusations of abuse (something that has, understandably, stuck in the craw of the many women we’ve been speaking with).

If they were intending to continue the discussion that Stormy Daniels was supposed to ignite with her appearance, they couldn’t haven’t fallen flatter on their face.

That all said: the overarching irony of this whole thing is that, without him having been invited on to Celebrity Big Brother, Hardeep’s former colleagues may not have felt the need to come forward and talk to us.

In a way then, his appearance on CBB has acted as a lightning rod. A point on which to focus the tension and discomfort that has been building up for the last 25 years. And in that respect, maybe Channel 5 fulfilled its promise.

They warned us that a storm was coming. Maybe this is it.