The lesson from the Phillip Schofield scandal? A moral grey area is not OK in any workplace

<span>Photograph: PA Images/Alamy</span>
Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Imagine an older man, in his late 40s, in a position of swaggering power and influence. A cabinet minister, maybe, or an industry bigshot.

He meets a starstruck 15-year-old desperate to get into the business, and encourages her to apply for a job in his office when she’s old enough. It’s an unbelievable opportunity and so, after turning 18, she follows it up and gets the job. Shortly afterwards, this kindly (and did I mention married?) mentor begins sleeping with this grateful now 20-year-old mentee, who is younger than his own daughter. What would you think of him?

For most, the answer will surely be an instinctive shudder: too creepy by half. It’s not actually against the law, if she is over the age of consent, though in some workplaces it would break rules on intra-office romances. But ethically it’s dubious, to say the least. She would be nobody without him, and he could probably get her fired tomorrow – no matter how eagerly consenting, it’s hard to see this as a relationship of true equals. But also, no matter how much you think you know about love in your early 20s, only later do you realise that you didn’t know the half of it. This relationship would be at best, in Phillip Schofield’s words, “unwise, but not illegal”; at worst, as the former culture secretary Nadine Dorries put it, an abuse of “authority, power and trust”.

And yes, of course, this is about Schofield, the erstwhile king of daytime TV, dethroned last week by the revelation that he had an affair with a runner on the show, whom he had initially met as a 15-year-old theatre school pupil, and then when rumours started to surface about their closeness in 2020, he lied about it to his bosses at ITV, his co-star Holly Willoughby, his agent, and later to journalists, who were told that the concerns they’d got wind of were all just “malicious gossip”. (He only finally confessed all, in a grovelling letter to the Daily Mail, after his now ex-lover apparently told lawyers hired by Schofield that he didn’t want to carry on pretending the relationship had never existed.) The only difference from the fictional scenario outlined at the top of this article is that Schofield is gay and his lover was a young man, not a woman.

His sexuality is not irrelevant here: one explanation for why Schofield might have lied is that he was still very much married and in the closet at the time journalists first started asking questions. (He insists that his emotional public coming out a few months later, live on the show and attracting widespread praise for his bravery, was unrelated to the swirling rumours.) But Schofield’s sexuality also, in some respects, unhelpfully clouds things. Gay men in general are still too often unfairly caricatured as predatory, out to get your children. The story has triggered much genuine concern for the welfare of Schofield’s young lover, but also some naked homophobia, particularly as it follows the recent conviction of Schofield’s brother, Timothy, for sexual offences involving a child; one wonders too if there was a faint nervousness in some quarters at ITV about being seen as homophobic for questioning the presenter too aggressively.

Strip all that away, imagine the runner was a star-struck woman more than 30 years Schofield’s junior, and we can see this relationship clearly for the complex problem it is; one with implications way beyond the shallow waters of daytime telly.

Schofield has quit, and at 61 seems unlikely ever to work in prime time again. That leaves This Morning’s editors, his co-stars and more senior ITV executives all in the line of fire over what they did or didn’t know and what they should or shouldn’t have done, in a post-#MeToo era where we are all much more alert to imbalances of power in relationships but still not sure exactly what to do about them. If people at ITV knew full well what was happening and simply lied to the media to protect their star presenter, then heads should obviously roll. But if, as they insist, Schofield and his then boyfriend repeatedly denied at the time there was anything untoward going on and they had nothing to go on but hearsay – well, what then?

Perhaps something will emerge over the coming days to shed new light on this story. But based on what we know at this stage, we’re not talking about another Harvey Weinstein or Jimmy Savile; rather something that may not technically amount to a sackable offence, but which was always likely to be a resigning one once it became public.

Too many of us, in middle age, have looked back since #MeToo at things we unblinkingly accepted when we were young but that now seem frankly disturbing, and, once seen, these patterns are hard to unsee in others. The unwritten but universally understood rule of television is that presenters can’t make the public feel uncomfortable – especially not in the cosy, cheesy, squeaky-clean world of daytime telly, which presents itself as one big happy family, whatever may be going on behind the scenes. (The show’s former resident doctor, Ranj Singh, has described This Morning’s culture as “toxic” for reasons that he said went well beyond its host. Schofield denies that, calling his critics a “handful of people with a grudge against me or the show”.)

In dealing with the rumours, ITV had a duty of care to a potentially vulnerable young man and also to a presenter whose sexuality was not yet public knowledge, to colleagues who were clearly finding the situation awkward, not to mention everyone employed on a show whose future is now in doubt as a consequence of all its secrets leaking out. In the absence of concrete proof, the best option would have been to quietly transfer the runner to another show – which is ultimately what happened – and make very clear to Schofield that inappropriate behaviour on set would be career-ending, backing that up by inserting stiff clauses in everyone’s contracts about workplace relationships, which would enable ITV to take action if necessary. But that would still have left the channel with a difficult judgment to make about its star’s future.

This is tricky new territory for employers to navigate, and ITV doubtless won’t be the first or last to get it wrong as they stumble into a grey area that barely existed a decade ago. For men of Schofield’s age, however, the lesson could not be clearer: if you somehow can’t bring yourself to date someone your own age, then aim at least for the same generation, if you don’t want to be perceived as sad and seedy. Once upon a time, a dewy-eyed partner younger than your own kids used to be a common rich man’s trophy, a symbol even of power and virility. These days, it looks more like a hostage to fortune.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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