British PM Battles Bullying Allegations

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is at the center of newspaper allegations of bullying in his management style. Brown's supporters fiercely denied the story, but the director of Britain's National Bullying Helpline has confirmed receiving calls from staff at the Prime Minister's Office.

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Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown is fending off questions about his competence and character. A new book by a veteran political journalist portrays Brown as a bully who terrorizes top aides and low-ranking office workers alike.

Vicki Barker reports from London.

Unidentified Man #1: Afternoon, prime minister.

Unidentified Man #2: Prime minister.

Unidentified Man #1: Prime Minister, why not have an inquiry...

VICKI BARKER: Gordon Brown skitters in and out of his offices at No. 10 Downing Street these days as if permanently flinching from unseen blows. In fact, it's the prime minister himself who's accused of getting physical. The well-known political journalist Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer newspaper alleges that Tony Blair's embattled successor has shouted at aides, thrown things, shoved slow typing secretaries aside to take over himself, grabbed terrified staffers by the lapels.

Mr. MICHAEL WHITE (Assistant Editor, Guardian): I can't really believe that it comes as a great shock to the British public that Gordon Brown is accused of bullying. You've only got to look at him to see he's not a little ray of sunshine.

BARKER: Michael White, assistant editor of the Guardian newspaper. But Rawnsley claims things got so bad, Britain's top civil servant, Sir Gus O'Donnell, privately told Brown to clean up his act. And when Downing Street officials issued a furious denial, yesterday it backfired spectacularly. Christine Pratt, the head of an anti-bullying charity, stepped forward to claim her hotline has actually taken calls from three or four traumatized Downing Street employees.

Ms. CHRISTINE PRATT (Founder, National Bullying Helpline): In fact, Mr. Gordon Brown, he may not even been aware that staff were calling us. But what we were incensed with yesterday was the denial from No. 10.

BARKER: Pratt herself has now being criticized for breaching confidentiality. Even Brown's supporters acknowledge he's got a temper. Among them, his former number two, John Prescott, who famously once threw a punch at an egg-throwing heckler.

Mr. JOHN PRESCOTT (Former Deputy Prime Minister, United Kingdom): Now, we want men with substance. The fact that they might shout a bit or getting really pressured to get things done is the nature of the prime ministers. Quiet prime ministers we had before didn't do the same kind of job and didn't produce the results.

BARKER: With elections looming sometime this spring, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, has called for an official investigation.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Leader, Conservative Party): Overall what I see is just another unseemly mess at the fag end of the government that is tired, that is discredited, that is worn out. And to me all of this just says we need get on, have a general election and have a fresh start.

BARKER: Today, Gordon Brown issued a statement emphatically denying he's ever bullied anyone. And Sir Gus O'Donnell denied ever reprimanding Brown about his behavior. But Rawnsley says he stands by his story. The Guardians Michael White wonders if both the politicians and the press are missing the point.

Mr. WHITE: Yes, Gordon Brown's a bully sometimes and it's hardly a secret. More interesting question to me is: Can you be a bully and an effective leader? And I think the answer to that is, regrettably, yes.

BARKER: British voters might not see it that way, though. Brown's leadership hasn't stopped unemployment from rising or boosted Britain's sagging economy. And Brown himself has claimed the next election will be all about character, making his character fair game now.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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