Bafta-winning TV firm accused of mishandling sexual assault complaint | Television industry

Two female former staffers at the multi-Bafta-winning independent production company behind Netflix’s The Crown have accused it of badly ...

Two female former staffers at the multi-Bafta-winning independent production company behind Netflix’s The Crown have accused it of badly mishandling a complaint about a male senior executive who sexually and physically assaulted them following a work event.

Holly Bourdillon and Laura Johnston were freelancers for Left Bank Pictures, which is part-owned by Sony. They were hired to work on the post-production edit of the hit Netflix show White Lines in December 2019.

After a work party on 18 December, Bourdillon was sexually assaulted by Chris Croucher, then an executive producer at Left Bank Pictures. (Bourdillon has waived her right to anonymity as a sexual assault victim.) Johnston was physically assaulted by Croucher.

The assaults took place, in part, in the central London edit suites that Left Bank hired for post-production staffers.

Croucher, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2020, pleaded guilty to sexual and common assault in January this year and was later sentenced to three months’ curfew and a five-year community order.

His barrister told the court that he offered an “unreserved apology” to both women and felt “shame” and “shock” at his behaviour during the incident, and had done his best to make amends since.

Bourdillon made a formal complaint about Croucher’s conduct to Left Bank Pictures on 20 December 2019.

“The whole reason I went and told his boss is because I didn’t want it to happen again. I didn’t want it to happen to other people,” she said.

In her email, Bourdillon described being groped and forcibly kissed by Croucher, and him chasing her around the office space while masturbating. “I was so scared,” she wrote. “I wanted to cry … I was scared he was going to rape me.”

Both women feel that from the moment of this initial complaint, Left Bank executives acted to protect Croucher and minimise the severity of his criminal behaviour.

“Poor man, wow,” is how Johnston summarised Left Bank’s apparent response to the assaults. “One night has ruined his life.”

A spokesperson for Left Bank said the women’s claims about its handling of the matter were “inaccurate” and “completely mischaracterise the seriousness with which Left Bank Pictures took the complaint from the outset”.

The Guardian has reviewed Left Bank’s harassment and dignity at work policy, which states that any unwanted physical or verbal contact would be viewed as unacceptable conduct that would “result in a disciplinary investigation and may constitute gross misconduct, leading to summary dismissal.”

Despite the fact that Bourdillon told Left Bank that Croucher had sexually assaulted her during a company night out, the Guardian understands that he was not initially fired but instead allowed to resign with notice.

The Guardian has reviewed an email from Left Bank’s chief operating officer, Grace Wilson, confirming that Croucher handed in his notice on 24 December 2019.

“I really don’t think it is a case of him getting off lightly,” Wilson wrote in a separate email to both women.

Left Bank initially paid Croucher his salary during his notice period, and he was able to access the company’s private healthcare insurance during this time. By contrast, Bourdillon and Johnston, his victims, were at first directed to an employee support hotline.

At the request of both women, Left Bank subsequently paid for private therapy.

Johnston and Bourdillon say that a meeting on 7 January 2020 to discuss Bourdillon’s complaint with Left Bank’s co-founder Andy Harries, Wilson, and two additional members of post-production staff, whom the Guardian is choosing not to name, caused further distress.

“Andy starts the meeting by saying that Chris was an amazing producer,” Bourdillon said. She and Johnston allege that they were told that Left Bank had a “duty of care” towards Croucher.

They also say Wilson said words to the effect that if there was any good to come of the incident, it was that both women had learned a lesson about drinking with colleagues after work. Left Bank and Sony strongly deny any such comments were made.

Remembering the meeting, Johnston said: “It was a horrific atmosphere.”

Laura Johnston
Laura Johnston: ‘What they did was so wrong … I don’t think they realise the impact this has had on our lives.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Croucher was a senior and influential member of staff at Left Bank, and it did not take long for people to notice his absence.

“Everyone on the show was going ‘where’s Chris?’” Johnston said. “And I was thinking: what the hell do we tell people?”

On 8 January, Johnston emailed Wilson asking for permission to tell co-workers the real reason for Croucher’s absence.

“Further to our conversation about the party line regarding CC [Croucher] not being on the show we would be happy with the following,” Johnston wrote on behalf of herself and Bourdillon. “Due to inappropriate behaviour, Chris is no longer working on White Lines or for Left Bank.”

In response, Wilson wrote in an 8 January email: “We have looked into and discussed internally what would be deemed acceptable to explain the reason for Chris leaving, taking into account what we discussed yesterday.

“We agree with you that we do not need to say he has resigned but instead can say that he has left and/or is no longer working on the production and there does not need to be a further explanation for his leaving. If asked, we can say that we cannot comment further as to the reasons, but we would not go beyond that to refer to conduct or inappropriate behaviour.”

Wilson added: “I know that this might not be satisfactory, or what you wanted to hear.”

The women say that having to obfuscate the real reason for Croucher’s absence compounded their distress.

On 28 January, Johnston attended an additional dialogue recording session with actors from White Lines.

In this meeting, she says, she was continually asked about Croucher’s wellbeing, with cast members mistakenly believing that Croucher was off work due to sickness or difficulties in his personal life. Johnston alleges that one female actor told her she had been in contact with Croucher via text, in an apparent safeguarding failure.

Johnston was so upset at having to lie for Croucher, a man who had assaulted her, that she left the session early. “I felt so uncomfortable,” she said.

A Left Bank staffer who does not wish to be named told the Guardian that “it felt that Left Bank was protecting him [Croucher]. Everyone at the company was told that he left for personal reasons and jumped to the conclusion ‘poor Chris, hopefully he will be back soon’ … It very much felt that anyone who was senior or connected or friendly with those in senior positions were protected over the victims.”

Another person who worked for the company at the time of the incident told the Guardian that “Chris was someone who had worked with those guys for a while. There was a relationship there and they didn’t want to throw him to the wolves.” The person added: “I don’t know how they could have got it so wrong.”

Left Bank said: “Upon receiving the complaint, Mr Croucher was removed from the workplace and a full investigation began immediately. Following the findings of the investigation and further interviews with staff, he was summarily dismissed. At no time were the women who raised the concerns … asked or encouraged to lie.”

Both women feel that they were discouraged from contacting the police. In an email on 20 December, a Left Bank executive producer told them: “We take this very seriously and will be dealing with it internally.”

In a meeting with a female Sony Pictures HR executive on 7 February, Johnston alleges, she was told “woman to woman” that if she went to the police “it will be a stark lit room”, officers would ask her “intrusive questions” and it would not “be a nice experience”.

Johnston has provided the Guardian with screenshots of contemporaneous text messages sent in February 2020 in which she recounted this exchange to a co-worker.

Left Bank and Sony deny in the strongest possible terms that this exchange took place. Left Bank said: “At no time were the women who raised the concerns discouraged from reporting the events to the police.”

Both women felt unable to continue working at Left Bank and handed in their notices before their contracts were up. Left Bank paid them for the duration of their contracts, including the weeks they did not work.

On 17 February 2020, Bourdillon reported the assault to police. Around the time of this police complaint, after being notified of another allegation of sexual harassment from a female staffer, it is understood that Left Bank finally summarily terminated Croucher’s contract.

Even after firing Croucher, Left Bank and Sony appear not to have voluntarily cooperated with the Metropolitan police’s inquiries.

Police had to secure a production order in order to obtain vital documentation from Left Bank and Sony, including details of their investigation and Bourdillon’s initial complaint.

A production order is a court-ordered document that legally compels organisations to hand over relevant materials to police.

Left Bank and Sony did not deny that a production order was secured. However, in a statement to the Guardian they said this was normal practice owing to the sensitive and confidential nature of the documents requested by officers. They said the order was not contested and that they cooperated fully with the police throughout the case.

Left Bank also stated that it was “saddened to hear that Ms Bourdillon and Ms Johnston did not feel sufficiently supported by the company throughout this process, as the wellbeing of all our staff is of paramount importance to us. The welfare of both women was a priority for all those from the outset. However, these claims about the handling of this matter are inaccurate and completely mischaracterise the seriousness with which Left Bank Pictures took the complaint from the outset, as well as the great lengths the company went to in supporting the victims throughout.”

When contacted, Netflix declined to comment. Croucher did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The allegations against Left Bank come in the wake of a UK-wide reckoning about sexual harassment and assault in the film and TV industry, prompted by the Guardian’s investigation into alleged misconduct by the actor and producer Noel Clarke.

Further allegations of misconduct have been levelled at the Netflix producer Charlie Hanson and Dr Who actor John Barrowman, while Bafta has received public criticism after it emerged that the academy knew about the allegations against Clarke but awarded him a prestigious honour anyway.

In May, more than 2,000 members of the UK film and TV industry signed a letter decrying the “normalised” culture of sexism and harassment in the industry, and calling for “an end to this culture that turns a blind eye to predators and harassers operating in plain sight”.

In response, organisations including Time’s Up and Bafta have called for an industry-wide summit to improve the handling of sexual harassment, abuse, and bullying charges on set.

Johnston and Bourdillon initially contacted the Guardian in July 2020 but did not take the matter forward at the time due to their fragile mental health. They felt compelled to speak up publicly after witnessing the bravery of the Noel Clarke accusers in coming forward.

Johnston said: “Personally, for me and I think for Holly as well, there is no part of this that is malicious. And I will see these people around in my job, which obviously horrifies me. But what they did was so wrong and looking back I wish they had encouraged us to go to the police straight away. And I want people in similar situations to know that they should go to the police. I don’t think they realise the impact this has had on our lives.”

Johnston said she had spent most of the last year feeling angry at how Left Bank handled the matter. “I think they just thought of him the whole way through. They treated him as the victim and failed to acknowledge that he had committed multiple crimes that evening. It felt like they allowed him to save face professionally.”

Both women hope that in speaking out about their experiences, the UK film and TV industry will reflect on how better to protect women from sexually predatory men, and will be more aware that such complaints need to be handled with the utmost sensitivity if they are not to have a devastating impact on the women who complain.

“I want people to know the trauma we’ve been through,” said Bourdillon. “It’s only fair we use our voices and put that down, so people can read it.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Bafta-winning TV firm accused of mishandling sexual assault complaint | Television industry
Bafta-winning TV firm accused of mishandling sexual assault complaint | Television industry
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