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Sarah Vaughan: Stalking nightmare of local MP was novel inspiration

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Living with a stalker, feeling unsafe at home and at work, having a panic button installed in your office - this is the reality for many women MPs today.

And imagining the challenge of dealing with that every day was the inspiration for best-selling Cambridgeshire novelist Sarah Vaughan’s new book, Reputation.

She started thinking of this latest story after reading an interview with Labour MP Jess Philips, who described installing multiple locks on her door after receiving terrifying messages.

Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451581)
Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451581)

At the same time, Sarah’s own South Cambridgeshire MP, Heidi Allen, became a victim of death threats and suddenly events brought the story close to home.

Sarah said: “Heidi was incredibly helpful. I met her on a Friday when she was having a constituency surgery so I could see her in action and I could see how engaged she was with people. But it was a real eye-opener discovering quite what she'd experienced.”

Those experiences included being called a “traitor” over her pro-Remain views, threatened with Novichok poisoning, and having a photograph of her house put on Facebook by a man claiming he was buying a rope to use on the scaffold outside her home.

Former South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen.
Former South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen.

Ms Allen served as the MP for South Cambridgeshire from 2015 to 2019. When she left the Conservative Party to challenge their stance on Brexit and helped to create the Change UK party, Ms Allen says she and other women MPs who joined her received a torrent of abuse.

Sarah said of her research with the MP: “She was seen as a young, attractive, outspoken, vivacious MP who spoke from the heart about so many things and I think it's really tragic that she was knocked down like this. She was so strong. I mean the idea that somebody in your village would be putting a photograph on Facebook and saying,‘Here’s the scaffolding, I’ve got the rope’, is horrifying.

Sarah Vaughan's new book, Reputation. (55451579)
Sarah Vaughan's new book, Reputation. (55451579)

“It was a level of threat that actually made me feel quite weird. You know, living in a Cambridgeshire village feels quite benign until you know that there could be people who are harbouring thoughts like that. It’s quite frightening.”

Sarah discovered that Heidi had also endured “loads of abuse on Twitter” when she spoke out about food banks or violence against women. “It was just completely shocking. She wasn’t the only MP I spoke to but obviously, because she was my local one, she was a brilliant place to start. And I’m incredibly grateful for what she conveyed.”

Taking on board the experiences of female politicians like Heidi, Jess Phillips, Anna Soubry and Luciana Berger, Sarah started to think about how a character in her story would act if they had to live under such conditions.

Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451574)
Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451574)

“What sparked the idea for me was an interview in March 2019 with Jess Philips in The Times. It was a feature in which she talked about having nine locks on her front door and a panic alarm by her bed. And I think she also had a panic room in her constituency,” she says.

“I just thought, what must it be like to live under that level of threat? How on Earth can you think clearly? I wondered how it would make you behave if you were living with that kind of jeopardy all the time.

“With social media, these women MPs are getting threats through trolling - Jess Phillips was experiencing that, Anna Soubry was experiencing a lot through Brexit and Luciana Berger had been experiencing a lot of anti-Semitic abuse. And of course, Heidi had been threatened as well. If you look up any one of these MPs and see at the comments that are made about them, you can instantly see the tirade of abuse they experience and physical threats in the form of letters and things that are sent to constituency offices.”

Reading about these daily threats in the news, Sarah realised that she didn’t have to follow the usual trope of the modern psychological thriller - an untrustworthy husband. Instead, the threat could come from anywhere if you were an MP.

Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451577)
Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451577)

“We're so used to psychological thrillers where a woman is gaslit by her husband but I thought actually you don’t need you don’t need a gaslighting husband [for a gripping story] if you’re in a position in which you’re suddenly exposed,” she points out.

“I expanded on that and wondered what it would be like for my character to get an abusive text that had been sent to her private mobile number. And then what would happen if she thought she was being stalked? So there was lots of jeopardy that I threw at my poor MP character, and I probably have only created a tiny percentage of the level of threat they’re really under.”

MP Jo Cox had already been murdered when Sarah wrote the book, but it was before Sir David Amiss was stabbed in his constituency office.

Sarah’s new novel Reputation, a hotly anticipated legal drama, tells the story of Emma Webster, a respectable MP and devoted mother, who has been charged with the murder of a tabloid journalist who was sniffing around her life.

“I don’t want any book to be didactic,” says Sarah. “You write a book to try and move people and make them think and entertain them. But I suppose my last three novels have been all about power and judgment, reputation, control and misogyny.

“I’m not so cynical as to believe that MPs are all out for themselves. I do think an MP like Heidi Allen and these other women are actually motivated by a desire to do some public good, and that social media in particular, has given critics anonymity which enables them to be vicious. It also gives them an accessibility that when I started out in my career as a journalist back in 1996, you just didn’t have that access to people. You would have to write them a letter or we’d fax them a letter,whereas social media means that you can instantly tweet your MP.”

Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451570)
Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451570)

As a former national newspaper journalist, including a stint at Westminster, Sarah has plenty of insight into the world she is portraying. In the new book, MP Emma is acting to protect her own reputation and that of her daughter when she is accused of murdering the journalist, who falls down her stairs. The ensuing court case lifts the lid on the experiences of female MPs and the effect that bullying on social media can have on teenagers.

“Emma’s 14-year-old daughter Flora is being bullied by frenemies through some social media. She makes a stupid mistake, which obviously has a really catastrophic impact in the book. And I wanted to parallel what Emma was experiencing because as a parent of teenagers - although mine have not been through anything like Flora - I think you have to be blind not to be aware of what could happen.”

Sarah’s last novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, has been made into a major Netflix series which will be coming out in April. It is about a high-profile political marriage that begins to unravel when the husband is accused of a terrible crime and leaves Westminster shocked. Sophie is sure her husband, James, is innocent and desperately hopes to protect her precious family from the lies which might ruin them. Kate is the barrister who will prosecute the case - she is equally certain that James is guilty and determined he will pay for his crimes.

The new Netflix series stars Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend and Michelle Dockery.

Sarah says: “It’s been really life-changing having my book adapted by Netflix. Anatomy has sold now to 24 countries and was an instant bestseller. I sort of still feel like a complete imposter but actually it being filmed and going on set and seeing the call sheets each day and realising that 200 people throughout the pandemic were working on my something I created that finally made me think OK, maybe I’m a writer then. I mean, that sounds a bit disingenuous. I’m very proud of the book - it’s very validating.”

Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451572)
Sarah Vaughan, author of Reputation and Anatomy of a Scandal. (55451572)

The director SJ Clarkson, who has also worked on Jessica Jones, Collateral and Succession, has done “the most wonderful job” says Sarah and the series looks “very film noir”.

She is delighted the director has understood her intention with the book of making the scandal not about the alleged rape but about entitlement.

Sarah explains: “It’s a whole exploration of how these figures who are part of this political and social elite have managed to get away with things. And I hope a that the show prompts questions about consent, without wanting to be heavy.

“It’s meant to entertain but after we’d watched the first four episodes, we went for dinner with the director and Netflix executives and we just kept debating about what the audience is going to think at the point at which we’d stopped watching it. I thought that’s absolutely brilliant. This is what we want viewers to be doing.

“If it makes somebody rethink some of their past behaviour or their present behaviour, then that’s brilliant, isn’t it? I also think that it’s going to resonate, because it’s so timely. I sold it a year before the Harvey Weinstein allegations came out.

It was partly inspired by my interviewing Boris Johnson back in 2004 about an affair he had with Petronella Wyatt. I wouldn’t say it really hindered his career.

“It came out in 2018 but the behaviour of current politicians means the idea that entitlement threads through our political elites and our politics is just as apparent, if not more so. I mean, Partygate is the best example of it.”

In the book there is a charismatic government minister who is accused of raping a Parliamentary researcher, with whom he has been having an affair, in a lift in the House of Commons. There is also a back story in Oxford.

Sarah says: “I was a student in Oxford in the 90s. And there’s a club called The Libertines in the show which, of course, is very much based on the Bullingdon Club, and there are scenes where they smash up a restaurant and then there are also couple of very dark secrets from that time that are still affecting James, who is the home office minister accused of rape. His best mate is called Tom and he goes on to be Prime Minister. The pair of them talk about the omerta of The Libertines, meaning they will protect each other from their secrets in the past.”

When she wrote the book, Sarah says an interview she carried out with Boris Johnson during her journalism career gave her ideas for some of the story.

She explains: “It was partly inspired by my interviewing Boris Johnson back in 2004 about an affair he had with Petronella Wyatt. I wouldn’t say it really hindered his career. I do think there’s still a double standard in society. And women are viewed more harshly if they transgress in some way.”

She adds: “I just think, as you can see from the reaction on social media whenever a female MP is outspoken, we have higher standards and harsher expectations of women in public life and in every area of life than men.”

  • Reputation by Sarah Vaughan is published by Simon and Schuster, priced £14.99.

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