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The departure of The Age’s editor-in-chief due to workplace impropriety highlights the ongoing hypocrisy of the media as moral arbiter. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Sexual harassment in the media

The story emerged as Australian journalists converged in Brisbane for their profession’s highest honours, the Walkleys. The editor-in-chief of The Age, a past recipient of the award, had flown into town to assume his seat. Mark Forbes had, two weeks previously, been internally accused of sexual harassment. Tonight, word was spreading that he had been sacked by the Fairfax board. While his seat remained conspicuously vacant, Forbes became the subject of rival journalists’ professional inquiries. And plenty of informal ones. Phone calls were made in lobbies; hushed confidences exchanged at tables. 

By morning, it was confirmed: Mark Forbes would offer his resignation. Two women had come forward. Both had complained of sexual harassment. One said she had been groped. The other had been told she looked “busty” at a work function – “not that I’m complaining”.

Forbes wrote an email to all staff: “The Age is one of Australia’s strongest journalistic institutions, and has campaigned strongly for social justice. We have been outspoken on the treatment of women, and harassment in any form.

“The Age demands the highest standards of behaviour from our leaders, in the community, business and politics. As EIC of The Age, I must uphold all the standards which we would expect in others.”

Jill Singer, a Walkley Award-winning print and television journalist, worked with Forbes at Channel Seven and the ABC. “I’ve socialised with him on many occasions,” she told me. “I like him. But there is clearly a side to Forbes that I have not seen, and I am surprised and disappointed that he has had to quit after behaving to women in a way he admits was wrong. For social change to be progressive, we need to know more about how employers are dealing with sexual harassment. Frustratingly, there has been little detail reported on the allegations that were serious enough to bring down an editor. Too many allegations of sexual harassment are still dealt with behind closed doors, with secret handshakes and payouts, with confidentiality clauses built in to protect corporate interests and personal reputations.” 

‘A dismal figure’

Tracey Spicer, national convener of Women in Media, a mentoring initiative run in conjunction with the Walkley Foundation. Earlier this year, the body released the findings of its survey of women working in the media. Half of the more than 1000 female respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. “It’s an extraordinary and dismal figure,” Spicer told me. “Sadly, we weren’t surprised by the rate of sexual harassment reported by women who’d worked in the industry for more than 25 years. After all, in the ’80s and ’90s, groping was commonplace in newsrooms.

“What surprised us was the level of intimidation, abuse and harassment reported by those who’d worked in the industry for five to 10 years. This ranged from ‘touching or pinching of arses’ to a serial offender being tolerated in a newsroom because ‘he’s a good journo’. Two-thirds said they wouldn’t speak out about it, for fear of losing their job. Several felt they had no choice but to leave the industry – an industry they otherwise loved.” 

Spicer herself has been subject to harassment – groped, bent over bars, told to “stick your tits out more” on her first night as a television newsreader. In 2007, Spicer’s former employer, the Ten Network, offered an out-of-court settlement after Spicer alleged she had been sacked because of her age and family commitments. Male indecency was a common theme in the stories female journalists and broadcasters told me this week. Claims also emerged of a senior Herald Sun editor resigning earlier this year amid complaints of sexual harassment.

Ducks on the pond

Jill Singer’s career has taken her to print, television and radio. She says harassment was commonplace. “I was presenting a soft current affairs program called People Dimensions when I did the unthinkable – I had my hair cut without seeking the producer’s permission,” Singer told me. “He went ballistic when he saw me – he hated women with short hair. I looked repulsive etc, etc. He maintained that management had ‘signed off’ on how I would look – which was a load of bollocks.

“He also went into a fury with me for refusing to present a program wearing my bathers. He’d seen a pair of bikinis hanging to dry in my car and knew I liked swimming, so what was the problem? Others also complained about this producer, to no avail. I heard back on the grapevine our complaints were dismissed as ‘personality differences’. We were on short-term contracts. They were not renewed. I’ve always tried to deal with sexism directly, but there were times that left me speechless.”

Wendy Harmer has had a long and varied career as journalist, author and stand-up comic. She is currently the presenter of ABC Sydney’s morning radio program. Harmer’s career began as a cadet at the Geelong Advertiser in 1975, where she became the first or second woman ever employed in the newsroom. The paper was founded in 1840. “You’ve heard of the saying ‘ducks on the pond’? It comes from when hunters gathered around a lake and when they saw the ducks coming, they’d whisper ‘ducks on pond’ and that was the signal for everyone to be quiet. So the code in the newsroom when I entered was to make quacking noises. It meant all the guys should shut the fuck up and stop the blokey banter. There’d be this quacking and the room would go silent. I was 20.”

Harmer left the newsroom after the chief of staff – who was her former journalism lecturer at university, the man who had offered her the cadetship – began making sexual advances. “I felt entirely compromised. The newsroom was awkward after that. And I left. In fact, I left journalism for a while.” 

But Harmer would return to the profession. When she did, the behaviour she experienced was even worse. One night, in the restaurant of an expensive hotel, a senior journalist followed her to the toilet, pushed her against a wall and roughly shoved his hands down her blouse, pawing her breasts. “C’mon, you’re a journalist, you should be used to it,” he said to her. “I was later told this person was a columnist because management couldn’t have him in the office. His behaviour was notorious.” She was far from his only victim.

A blokey cabal

In June this year, Collingwood Football Club president and ubiquitous media presence Eddie McGuire apologised after joking on Triple M radio about drowning The Age’s chief football writer, Caroline Wilson. Boorish but ultimately harmless to some, it was an echo of ducks on the pond for others – of a blokey cabal, so enduring and self-assured that their obnoxiousness had become thoroughly internalised. Witless insularity provides the grammar of McGuire’s radio show, but there were women watching who recalled days of being the lone female cadet on the floor, who had been told to expect lechery as the gross cost of fulfilling their dream. 

McGuire wasn’t being malicious. He was just oblivious to the quacking. 

A culture of hypocrisy

All of the women I spoke with this week agreed that the culture of newsrooms and TV studios was healthier, though each suggested varying grades of improvement. Those of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were described as loose, boozy and hyper-masculine. Excess was a currency. Some made a distinction between the “commercials” and the ABC. Others said harassment was just as bad at the public broadcaster. “There was much of the blokey journo culture I admit I found alluring,” Singer said. “The hard-working, hard-drinking and hard-playing game suited me. It wouldn’t now that I don’t drink. I think grog is playing a decreasing role in journalism culture, which can only be a good thing in my view – but there’ll always be the inevitable awards nights etc, where risks are taken and reputations damaged.”

Harmer is frustrated by some of our conversations about sexual harassment, conversations that refuse to distinguish between grades of behaviour and that also, she feels, “infantilise” women. “We must distinguish between consenting shenanigans and real abuses of power,” Harmer says. “I don’t like the idea of these so-called ‘micro-aggressions’ in the workplace, the policing of ‘tone’ and all that. These kind of conversations often deprive women of agency. This is why I liked Garner’s book The First Stone so much, I think.”

Helen Garner’s book, published in 1995, generated what the author told me was “nervous breakdown-producing savagery”. A work of nonfiction, it scrutinised the story of a young legal student at Melbourne University who made an allegation of sexual harassment against a campus master. Other women came forward. He was charged with assault and resigned from his role. But Garner wondered about what she called “the ghastly punitiveness” of the women. Was there not another way? 

Harmer tells me the story of an ABC broadcaster who was renowned as a serial creep. One day, as he entered a lift alone, 10 women – each of them previously subject to his lechery – swarmed in and joined him. They had worked in concert, and were now commandeering the lift – riding it up and down as each gave the man a rough character assessment. “And he never acted out again,” Harmer tells me. 

I relay this to Garner. She laughs. “I love that story,” she says. “See, that’s my ideal response because it proceeds from a position of solidarity.”  

This week, Mark Forbes took a lift ride of his own. Only in the past fortnight, Fairfax Media had published a special investigation into sexual harassment in the workplace. Alongside the stories of women were solemn editorials about the devil of gender discrimination and harassment. They were important pieces, but they contrasted jarringly with the Forbes resignation. Newsrooms explore, expose and condemn the crooked behaviours of the powerful – there’s no doubt Forbes would have offered similarly lofty defences of his profession in the past – but too often they do so from a place of hypocrisy. On the treatment of women, that is certainly true.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Advances and retreats". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.