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Eight months after calling for stories of sexual misconduct in the Australian arts and media, the author details her involvement in establishing the world’s first workplace harassment inquiry. By Tracey Spicer.

Tracey Spicer: Starting the first Me Too inquiry

My Twitter inbox is burgeoning with horror: rape, digital penetration, poking, groping, grabbing.

It’s mid October 2017, just days after sending a tweet asking for stories about two serial offenders in the media sector, and I’m sitting at my home computer, submerged in messages from women. They finally are free, it seems, to share their experiences, which involve so many stars in the entertainment firmament.

I feel a flood of tears rising. How can one freelance journalist do justice to this tsunami of information, which has for several decades been kept in the shadows?

It is simply too much.

One message leaps out though: ABC reporter Lorna Knowles offers the support of the best investigative team in the country. But scrolling through the endless messages, I know even that is not enough. I suggest also working with The Sydney Morning Herald.

A week later, I have my first meeting with the Herald’s editor, Lisa Davies, in the boardroom of Fairfax Media’s Sydney headquarters. Outside, late spring sun is stippling Darling Harbour.

Unbeknown to Davies, two of the dozens of men who have been named are based at this workplace. I decide to drop my “good girl” persona and set parameters for the project.

“I need an assurance you’ll cover these stories, regardless of whether the person named is someone at Fairfax,” I say. “And it must be nonpartisan. We should cover every story. Doesn’t matter whether the guy is of the left or right.”

There’s an almost imperceptible pause before Davies replies. “Of course,” she says. “That’s what we’re all about. Independent, always.”

Later, I pass the dossier I’ve collated around the 10-strong team, including investigative reporter Kate McClymont. “Oh, shit,” one of the reporters says under his breath. “Yep,” I reply. “And more.”

Tasks are assigned, and we begin making calls. I fill the shared online folders with incoming allegations.

There is a clear workflow, beginning with Don Burke and Craig McLachlan. A dozen other alleged offenders are on a waitlist, depending on resources.

When the Burke story breaks, it lights the tinder: hundreds more women come forward.

The shame and fear felt by victims and survivors of sexual harassment is transferred to the powerbrokers who did too little, for too long.

But by mid December, I see tumbleweeds.

Don denies any wrongdoing. Nine execs run for cover. And the Herald moves from #MeToo to #MeNoMore.

The defamation action filed against The Daily Telegraph by the actor Geoffrey Rush douses the flames. Newsrooms grow nervous, already under pressure due to reduced profits.

I phone a friend, a long-time Herald employee.

“It’s the perfect storm,” she says. “Australia has some of the toughest defamation laws in the world. We don’t have US-style protections for free speech. And I’ve heard you’re getting too close to those at the top.”

“Who? Politicians?” I ask.

“No,” she replies. “A couple of senior people at Fairfax.”

(The Saturday Paper is not suggesting Lisa Davies did not pursue the story because it involved identifying Fairfax employees. Davies said on Friday: “The Herald’s investigative unit remains open to investigating any substantial allegations of sexual misconduct. The work done thus far, with Tracey Spicer and the ABC, has elicited significant results and hopefully we will do more together in the future.”) 

 

While there is no evidence of a cover-up, I’m worried the antipodean #MeToo will be stymied because of the concentration of media power in a small number of hands. As former New South Wales premier Jack Lang was wont to say, “In the race of life, always back self-interest.”

Despite one in two women experiencing sexual harassment during her lifetime, this movement seems to have been conscripted into the culture wars. This poses a significant threat to progress.

My Twitter feed is filled with phrases such as “green-left-feminazi”, “man-hating witch-hunt” and the ubiquitous #NotAllMen.

Then, the backlash enters my own lounge room, courtesy of my centre-right husband.

“Don Burke: we all knew he was a grub. But most of the blokes I talk to don’t know what #MeToo is all about, and think it’s some leftie conspiracy,” he says after a couple of beers. “How are you going to convince those blokes that this is a huge issue, in all workplaces?”

With all of this in mind, I pick up the phone and call Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

“It’s incredible,” she says, as talk turns to Burke and Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I reckon this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” I reply. “To make real change. To tackle the systemic causes of sexual harassment. You could really make your mark by getting up some kind of national inquiry.”

“Actually, this is something I could do within my remit,” she says, “but we need to find funding.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” I say, adding that the ministers responsible may enjoy the fact that in announcing such an inquiry they would be leading the world. Then I hang up.

The timing is ideal: Jenkins is about to go on an overseas work trip with the minister for revenue and financial services and minister for women, Kelly O’Dwyer.

Meanwhile, I approach media on the left, right and centre to build a coalition of coverage. A greater variety of outlets means a story is less likely to be spiked due to vested interests or limited resources.

In one case, I combine my material with that of a News Corp reporter, investigating an executive at a radio station in regional South Australia. In another, I connect the editor of a music magazine with a journalist at Guardian Australia, to share information about a long-term problem in the Perth performing arts scene.

Still, it’s not enough. Jenkins calls me in January. “When are the next stories coming out?” she asks. “It would be good to keep up the momentum.”

“I’m trying my best,” I say. “But our defamation laws are so restrictive. They effectively act to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. I’ll keep you posted.”

It is around this time that I also start to worry our heads are stuck firmly up our arses.

Where is the experience of workers on the factory floor? The cleaners, shop assistants and hospitality workers? Or marginalised communities, including women of colour, those who are LGBTQI, people with a disability?

The media both reflects and shapes society. It is a stain upon our industry – and a criminal omission from the first draft of history – if we fail to tell these stories.

In January 2018, after Time’s Up launches in the United States, I fervently hope for a franchise in Australia.

Weeks later I think, “Fuck it. I’ll just bloody well do it.”

I set out to create a nonpartisan, non-profit organisation – inclusive at its inception – to connect those in our lowest-paid sectors with legal and counselling support.

What has emerged is NOW Australia, a coalition of unlikely bedfellows, including a long-time fundraiser for the Liberal Party, several staunch union delegates, a former spin doctor for the Labor Party, and a mover-and-shaker in the Nats. Our hardworking co-founders on the board and steering committee are of one mind: this movement cannot remain in echo chambers. If we keep whispering inside ideological silos, no one else will hear.

To be completely candid, developing diversity of culture, race, religion, ability and sexuality within our steering committee and board has been nowhere near as challenging as creating omni-partisanship politically.

We decide to turn down monetary offers from state governments, unions and business lobby groups, opting instead for a crowdfunding campaign to show there’s a grassroots desire for change. This puts the issue on the long-term political agenda, regardless of who is in power.

Still, these are complex conversations to have with powerbrokers, particularly those in a conservative government.

 

The chair of Our Watch, Natasha Stott Despoja, calls to say Communications Minister Mitch Fifield wants to have a chat. “He’s a good bloke, and wants to understand the issues,” she says.

As the father of a teenage daughter, the minister is acutely aware of what’s at stake.

We talk for an hour in his office in Sydney. He suggests I meet the head of Screen Australia, Fiona Cameron, who is wielding a very big stick. Cameron’s code of conduct designates a staff member as the sexual harassment prevention contact in every production. If the code is breached, the government can refuse further funding.

Kelly O’Dwyer’s message is also about money. When we finally meet to discuss NOW, after a month of trying, the former banking executive and corporate lawyer cuts to the chase: “Show me the numbers.”

While lobbyists of the left resile from the language of economic rationalism often used by the right, I realise this kind of pragmatic approach can depoliticise some of the divisive issues surrounding the movement.

I promise to send a copy of NOW’s business plan, while broadening the discussion to structural change.

“You’re in safe hands,” the minister replies. “I put enormous trust in our Sex Discrimination Commissioner.”

It occurs to me both women worked as lawyers at Freehills in the same era.

I call Jenkins to update her on these conversations. She says she almost has funding, but it’s not until weeks later, as I’m unpacking boxes after moving house, that I receive the text: “We finally got there!” Jenkins writes. “Thank you for your advocacy. You know more than anyone how much work this has taken.”

 

In last week’s press conference announcing the world-first national inquiry, O’Dwyer and Jenkins pointed out the economic cost of sexual harassment to women, many of whom are forced out of the workplace.

What is unspoken is the potential cost to both business and the government as victims and survivors continue to speak out and – importantly – take action.

The inquiry’s terms of reference are refreshingly broad, including a commitment to look at the current legal framework.

At a roundtable held several months ago, through NOW Australia, lawyers were concerned about the civil statute of limitations and caps on payouts.

But the ultimate aim of NOW is the cultural change that underpins transformative social movements.

To do this, the organisation must speak truth to power, ensuring the inquiry is robust, and the government of the day acts on its recommendations.

With this week’s appointment of interim executive director Kristine Ziwica to drive NOW’s daily activities and formulate a response to the inquiry, I can step back and look through a wide lens at the trajectory of #MeToo in Australia over the past eight months.

Living in one of the country’s most conservative electorates, I always brace myself for a barrage of questions. “So who are you writing about next week?” “There you are, you little ratbag, shaking up the system!” “I don’t know why you put yourself through it, with the trolls and all. Why not just retire and spend time with the family?”

Interestingly, the commentary has changed in recent weeks.

I’m in Officeworks shopping for a new desk with plenty of drawers to store my almost 2000 disclosures.

One of the staff – a man of Anglo appearance, aged in his 60s – walks up to me. “Thank you,” he says. “I was thrilled to hear about the inquiry. I have two daughters and I wish I knew then what I know now. They went through hell and I had no idea. It’s good the government’s doing something, after all this time.”

The greatest risk to #MeToo is it becomes enmeshed in the culture wars. If we can avoid this, it could be emblematic of a new radical centre.

 

Fairfax responds:

Few publications have done more to expose wrongdoing in the wake of the global #MeToo movement than The Sydney Morning Herald. Together with the ABC, the Herald uncovered decades of sexual misbehaviour by television star Don Burke, as well as multiple serious allegations about actor Craig McLachlan. These stories aren’t easy to do. They require genuine bravery from the women involved who take significant legal and reputational risk by making their stories of abuse public. They also require meticulous research and rigorous fact-checking by the media outlets prepared to publish their stories. In this context it was disappointing to read claims from Tracey Spicer in The Saturday Paper (“Starting the first Me Too inquiry”, June 30–July 6) that suggest somehow the Herald could have done more. Spicer’s article included an accusation that we ignored allegations about misconduct at our own workplace. We reject that emphatically. Spicer’s piece contains a number of inaccuracies. For example, we have never had a meeting in the Fairfax boardroom, and three other senior Herald editors were present at our first discussion; Kate McClymont was not. Spicer’s recollection of our conversations (of which she did not take notes) is also selective. But it is the substance of the article that is most concerning. Allegations about hundreds of individuals have been made in the past 10 months. During the course of the Herald’s work with Spicer, we were made aware of two individuals with editorial links to Fairfax. However, Spicer has never disclosed any specifics of the allegations she had received, nor provided any detail that could lead us to make further inquiries. It was made absolutely clear to Spicer by both Fairfax Media and ABC journalists that we would pursue any allegations if there was any evidence supporting the claims. To suggest otherwise insults our journalistic integrity. The work required to verify and establish allegations of this kind is intense, risky and requires time and effort. That’s why one of Australia’s premiere investigative journalists, Kate McClymont, was involved for the Herald. A number of stories have not been published because they failed to meet the necessarily high legal and fairness standards. Ms Spicer has done a great job as an advocate of the #MeToo cause but her piece misunderstands the fact the Herald is bound by those standards when investigating misconduct allegations of any kind. We continue to take the issue of workplace sexual harassment very seriously and Kate has a number of investigations ongoing. It was a failure of Ms Spicer and The Saturday Paper not to raise the specific allegations that were ultimately published with me or anyone else at Fairfax prior to publication.

– Lisa Davies, editor, The Sydney Morning Herald

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Tracey Spicer: Starting the first Me Too inquiry". Subscribe here.

Tracey Spicer
is the author of The Good Girl Stripped Bare and a co-founder of NOW Australia.