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Airing abuse allegations serves public interest



Tales of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace are not new. However, during 2017 allegations about inappropriate and harmful sexual behaviours in the entertainment industry became increasingly visible through both social media and mainstream outlets.

Craig McLachlanIn the US, the #metoo movement gained momentum, and the previously secret 'shitty men in media' list was released into the wild. This culminated in Oprah Winfrey's powerful speech at the Golden Globes, declaring that a 'new day is on the horizon' for women.

The Australian media and entertainment industry has not been immune. Tracey Spicer has led investigation into allegations of media workplace harassment, and collaborations between ABC and Fairfax Media have revealed multiple allegations against two leading entertainers, Don Burke and Craig McLachlan, both of whom have strenuously defended themselves in the media.

The question of power in sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault, is not limited to the entertainment industry but exists in every sphere of society — media and entertainment is simply the case study du jour.

Response to the allegations has been mixed, if not predictable. Many (both women and men) have been emboldened by the publicity to come forward and to tell their own stories. Women in particular have expressed relief at the disclosure of behaviours so many women suffer routinely in almost any context — an experience of the entitlement of those in powerful positions to demand sexual attention for their own gratification, and without consent.

By contrast, many claim that it is inappropriate for media to report these stories when they should properly be brought to the police to be dealt with by the law. The tenor of this argument is that these stories overturn the presumption of innocence as the central principle of justice.

Such 'justice arguments' suggest that without due process, false claims might be made. They claim that the men charged with the allegations stand to lose everything, without even the chance of defending themselves. Indeed, McLachlan has already stood down from Adelaide performances of the Rocky Horror Show.


"The pervasiveness of the problem shifts the issue from one affecting the individual, to something in the public interest."


As a lawyer, I understand such arguments. The concept of justice at law depends upon systems that are designed to weigh evidence, affording the parties the opportunity to tell their stories according to well-established rules. But what if these systems are inadequate to expose the abuses of power evident in the recent disclosures?

Many of the women making the allegations have indeed reported the offending behaviour to the police, if a criminal matter, or to those in positions of authority in their workplace. Frequently however, women have been disbelieved, ignored, or discouraged from taking further action. In some cases, they have been sacked. This indicates that we cannot assume a system of justice applies in relation to complaints about sexual intimidation, harassment, or assault in the workplace.

Further, while the alleged offenders suffer various consequences from the allegations aired, those making these allegations likewise have a lot at stake, including their personal safety. Many have been exposed to violent threats and intimidation since coming forward. These high stakes are part of the structures that enforce silence about sexual harassment.

On a more technical level, the presumption of innocence is a concept of criminal law, supported by the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Not all the allegations aired will involve criminal offences. Most involve inappropriate workplace behaviour resulting in discomfort, distress, and fear, in some cases with long-term mental health consequences. These arguably arise from a toxic workplace, to which the offending behaviour contributes, and which is not reined in by management.

In the context of the current crop of allegations, rather than attempting to replace a criminal trial, we are seeing the results of careful investigative journalism to reveal the extent of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Notably, it is through multiple accounts of similar behaviour that the story carries weight. Journalism is serving the public — applying professional standards of weighing claims, to reveal matters of public interest that would otherwise remain hidden.

The nature of the complaints coming to light highlights that the entertainment industry privileges the star-power of top performers, and that this power is deployed by the stars both through their initial behaviour, and subsequently to silence nameless co-workers. Disturbingly, it is the pervasiveness of the problem that shifts the issue from one affecting the individual, to something in the public interest. The increasing momentum of disclosures represents a backlash by those who suffer sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, against a self-reinforcing system.

Ideally, systems would change to afford a more dignified and systematic approach to resolving abuses of power and resulting sexual harassment. In the meantime, it is important to understand that the stories of harassment and intimidation belong to those who have experienced the harassment. Citing the 'justice argument', particularly when there is no real alternative for these stories to be heard, is an attempt to deny the story-teller the chance to express what is theirs in an attempt to change the system. Denying this simply reinforces the structures of power at the heart of the problem.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, sexual harassment, Harvey Weinstein, Craig McLachlan, Don Burke, #metoo



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Existing comments


Roy Chen Yee | 15 January 2018  

In the reluctance of victims to report abuse and the fear of the personal consequences of challenging those in positions of power, the abuse of adult women in positions of dependence (employment career, celebrity etc) bears a remarkable resemblance to what has been revealed by the Commission investigating institutional child abuse. In both instances, innocence of both types, unsophisticated and guiltless, appears also to be a victim. While the children were not believed, the adults are. Why? Perhaps the media and commentators also have much to answer for in their frenzied search for sensationalism. Not suggesting that what you have written today is in that category, Kate Galloway!

john frawley | 16 January 2018  

Both Don Burke and Craig McLachlan have been shamed publicly for their abhorrent behaviour. Multiple victims have attested to their wrong-doing. So many women have experienced this sort of male dominance and have suffered doubly through the initial experience and then, if complaining through official channels, facing a situation of "she said, he said". In reporting these inappropriate behaviours, newspapers need to be careful not to sensationalise what is essentially a difficult personal experience. Most women want the behaviour to stop and for the perpetrator to acknowledge their wrong-doing and to acknowledge the trauma caused. The healing of both parties is not helped, though, if the perpetrator's life is ruined by sensationalist public muck-raking.

Pam | 16 January 2018  

@ john frawley | 16 January 2018: "While the children were not believed, the adults are. Why?" Sorry, John, just can;t let that one go. But in another way you are right. We are believing the victims of the entertainment industry perhaps because we expected such behaviour all along. However, regarding children telling - yes, at first we didn't believe them but now, well, I suspect most would. Never the less, (yes, here it comes) there is a group in the Church that is not really being 'believed' - the victims/survivors of adult clergy misconduct. Some are (in secret) believed, but there is no public outcry or public acclamation by the Church (in Australia at least) that clergy sexual misconduct against adults is just not acceptable. Why dont't we believe these adults? Is it because we really don;t think anything to untoward is happening, or is it that, as with child abuse against children, at first, we just cannot believe adult abuse is possible. Well, it is, and you'd be horrified to learn how some of the brave ones who reported to the church, have been treated, even if they were just whistle-blowers. Time for a change!

Stephen de Weger (catholicmetoo.com) | 16 January 2018  

Thank you for this article ... I'm with you on this Pam.

Mary Tehan | 16 January 2018  

The other side of this issue has been discussed best, to my way of thinking, by Heather MacDonald in New York's City Journal - see her article in latest issue, on "Policing Sexual Desire". However the problem of conviction by allegation is far wider than is visible in this debate. There is much else I would like to say, but can't tackle in less than 200 words. Perhaps you could access the wider domain by checking out the prosecutions that are conducted by global animal welfare organisations, that bear a striking set of resemblances to the original 16th and 17th Century witch hunts and trials. This is a far more pressing evil within the legal systems of 'liberal western democracies" than the more eye-catching accusations of 'inappropriate sexual behaviour'

Glynne Sutcliffe | 16 January 2018  

As a young man I was wrongly accused of stealing some money from a fellow camper. A "witness" saw me do it. What he did not know was that I was borrowing toothpaste with the owners permission and not robbing from other gear. I was not named but later in the year the same "alleged" thief was accused of stealing money from our club rooms. And the chairman said he knew who it was and described a conversation he had with me a week prior. I was shocked and approached a friend and said I was shocked that he thought I was the thief. I could not convince anyone that I just borrowing toothpaste because he no longer lived in my hometown. It was my word against the the "dobber's" word. I was never able to convince anyone that I was not the thief. The effect it had on me emotionally for a large part of my life was amazing and I finally had to get therapy. I stood beside the grave of the chairman and said, "Now you know. It was not me."

John Morris | 16 January 2018  

Agree about the final desired equity/fairness and proper use of power. But you have to be careful that the end does not justify the means. many in the legal system are accountable more so than journalists. And if it is a systemic problem there is no use selecting out one group or person. For my money I would be wanting to look at much of the neanderthal management practices in Australia and the purveyors of MBAs and places like the Australian Institute of Management. It is the abuse of power which is the problem in management as in child abuse. And does anyone look at the abuse of power in a political party?

Michael D. Breen | 17 January 2018  

While sexual harassment/ assault and similar actions performed without consent are abhorrent, it seems that there are difficulties to be overcome in regard to presumption of innocence supported by the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, when such actions are usually conducted between two people. Providing "evidence" may be the stumbling block to a successful outcome of cases that are brought to justice.

Rosemary | 17 January 2018  

If victims of power abuse were able to enter litigation - civil or criminal - on a level playing field with their abusers and enablers, perhaps we would not need the invaluable assistance of responsible media to reveal, highlight, and question imbalance of power and its insufferable lifetime consequences for those on the receiving end of its abuse. Sadly, at present this is not the case as Kate mentions. It was hard enough pre 1979, it became even harder after that. Those who would criticise the media might take a thorough look at the current state of play in which litigants have to operate. It's a near impossible task and needs to change. Meanwhile media can alert the community to the consequences of power abuse and often, very satisfactory results for victims follow. Good article Kate.

Jennifer Herrick | 17 January 2018  

Just in case everyone thinks that victims/survivors are getting it all their own way a bit too much, here's a statistic that we all need to be aware of to balance out this issue: According to an Australian study (Fileborn 2011): approximately 85% of sexual assaults never come to the attention of the criminal justice system (…). Of those offences that are reported, only a small proportion proceed to trial, with an even smaller percentage of these cases resulting in a successful conviction”. There are many social and personal reasons for this lack of justice. I do cringe about and pitchfork and spade approach to justice and also believe that we absolutely must maintain the innocent until proven guilty principle, but, yo know, it does work the other way around: Too many women (and men) have historically been seen as guilty (victim-blaming) in sexual crimes leading to the statistic above, and offenders have gotten away with their crimes and gone on to commit more. Mostly this is due to the secret nature of such offences and the ability to 'prove' or disprove' them. In one sense the #metoo phenomenon is a swing of the pendulum.

Stephen de Weger (catholicmetoo.com) | 18 January 2018  

Evidence has to be tested: accusation is insufficient, even if from multiple independent sources. Establishment of an accessible non-adversarial forum to determine allegations of this misconduct is far preferable to lynch mob rules. Then let a suitable sanction be imposed with confidence and right.

Bernie | 18 January 2018  

I am concerned that people have been dismissed from their jobs without having been convicted of an offence in a court of law.Since their behaviour,if as alleged ,is deplorable, they should be suspended from employment while the police investigate if a criminal charge should be made. Trial by media endangers our system of justice and opens the way for innuendo and false accusations .

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 18 January 2018  

How about we leave the shaming until due justice is done through our legal system? It's consequently been revealed in the media that there's no evidence for the alleged sexual harassment by Craig McLachlan. When I did legal studies in high school we were taught someone is innocent until proven guilty. Has this changed? May I remind readers that our own Cardinal George Pell is also facing sexual abuses charges/allegations.

AURELIUS | 01 February 2018  

Is Kate Galloway or anyone going to address how airing false abuse allegations serves the public interest? What happens when someone is wrongly defamed? Is ES prepared to cop the legal ramifications if Craig McLachlan wins his defamation case against Fairfax and the ABC?

AURELIUS | 14 February 2018  

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