Will Aussie radio have its #metoo moment?
Content Warning: This article covers sexual assault & harassment and may be triggering for some readers. If you or someone you know are affected by the following story, you are not alone. To speak to someone, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
With the Australian music industry making noise this week about sexual harassment and assault within its ranks, is it time the drum beat gets a bit louder for Australian radio’s reckoning? Here, Vivienne Kelly Radio Today’s editor – and fierce advocate of both women and radio – shares her experiences, and sheds light on why the whispers haven’t yet become a chorus.
When I first started writing about Australian media, marketing and advertising back in 2016, people were in equal parts fascinated and frustrated that I’d come from the outside.
A real estate reporter telling Australian media’s bigwigs what’s up (and indeed what’s down and what’s around)? The audacity!
And yet, while my credentials caused sustained skepticism, there was also a persistent preoccupation with what I may have seen. What I may know. What I may have been exposed to.
The media industry seemed to have a deep need to know – or at least be told – that it wasn’t as slimy as the real estate sector.
The most persistent question I had in meetings, at events and in casual conversations towards the beginning of my tenure was some variant of: “But who’s worse: us or real estate agents?”
Many were, of course, fishing, and wanted my fawning adoration – a confirmation that I had left the dodgy deals and sleazebags behind, that I was #tooblessedtobestressed and that even if the media did have a dark and raging undercurrent of sexism, discrimination and abuse, at least it wasn’t as bad as those slimy property peddlers.
What I didn’t, and indeed couldn’t, say at the time though was this: media is worse. Way worse.
At some point in 2017, I drafted an opinion piece outlining the many and varied instances of sexism, harassment and even abuse that I’d been subjected to since joining the media and marketing event circuit.
I inevitably decided not to publish it, or even submit it. I was already facing such antagonism and apathy that I figured adding Vivienne ‘Friend of the Real Estate Agents’ Kelly to my list of perceived flaws was a further stigma I didn’t need.
I was, however, able to write about an incident in a taxi after a work event, partly because the perpetrator was so unidentifiable and partly because the media industry could read it, be aghast, be sympathetic, be horrified, but not actually have to confront their own failings in this area.
An assault by a taxi driver after a media event is horrific and shines a spotlight on the inevitable and deeply unfair risks women take in being out and about as part of the media’s booze, celebration and late-night culture. Yet it’s far enough removed from the industry that nobody feels the need to change anything.
Taxi drivers shouldn’t assault people. Bad taxi drivers. Simple.
After this piece, however, I would have young women in media catch my eye from across the room at events, and then spend a sustained period of time contemplating whether or not to come over. More often than not they crept over and would then tearily thank me for sharing my story and in turn share their own.
Hearing these stories only compounded my guilt about just how many stories I was sitting on – both my own, and those of others.
The problem, I can assure you, is not limited to the music sector, the real estate industry or rogue taxi drivers. It’s all around you.
If we go back to 2017, part of what inspired my op ed which never saw the light of day was something which occurred at a radio event.
A man – let’s call him an audio executive for the sake of all-encompassing vagueness – had somehow convinced himself that I thought he was gay. Hand on heart, his sexual preferences and proclivities had never crossed my mind.
He became doggedly determined to get me to acknowledge that he was ‘straight’. My deep disinterest in engaging with this train of thought seemed only to egg him on further.
It reached the point where, when I was ordering a drink, he snuck up behind me and pinned me to the bar. I couldn’t move, but I also couldn’t turn around without twisting myself in ways only available to Cirque du Soleil performers. Plus, even if I managed this, our nether regions would be pressed against each other and I had every reason to believe he was going to force his tongue down my throat.
So instead, I got to feel his excitement from behind as he rubbed against me, licked my ear and whispered “What do I have to do to you to convince you I’m not gay?”
His hands then went places they were not invited nor welcome.
I genuinely can’t remember how I removed myself from the bar – perhaps I am a circus performer after all – but I do remember then ‘smoke bombing’ from the event and dissociatively walking back to my hotel room.
The next day, my boss at the time advocated and agitated for my permission to send an email to the creep’s employer, but my 20-something-year-old brain couldn’t handle being seen as ‘that’ girl so early on as the public face of the publishing brand.
It wasn’t my fault – I knew that then and I know that now – but I was young, and didn’t want to be defined by another man’s actions.
So, I shut it down. To this day, I’m not sure how I feel about my decision.
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So often the trade media is accused of being complicit in the coverup and not sharing these stories. In many instances, we ‘know’ about alleged perpetrators, we’ve heard the stories and we’ve seen the (unpublished) comments, the story goes. Plus, we’ve likely been subjected to it ourselves and then ‘done nothing’ about it, as I demonstrated back in 2017.
It’s further complicated by the fact that not only do we know about these problems, we then often have to speak to the perpetrators in a business context. These are powerful people. Their voices shape the stories we tell.
Each time we talk to these high-powered men then, we are – according to this logic – furthering their careers, helping them squash their victims’ voices and ignoring the realities of what’s really going on.
Yet you only have to look at major media players including the former Fairfax papers (now Nine), the ABC and News Corp, and defamation action from the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Craig McLachlan, former Attorney General Christian Porter and Ben Roberts-Smith to know that levying accusations of sexual assault and violence needs to be backed by not just a warchest of facts, but also one filled to the brim with cash.
Indeed before former AdNews editor Rosie Baker departed in 2018, industry speculation was rife that her parting gift would be a long list of the ad industry’s Mad Men and Bad Men (my words, not hers).
In her final days, she wrote a piece titled ‘Why haven’t we broken a story about Australian advertising’s Weinstein yet?’
“With great gusto last year I wanted to publish, to name names and hold these individuals to account. It’s one of my biggest regrets that at the end of this week I will leave AdNews, not having done so. The investigation doesn’t end with me, but there are a great many complexities at hand,” she lamented.
“Knowing something is true and being passionate about a cause is very different to being able to publish it.”
She also summed up why the #metoo moment may not have properly taken off here.
“I desperately want individuals who have behaved so poorly to get what they deserve. I want them to be removed from their positions, to be publicly shamed and for everyone to know what despicable behaviour they are capable of. But only If it can be done responsibly, with 100% legal integrity that protects the accusers and the publication.”
Still to this day, trade journos generally agree on who would have been on that list. Many don’t even lower their voices when talking about him anymore, such is the general agreement that he’s a perpetrator and predator.
These journalists, however, many of them junior, simply don’t have the power or the profile to destroy Australia’s media elite. All they can do is subtly silence these power players by providing less of an outlet for them.
So I was shocked when one of the ad industry’s ‘open secrets’ – who I thought we had all implicitly agreed we’d steer clear of to minimise his profile – has been given a prominent platform once more in recent weeks.
There are whispers, but those whispers haven’t yet been amplified to a level loud enough to affect change.
The same goes for radio at the moment.
There are whispers a major media outlet could be working on radio’s big #MeToo expose, and already there are rumblings about who, when and where.
The whispers about who aren’t new though, and again that trend among the media is emerging where people are keeping their voices a little less quiet when comparing notes, not looking over their shoulder as much to check who can hear them (the assumption being that people likely already know anyway), and they’re preparing the the warchest.
The moment might not be here just yet, but the drum beat is getting louder.
If you need assistance after reading this article, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.