Hours before the cornerstone Sydney Writers’ Festival panel about the #MeToo movement on Saturday night, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author Junot Diaz — with events still booked in Sydney and Melbourne — was on a plane out of Australia.
The day before, another festival guest, writer Zinzi Clemmons, had spoken from the audience during the question-and-answer session of one of Diaz’s panels, questioning the timing of his New York Times essay and asking the writer to reckon with his own alleged history of harm.
She then shared her story on Twitter, alleging he had “cornered and forcibly kissed her” when she was 26.
Clemmons was joined on Twitter by other women — including another festival speaker Carmon Maria Machado — who made their own accusations of his alleged misconduct.
Diaz withdrew from his remaining appearances, and told the New York Times — without referring to the allegations specifically — “I take responsibility for my past.”
As the story unfolded on Twitter, journalists covering the festival were told they were no longer welcome to mingle with writers in the green room. Understandable. For anyone who thought the #MeToo movement had lost momentum, the past few days have proved otherwise.
“Let’s recap,” moderator and former Crikey editor Sophie Black told the audience before a panel that would be interjected by a protester, a whistle-blower and one of Australia’s best-known feminists. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
On Friday last week, for instance, the Nobel prize for literature was canceled amid a sexual assault scandal. The day before that, a Washington Post investigation told of 27 more women who had allegations of sexual harassment against talk show host Charlie Rose.
One of the journalists behind that investigation, Irin Carmon, was on the panel, along with Now Australia’s spearhead and spokesperson Tracey Spicer and the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham. Carmon had been working on the Rose story since 2010, but it was only when the #MeToo movement gathered steam that she was able to get it off the ground.
“[In 2010] the women weren’t ready to speak out and I had to move on, but when people started to tell their own stories on their own terms, I thought: ‘Maybe it’s time to go back to the story, maybe they are now feeling it’s safe enough,’” she said.
Carmon talked about the burden of proof needed to publish a story alleging sexual crimes and the emotional exhaustion it took for a victim to speak out.
The Rose story had taken over her life, she said.
“This is not just happening willy-nilly; people are not just doing it for fun. Having been up close in the machine and the aftermath, it is not fun. It is not glamorous just because a few people went to the Oscars,” she said. “I wish people knew that what reporters publish is just the tip of the iceberg of what we know, because it has to meet such a high standard.”
One of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers, for instance, had a recording of her harassment and “still wasn’t believed... So many people don’t have that kind of evidence,” she added.
Spicer agreed. Since her public callout for #MeToo stories on Twitter in October last year, she said that 1,600 people had contacted her with allegations about 100 different Australian men.
“I’ve got beyond a dozen accusations against many of the alleged offenders [who we haven’t yet exposed],” she said. “And even with that, you have to almost act like you’re part of the police force. Is there any clothing with DNA on it? Are there any diaries? Did you tell anyone at the time, a family member or a friend? It’s incredibly difficult in this country.”
“So whenever you read these stories or see them on television, you know that they have been robustly researched,” she said.
Australia’s restrictive defamation laws work against the whistle-blowers, as do varied pressures inside newsrooms, which have been hampering investigations.
Spicer has spent the past six months connecting the strongest of the stories with news outlets around the nation, but her efforts have not always been welcome, she said.
“This is a conversation that’s not going to be very popular in this room, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to say publicly for a long time. When we started doing these stories in this country ... we had the support of Fairfax and the ABC, and they were tremendous,” she said.
“But recently, in the last two months, I’ve seen mainstream — what we would call ‘old media’ — organizations starting to pull away from some of these stories,” she said. “Not only is it costly, not only is it difficult because of defamation, but ‘it’s getting a little bit too close to our executives,’ and that is a true story.”
For that reason, she has been taking stories to a broader array of outlets, including Guardian Australia, the Financial Review and News Corp.
At least one of the people who had told their story to Spicer was in the room; she found her way to a microphone during the audience Q&A.
“I came to Tracey with my story last year and she followed up with me. She said: ‘You’re not the only victim of this man, but we just can’t get the story up,’” the woman said.
“You shouldn’t have to be sitting on a stage, putting out a call, asking audience members to give you the resources to bring these men to justice,” she said. “I have seen you do so much more than what your job description has asked you, and honestly, the responsibility lies with the media organizations.”
Following the Diaz allegations, the panel also discussed so-called “trial by Twitter”: women making allegations against men on social media or blogs, sidestepping journalism and the justice system.
“I don’t agree with people naming people on social media, but I understand why people are [doing it]. They feel a frustration with the gatekeepers,” Spicer said.
It was even more difficult for women who did not fit the mold of the victims whose stories have so far been prioritized: white, privileged, straight and famous women.
“I don’t think we’re dealing or talking about it at all the way we should be, in terms of non-white, heteronormative, straight [victims],” Wortham said.
Wortham also spoke about the toxicity of “open secrets,” referencing the “shitty media men” list which privately circulated New York late last year before it was exposed.
The shared document named men whose allegedly inappropriate and harmful behavior had, in some cases, been known by many.
“I had gone to drinks with those people, I had been alone with them,” Wortham said. “I was a young 25-year-old who didn’t know any better, and I’d been in situations that could have potentially been very difficult. And because they were open secrets, the onus was on me to know that that was a dangerous situation.”
However, she had not been tapped into the whisper network.
“Either I wasn’t successful enough or I wasn’t interacting with the people who were privileged enough to have that information and pass it along to me. I wasn’t in the right place on the hierarchy of knowledge... We’ve developed these coping mechanisms to deal with these societal problems that are really insufficient and put the [onus] on us,” she said.
The panel’s penultimate moment was a welcome surprise: Notable Australian feminist and writer Eva Cox stood at a microphone with a question for the panelists.
“It’s not: ‘How do we stop that man from doing that to us?’ but ‘How do we stop men feeling like they’re entitled to?’” she said.
“We have to start looking at what we are doing to little boys to make them feel entitled. We need to sit down and start addressing the social problem, because we are still the second sex, and unfortunately, a lot of what we’re doing to fight this ... is using a male-driven system to try to screw a male-driven system. It doesn’t work,” she added.
As the applause died down in the audience, a lone voice could be heard from the front: A man who had been barred from the microphone during the Q&A was standing in front of the stage and screaming aggressively at the strong, accomplished women who sat in front of him.
“How many innocent men will get taken down?” he yelled as he was escorted out. “Geoffrey Rush is an Australian icon.”
The four panelists had spent the past hour illustrating why this movement was not going away. It took just one man, in one second, to succinctly prove their point.
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