Time Magazine has named the #MeToo social media campaign its 2017 ‘Person of the Year’.
The campaign followed revelations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Millions of people around the world, mostly women, have since shared their stories of being harassed, bullied or assaulted by powerful men.
The #MeToo movement has been hailed as a watershed moment. “This is the fastest-moving social change we’ve seen in decades, and it began with individual acts of courage by hundreds of women, and some men too, who came forward to tell their own stories,” said Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal. Time has dubbed those who spoke out “the silence breakers”.
In Australia, women came forward to share their experiences of being harassed by television personality Don Burke, after an ABC/Fairfax investigation reported claims of misconduct from women who had contact with Burke during his years on the Channel Nine lifestyle program Burke’s Backyard. Burke has denied the allegations.
Australian Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush has also stepped down as president of Australia’s screen industry academy after the Sydney Theatre Company revealed it has received a complaint of “inappropriate behaviour” against him. Mr Rush has denied any wrongdoing.
Johan Lidberg is Associate Professor in Journalism at the Monash School of Media, Film and Journalism, where he teaches journalism law, ethics and investigative reporting. He discusses some of the ethical issues involved in the #MeToo movement.
In the past, cases of bullying or harassment have been reported when they went to court. In the Don Burke case the story was reported without that safeguard. How has social media changed reporting practices?
We have seen a number of cases where social media has become a threat to due legal process and the presumption of innocence. The Jill Meagher murder case in Melbourne is a prominent example. What is different with the allegations in the wake of the #MeToo phenomenon is the number of testimonies from alleged victims. This is a tricky situation; the balance between dismissing the testimonies from a large number of potential victims [on the one hand, to] the right to presumed innocence [on the other]. In sum: 'publications' on social media have disrupted the historical journalistic practice of reporting when a case goes to court. This is potentially both good and deeply problematic. Good because it fuels a much-needed debate in the [case of] the #MeToo campaign, bad because we don't want to give up the presumption of innocence.
The Harvey Weinstein revelations in particular have led some commentators to claim that societal norms will change for the better as a result of the #MeToo campaign.
Women have been praised for their courage in speaking out.
But isn't there a danger that people could be smeared out of spite?
That risk does exist, but in the case of sexual harassment and violence and rape, the trauma experienced by victims retelling their story, often for the first time, presumably acts as check on the risk for smearing. Time will tell if the risk is real, I suspect the risk is minimal.
Geoffrey Rush has stepped down as president of Australia's screen industry academy, days after the Sydney Theatre Company revealed it had received a complaint against him of "inappropriate behaviour". He says he has not been told who made the complaint, or what they said, and did not participate in the company's inquiry. Are we now working under the 'presumption of guilt'? How can public figures protect themselves in these circumstances?
I hope Rush will pursue the STC as this would be an important test case re how these sorts of complaints should be handled. There are protocols for how employers should handle complaints like this. It is important to determine if the STC followed the protocols, both for the sake of the possible victim, but also for Geoffrey Rush.
In the past, Australian media outlets did not publish such stories - unless the allegations were made in court, in which case they were protected - because of fears that they would be sued for defamation. Why do they feel free to publish them now?
Well, defamation applies as much to social media as any other form of publication, so there is no increased protection for legacy media just because the story has been published on social media. I suspect it could be a case of safety in numbers. But it wouldn't surprise if we see a number of defamation cases in the wake of publications triggered by the #MeToo campaign.
Do you have any other views you would like to share about the
power of social media - a means of giving voice to those who
were previously powerless? Or an unregulated weapon?
When you post on social media you publish - especially on Twitter. This means you have to adhere to the same laws, rules and regulation as any publisher. Everyone with a social media account should do at least a basic course/reading in media law and ethics. Re voice to the powerless: this is a good thing, as long social media publication is not misused to spread incorrect information.