In 2017, it felt like the #MeToo movement was coming for every awful man who had abused their positions of power. It swept the globe, bringing down those thought to be ‘untouchable’ and delivered some sense of justice for the survivors of those attacks.
Except it didn’t. At least, not in Australia, not as extensively as it could have.
This fact bugged Ruby Jones.
In case you’re unaware, Jones is the calm, measured voice of 7am, Australia’s number one daily news podcast. She’s an author and a journalist who has worked in radio and print for nearly a decade and investigated stories like the mysterious disappearance of Trudie Adams on Barrenjoey Road in Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Her new podcast series, ‘Everybody Knows’, examines what went wrong with Australia’s #MeToo moment and dives into allegations surrounding the toxic work culture at the Australian arm of SONY Music Entertainment.
The podcast, which launched today, has already created a stir, with the confirmation of sexual misconduct at SONY from former chief executive officer Denis Handlin.
We sat down with Jones to talk through Australia’s constricting laws that protect perpetrators and stifle discussion of sexual abuse and what can be done to correct this massive society-wide problem.
The Latch: Hey Ruby! We’ve seen this big swell and revival of the #MeToo movement in Australia over the past year. People like Grace Tame, Chanel Contos, and Brittany Higgins have really lifted the lid on those hidden aspects of society and reignited those conversations.
‘Everybody Knows’ talks about SONY, but this is probably an industry-wide problem as well as a society-wide issue. How did you decide to approach this topic?
Ruby Jones: Absolutely, yeah.
I first started thinking about making this series at the end of last year, so it was actually sort of before this moment in time, where we’re seeing Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins coming forward.
I was wondering what had happened to #MeToo in Australia back in 2017. I was kind in my mid to late 20s then and I do remember #MeToo being a moment of hope. I was like, you know, ‘things are changing, things might be different’. When I reflected on what actually came out of it, it didn’t feel like much had changed at all. That was where the project started.
I started thinking about industries that you would think would maybe have had their moment of reckoning and it seemed to me like the music industry hadn’t.
I used to work at Triple J, so I’d heard a few things along the way. I also have friends who are musicians as well and I know people in the industry. I had a sense that it was time to look at what was happening in the music industry.
You’re right that obviously it’s not just SONY, it’s across the board. That was one of the more shocking things that I realised, as I was talking to people, everyone was just like, ‘Where do you want to look? It’s everywhere’. It’s so endemic and so pervasive. I don’t think that there’s any industry really that could say that this stuff doesn’t happen.
TL: Yeah, that’s the most shocking and the most disappointing thing about it. The title ‘Everybody Knows’ is kind of ironic, right? You’re saying everyone knows, but everyone actually doesn’t know. Or, everybody does know, why isn’t it seen as more of an issue?
RJ: Oh, yeah, it’s true. I think #MeToo started a lot of conversations, particularly among women. It’s on people’s radar, but it’s not really spoken about publicly. That’s sort of what the title is alluding to. It’s like, we know, it’s a problem. We know it exists everywhere. We talk amongst ourselves. That has, I think, started to change a bit this year. Particularly with someone like Grace Tame being the Australian of the Year.
We aren’t really having the conversations about this kind of thing that I think we probably should be having at this point in time. I mean, if you look at what happened in the US, the #MeToo moment was so much bigger, so much more was said, and the conversations that they’re having, they’re just so much more interesting, and so much more nuanced.
It’s progressed in a completely different way to what’s happened here in Australia, where I think people are just really afraid to even have the conversation at all to talk about this kind of thing publicly.
TL: Are the stories and experiences of the survivors the big focus here or is it more around the structures that enable those attacks?
RJ: Well there’s an episode that is entirely focused on defamation law in Australia because that’s something that I came up against again and again.
It’s interesting because as soon as you start talking to people in this space, everyone is very aware of defamation law. I had multiple sources like along the way bring it up and I was like, ‘wow, like everyone is so, so worried about this.’
I think it’s because they’ve seen it happen. They’ve seen lots of legal action taken in relation to these kinds of stories and some of that’s played out very publicly. So everyone is extremely aware of the law and that’s why I spent a lot of time speaking to a lot of lawyers.
I was really trying to get to the bottom of how does defamation law prevent people from talking? And how did we get to this point where everyone is very, very afraid of it?
TL: Do you think that social media has changed that a bit and made it harder for perpetrators to hide?
RJ: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I don’t fully know what my answer to that is. I think social media is enabling conversations to happen, but it’s still within very strict parameters. I suppose, on the one hand, yes, social media has enabled these conversations to happen a bit more. But I would say they are still operating in the same legal system as anyone is. So, legally speaking, it’s the same situation.
TL: Given all of that, how difficult was it for you to get people to share their stories?
RJ: Extremely difficult. Coming into making the series, I was really aware of the way that journalism fails sometimes in this space.
I didn’t want to put pressure on people, I didn’t want to put people in a position where they didn’t know the risks, I wanted to make sure that everyone who I spoke to was aware of what might happen if they spoke, I didn’t want anyone to regret speaking to me. That’s why it took so long. That’s why it took months because I had to have so many conversations with people to get to the point where some of them were willing to talk publicly.
I was holding myself, I think, to a very, very high bar. I just didn’t put pressure on people. I was like, ‘it is your choice to talk about this kind of stuff.’ And I do I really believe that. I just didn’t want to make any mistakes.
TL: That’s difficult because you are being forced to be careful because of the fact that you could get sued or someone could say something to you and get in trouble. That doesn’t seem like a very good environment for journalism to operate in.
RJ: It felt very claustrophobic at times. The space that I have to operate in is so tight but I tried to build that into the series so at least people would understand why these stories are so hard to tell.
It’s not because sexual harassment and abuse and bullying and discrimination don’t occur, they definitely do. It’s just that you might not hear about it because of all of these difficulties in being able to communicate it.
And it’s not just that. I think there are some really, specifically Australian cultural things that we grapple with in terms of believing women, and even wanting to hear these kinds of stories and acknowledging that this problem does exist.
I think the legal side of it is huge, but I didn’t want to also fall into this trap of just saying it’s only defamation law. It’s a huge part of it, but as a country, we’re not very good at acknowledging that this stuff happens.
TL: Do you have any insight into why Australia’s defamation laws are structured in the way that they are and how we got to this?
RJ: I asked that question, and a lot of versions of that question, to people that I was interviewing and to be honest I didn’t really get a definitive answer. I don’t think there was one particular case that set the precedent or anything like that, I think it was more a case of a lot of small decisions made over a period of time that have led us into the legal space that we are in at the moment.
There’s not a huge amount push to change that, although there is now currently some defamation law reform underway. It’s still extremely early days and none of it’s been tested yet. But there has been movement towards having a public interest defence, which I think is a great thing.
There are definitely differences between the way defamation law works in Australia versus somewhere like the US, where they have a right to free speech, which we don’t. For whatever reason, we’ve ended up with this system which I think isn’t working.
TL: Do you think that the #MeToo movement in Australia could have been as big as the one that brought down Harvey Weinstein in America if it were not for Australia’s legal system?
RJ: Yeah, that’s a good question. All of the journalists who I spoke to said that defamation law had a huge chilling effect. They all told me that that there were a lot of stories that they wanted to tell but that defamation law meant that they couldn’t do that anymore.
So, I think from the point of view of the people who were doing those stories at the time, that was the biggest barrier. So that’s one of the big reasons that seemed to peter out in Australia.
I do also think that there were some journalistic failures as well. I think the media could have done better at the time in various ways, which I go into in the next episode that’s coming out and the third one as well.
I think there is a need for the media to hold itself accountable in that space. But, as I said, defamation law had this chilling effect meaning we can’t tell these stories anymore.
TL: So, what do we do about all of this? On a macro level, what does society need to change? On a more micro level, what can individuals and people working in these industries do in these situations to make those changes or to create better environments?
RJ: That’s a really big question [laughs].
Great question. I think, a lot of things. One thing that really struck me is that I’ve never really heard anyone in Australia speak as someone who has witnessed this kind of thing. There’s just not really been much accountability in Australia and I think that’s kind of what’s missing.
We’ve relied a lot on women to speak about their experiences and that’s hard and difficult. I would love for more than that. I would love to have not had to continuously rely on women to say, ‘this thing happened to me’ or ‘this person hurt me.’
I would love for there to be more accountability in this space. I think the more conversations that are had around it, not necessarily on a public level, I mean this on a personal level. If men can have those conversations with women I think that will only help us move to a place where there is a better understanding of this kind of thing.
On a personal level, I suppose that also involves people who have heard things or know things talking about them. Like I said before, I think we’re just not very good at doing that. I think it’s much easier to just avoid that, avoid having to talk about any of this kind of stuff. But silence doesn’t help the people who have experienced it, it only helps the people who perpetrated it.
On a more structural level, we need reform of defamation law. A public interest defence would be helpful. The more people who are aware of the way that the law operates, and how difficult it is for women to even speak at all openly about their experiences, if they become aware of the silencing effect that it has, there might be more backing on the idea that this does need to change, this does need to shift.
I don’t mean to say that nothing has changed, because I do think things have. I’m talking about what went wrong with #MeToo and why the movement seemed to only last for a matter of days or weeks.
I do think that all of these moments push us forward in some way or another. That’s kind of been proven with what’s been happening this year in politics, especially. I don’t think that could have happened if #MeToo hadn’t happened four years earlier. But it does seem painfully slow from where I’m standing.