How the Australian media play a pivotal role in the bullying of women

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Emma Husar was destroyed by her accusers, aided and encouraged by the mainstream media (Image via @_sara_jade_)

By not addressing the manner in which Husar was slut shamed and how that shaming was further justified by other journalists, Julia Baird failed to inform readers of one of the main causes — the media, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

THE ALLEGED bullying of female politicians has been in the foreground in the last few weeks, since the latest Liberal party leadership coup. Calls have intensified for the alleged bullying of female Liberal MPs by their male counterparts to be investigated and addressed.

One form of bullying aimed exclusively at women is known as "slut shaming". This is an odious practice in which a woman’s sexuality is weaponised and used against her. It’s a particularly pernicious form of bullying and one from which a woman struggles to recover. It goes to the heart of a woman’s character, as defined by a male-dominated political culture with traditional patriarchal values.

In a piece for the New York Times on 10 September 2018, entitled 'Can Anyone Stop Australia’s Slut Shaming?' ABC journalist Dr Julia Baird examines the effects of this practice on Labor MP Emma Husar, who relinquished her political career after having been nationally slut shamed by the Australian media. In Ms Husar’s words, it was the experience of “being slut shamed so viciously, with no ability to come back and stand up for myself” that prompted her decision not to stand for re-election.

What Dr Baird does not explain in her article is that the national slut shaming of Ms Husar was initiated by the media, not her political colleagues, rivals and complainants. While one individual made the allegations of sexual misconduct and an unknown number of “anonymous party operatives” leaked them, nothing further could happen without the co-operation of mainstream media and that co-operation was gleefully offered by reporter Alice Workman, political editor at BuzzFeed.

Workman received a leaked confidential list of allegations against Husar, which were then under investigation by the Labor Party.

Heralded by a tweet, that read 'Morning tweeps. Incoming yarn'Workman proceeded to headline unproven, highly salacious allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Husar.

It must be noted here that the “target” of Husar’s alleged sexual misconduct, Labor MP Jason Clare, denied the events described ever took place, making this denial to Fairfax media a full week before BuzzFeed chose to publish.

Once the story was out there, other mainstream media assumed license to propagate the slut shaming of Ms Husar, leading to what Baird describes in her article as a 'deluge of sensational stories' fed by 'continuous leaks from her [Husar’s] own party to the press'.

None of this could have occurred without someone in the mainstream media taking the decision to publish unproven and, indeed, staunchly denied allegations that would inevitably slut shame Ms Husar, and at the same time deny her the natural justice to which she was entitled as the accused party in a confidential workplace investigation.

Tellingly, Workman made no mention in her report of Jason Claire’s denials, made before her piece was published, suggesting she either did not ask him to verify the story prior to publication, or she did, indeed, ask him but decided to withhold his vigorous refutations.

Baird’s article fails to address the role of her own profession. Were it not for the media publishing unproven, leaked allegations, Ms Husar would not have been nationally slut shamed, yet this core fact is nowhere directly addressed.

The results of the supposedly confidential Labor Party investigation found there was no substance to the sexual allegations.

In what might be construed as a morally dubious justification, Dr Baird tweeted to me:

'If Alice hadn’t [published] someone else eventually would have, those allegations were being shopped around.'

Baird seems unaware of what this says about her profession.

In other words, if Workman hadn’t slut shamed Husar, another journalist would have. Someone in the mainstream media was inevitably going to slut shame a female politician, in the absence of any evidence of the veracity of the leaked allegations. If leaked allegations are being shopped around, someone is going to publish them. Count on it.

Except that is simply not the case. The media is very selective about which leaks are published (note the series of sexual assault allegations relating to former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce circulating before the New England by-election, which were only revealed by this publication and one other). So why choose a leak, denied by both parties, that catastrophically slut shames the accused?

In the case of Ms Husar, the media could absolutely have prevented the slut shaming that ensued. Were it not for Workman, most of us would never have known of the discredited sexual allegations.

It is worth repeating that Husar explicitly names the slut shaming she endured by the media as the reason for her withdrawal from politics.

It is disturbing, to say the least, that a journalist such as Baird, who has done a great deal of work on violence against women as well as on the treatment of women in politics and media, can so disingenuously pose the question in the New York Times, 'Can anyone stop Australia’s slut shaming?'

Without addressing the manner in which Husar was slut shamed by BuzzFeed and how that shaming was further justified by many other journalists, Baird critically fails to fully inform her readers of the most central factor.

Unless and until Australian media takes responsibility for its own role in bullying women, and in particular for slut shaming us, the answer to Baird’s question will be, sadly, "No". Nobody can stop Australia’s slut shaming as long as the media is willing to engage in that vile practice.

And no journalist can honestly claim to be seeking a truthful answer to the question posed by Baird unless she or he is prepared to analyse the role of their own profession and their own complicity, whether through silence, denial, or their more active engagement in a practice that is guaranteed to destroy a woman’s career.

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