Opinion: What Geoffrey Rush’s Case Means for #MeToo in Australia
Opinion by: Penny Burfitt
It took New York Times journalists 18 months to put together the Harvey Weinstein story, and it has taken one article to jeopardise Australia’s entertainment industry receiving the thorough cleaning it needs.
When the Daily Telegraph ran the headline ‘King Leer’ on November 30 alongside a picture of Geoffrey Rush, the country collectively gasped. Was this our Weinstein moment? For months very little activity had been seen in Australia on sexual assault allegations compared to the tidal waves lashing Hollywood and America. Geoffrey Rush is an Academy Award winning actor and a former Australian of the Year. If someone of his stature were exposed, while devastating, it could be a catalyst to a much needed investigation into sexual misconduct in the Australian entertainment and media industries.
On closer inspection, however, the article in question was based off an internal allegation made to the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) of unspecified ‘inappropriate behaviour’ during the company’s 2016 production of King Lear. Rush strongly rejected the claims, saying he had never even been made aware of the complaint. The STC later clarified in a statement that “this was an allegation made to (not by) STC and not a conclusion of impropriety.”
In other words, the story set itself up to be a Weinstein-esque breaking case, but the accusation was unspecified, so we don’t even know what he’s been accused of, and unconfirmed by the company more than two years later. It barely constitutes a viable case, and certainly not one strong enough to have been splashed across the front page. As a result, Rush is filing defamation proceedings against The Daily Telegraph.
Regardless of the true nature of the complaint—which we may never know—the defamation case is a kick in the shins for those hoping to see reform and retribution in the vein of Hollywood and America’s recent shake ups. Defamation proceedings are exactly what victims coming forward are fearful of, and this may deter women from speaking out in the future.
In a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece titled ‘Politics, sexual harassment and why some women will never come forward,’ Jenna Price challenged the journalistic integrity of the Daily Telegraph’s article. Price said, “(it) may have done irreparable damage to the just cause of stopping sexual harassment and assault. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t good journalism.”
The cause for sexual harassment and assault in the media industry is one in dire need of our attention. According to the 2016 Australian Women in Media Report released by the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance, 48% of women reported personal experiences of intimidation, abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace, and less than half felt confident to report these incidents. In the entertainment industry, 58% of respondents in a WIFT (Women in Film and Television) national poll reported experiencing sexual harassment.
The numbers are overwhelming and the perpetrators are there. So when, if ever, will they start to creep out of the woodwork and into the limelight? If the current situation is anything to go by, it may not be any time soon.
The national convener of Women in Media, Tracey Spicer told Le Courrier Australien there are two main obstacles to women’s voices being heard in Australian entertainment. Spicer says, “The level of abuse is similar everywhere, however the defamation laws in Australia make it very difficult to tell these stories.” She adds, “The media and entertainment industry in Australia is extremely small, and women fear that if they speak out, they will never work again.”
In a nutshell: Australia is just as much in need of a reckoning around sexual assault and harassment as any other country. According to Spicer, the fact that one of the first stories published is being taken to court because of hollow foundations could be deterring some women from sharing their stories of sexual harassment. The fact that the debate is no longer concerned with the truth of the allegation but rather the manner in which it was thrust into the spotlight, is a confirmation of both of these fears.
The media will now very possibly be deterred from reporting on the cases that do come forward, although Spicer points out that this shouldn’t be a deterrent as a strong legal team and evidence should provide the protection from both legal action and false reporting.
She remains optimistic, saying, “I am confident many more stories will be told, as journalists gather robust evidence.”
It may not be the end of the abuse revelations in Australia. The solidarity between women and the men that support them that has emerged following the #metoo movement, signals a change in the wind that might mean that this time, we will be able to bounce back and that future allegations will not suffer from the publication of this one.
As Spicer put it, “The #metoo movement changes everything. Finally, women are being believed when they come forward with their experience of sexual harassment and indecent assault. This is the beginning of a revolution.”