From Saxon Mullins to the Cosby case, the media is paying attention but momentum must continue

From Saxon Mullins to the Cosby case, the media is paying attention but momentum must continue

There’s been a paradigm shift in how the media reports violence against women, writes Kristine Ziwica. But the momentum must continue, despite the challenges associated with this investigative work and warnings some are backing away as #MeToo gets “too close”. 

I’m still processing what I watched on Monday night. Louise Milligan produced an excellent report for the ABC’s Four Corners featuring Saxon Mullins, the victim at the centre of the Luke Lazarus rape case, who bravely waved her anonymity to deliver a powerful message about consent and how we define it, particularly in a court of law.

Five years after Mullins’ ordeal began in an ally way outside a club in Sydney’s King’s Cross — following two trials, one in which Lazarus was convicted by a Jury, a Judge only appeal in which he was acquitted, and a Court of Criminal Appeal finding that questioned aspects of the appeal judgement but determined another trial would be “oppressive” — a lot of reasonable people might ask if the justice system and the current legal definition of consent failed Saxon.

“Reasonable” is a word that came up often in relation to consent during the course of Mullins’ five-year legal battle. Did the prosecution prove beyond a “reasonable” doubt that the accused knew the complainant was not consenting? Did the accused have “reasonable” grounds for believing there was consent? What steps did the accused take to arrive at the “reasonable” belief that she was consenting?

Five years later, it seems reasonable that Saxon concluded she needed to wave her anonymity in order to force a debate about how we define consent — and the limitations of our current legal means of determining it.

A paradigm shift in how the media reports violence against women

But while I was still pondering these questions and processing the incredible injustices highlighted in Milligan’s report, our legal system was, at long last, swinging into action.

Just twelve hours after Milligan’s 4 Corners report aired, the New South Wales Attorney General Mark Speakman announced that he was so moved by Mullins’ story he was requesting a formal review into consent law.

Justice is swift? – not quite. It took five years and Mullins waving her anonymity in order to “move” a powerful individual with her “story” for this to happen.

Yes, this is a good result.

But it’s a crying shame it came to this. And I know that I am not alone in commending Mullins for her bravery and saying that I can only hope that the knowledge she has, at last, forced change delivers some form of justice and closure.

But I think it’s also important to acknowledge the role of journalists in helping deliver this particular result, and the media’s broader role in helping drive forward #MeToo.

The role of the media in the Lazarus case doesn’t begin and end with Milligan’s 4 Corners report, though I in no way want to suggest her report was anything but an exemplary contribution.

A year ago, Richard Ackland of the Guardian spent two months trying to get the appeal court judge’s full judgement so he could further interrogate its logic and raise some of these issues. It is gobsmacking that it took him two months and jumping through numerous bureaucratic hoops to get a hold of the full judgement in a case that so clearly had wide ranging implications on a matter of great public interest.

Feminist writers like Jane Gilmore and Clementine Ford have repeatedly written about this case and pressed for law reform, as have many others.

In telling Mullin’s story with great sensitivity and care, and in their commitment to bring the important cultural and legal aspects of how we define consent to light, all these journalists are part of an important and powerful paradigm shift in how the media reports violence against women.

My initial response to Milligan’s 4 Corners report was to say on Twitter that it would sit proudly alongside other ground-breaking journalism to this end, including Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the Stanford rape victim’s impact statement in full, and New York Magazine’s decision to feature 35 Cosby accusers on the front cover telling their story of a  “culture that wouldn’t listen”.

If the “culture is now listening”, the media must continue to tell these stories

The culture is indeed now listening. And for that we have women like Mullins and the countless others who have shared their stories via #MeToo to thank. And we also have the journalists to thank, including Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times and Rowan Farrow of the New Yorker, for helping open the floodgates with their reporting.

Just to highlight how far we have come, we need only go back to the first Lazarus rape trial in 2015.

A comprehensive analysis of the reporting of that trial conducted by researchers on behalf of Our Watch, the national foundation to prevent violence against women (where I worked at the time), noted a “disproportionate focus on the accused compared to the complainant, including his family relations and the effect the case had on him and the associated ‘muted’ and selective reporting of the victim impact statement”.

Yes, you read that right. There was a strong tendency by many in the media to “mute” the victim impact statement and focus on the point of view of Lazarus.

There was nothing “muted” about the 4Corners report. Mullins and her perspective were front and centre. She led the report in her own words. “My name is Saxon Mullins. In 2013, when I was 18 years old, I was raped in an alley way in King’s Cross”, she says. Mullins goes on to describe the impact the experience has had on her life, again in her own words.

Warnings that some parts of the industry are backing away from #MeToo

But having sang the praises of many in the media who are telling these stories with greater frequency and incredible sensitivity, a word of warning.

Milligan’s 4Corners report aired a week after News Corp Australia’s national editorial counsel and former Press Freedom medal winner Michael Cameron warned that Australia’s strict defamation laws were preventing many journalists from telling these kinds of stories.

And Milligan’s report came just days after Tracey Spicer gave a dire warning at the Sydney Writer’s Festival that some in the industry were backing away from #MeToo in Australia for other, less understandable, reasons.

“Recently, in the last two months, I’ve seen mainstream – what we would call ‘old media’ – organisations starting to pull away from some of these stories…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,” said Spicer.

I hope the Australian media, inspired by Mullins’ bravery in speaking out and by the impact of Milligan and the work of other journalists in relation to this case, will continue to play an important role in the next chapters of the #MeToo. Even despite the challenges and despite how “uncomfortably close” some of these stories may get.

And I hope the impact of the stories that do come to light here in Australia will help prompt a much-needed debate about our defamation laws and the extent to which they protect perpetrators.

In the US, #MeToo investigations have continued apace, with two significant new reports in the last week exposing more allegations against veteran journalist Charlie Rose and the New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman.

Change is possible, as we have seen this week. But only if women can continue to speak out, and only if their stories, and the stories of the systemic failures their individual experiences highlight, are told.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

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