The McLachlan case shows the misguided path of #MeToo

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins this week asked thousands of workers at Parliament House to tell their stories about bad behaviour at work. The Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces is an important and legitimate exercise. But it’s also a fraught one. Only the naive or politically blinded will fail to understand that many stories will involve contested versions, messy motives, and unprovable allegations.

What the commissioner does with these stories needs to be watched carefully, lest it follow the misguided path of the #MeToo movement that refuses to address the messy, thorny dealings between women and men.

Who gets to tell their story is, itself, a complicated issue. It’s also political. It seems many people would rather close their minds than face complex questions about humanity.

Late last year a mother tried to tell her story as a parent of a daughter who wants to transition to be a male. The piece was commissioned by editors at The Age. Then, the mother’s story was pulped. Her voice was silenced by an uproar in the newsroom. A loving voice that provided a different perspective, thoughtful observations and questions about a very fraught issue wasn’t permitted in the public arena after all.

Friends of Kate, a woman who alleged that she was raped by Christian Porter when they were teenagers, helped to tell her story. After her death, they revealed parts of their friend’s diaries. When Peter van Onselen and I added greater detail to Kate’s story by revealing a fuller version of her diaries, we were slammed as stealing her story. That doesn’t make sense. But like I said, telling stories is complicated. And political.

To support an agenda at all costs, some are closing their minds to difficult issues, shuffling into an abyss of ignorance. Who among us is so certain that we know everything? Plenty it seems. Ignorance is not just what you don’t know, it’s what you won’t know. An American chap said that.

Whatever one thinks about the Craig McLachlan story — and there were a million different views before, during and after Channel 7 aired its Spotlight program last Sunday night — it is not morally wrong for McLachlan to tell his story. You need not agree with his story. You may have found him unconvincing, selfserving, narcissistic. You may quarrel with the magistrate’s decision to find him not guilty of 13 charges of assault and indecent assault. But a man acquitted of all charges should be entitled to tell his story. We might learn something about human frailty and suffering.

But what are we to do with those who won’t know? The #MeToo movement has done some good work exposing criminal behaviour by some men. It has also exposed a lemming-like behaviour among women who refuse to think about the complex relationships between the sexes.

Airing McLachlan’s story was “irresponsible in terms of harm specifically to … survivors of sexual assault and broadly to women watching how his power as an actor gave him that platform”, said Kerry Burns, chief executive of the Centre for Violence.

“It seems like a free ride for people who have engaged in some pretty problematic behaviour,” said Bianca Fileborn, a criminologist at Melbourne University.

This comment gets closer to the McLachlan saga. No one comes up smelling like roses. The Rocky Horror Show in 2014 was not a normal workplace. McLachlan and others in the cast were consensual participants in a highly charged atmosphere where sexual high jinks thrived. There was far too much inappropriate touching, and sexual banter that should never have happened. Not in the 80s, let alone 2014.

Even so, these women’s stories needed to be told. And they were told, at length, to the media, and then in court. Magistrate Belinda Wallington described the complainants as brave and honest. But she also found that McLachlan was not guilty of any of the charges, mostly because it wasn’t clear the women did not consent. When they asked him to stop doing what he was doing, kissing, kidding around with his touching, he stopped.

It’s a complicated story. It was also trapped in the political tumult of the #MeToo movement. Note that the judge ensured she became a bigger part of this story than the law called for. Wallington said that if McLachlan had been charged under the current laws, the result may have been different. Perhaps she didn’t want a full stop at the end of 13 not guilty verdicts.

Before the case landed in a courtroom, journalists at Fairfax and the ABC collaborated to bring the allegations to their audiences. Maybe they were convinced they had found Australia’s version of Harvey Weinstein.

But the journalists’ story was more complicated than simply relaying the women’s complaints against McLachlan. In raw footage run by Channel 7 on Sunday, journalists and producers can be seen, in sections that did not go to air, coming dangerously close to coaching some of the women they interviewed.

The unscreened footage includes deeply disturbing vision and voices. An off-air ABC producer says to one of the women being interviewed: “I’m just looking for a sharp, short you said: ‘this is predatory behaviour, it wasn’t a one off, and when we all shared our stories we realised how calculated he was’.”

Then ABC reporter Lorna Knowles says: “I don’t think we should be putting words into her mouth to some extent.”

The producer says, “these are the words that I wrote down”. Knowles responds: “OK so if we’ve got them why are we getting them again?”

The producer says “because it’s going to be a bit longer”.

The interview recommences, and the woman stumbles over the word “predatory”. Knowles says, “do that again, we want predatory in there”.

The journalists ensured that they became a big part of this story. An off-screen producer seems to be suggesting a form of words to the woman being interviewed about a power imbalance.

“Maybe just even something like ‘he’s a big star, he has clout’ … you know, ‘we wouldn’t be listened to, or we wouldn’t think we’d be listened to’,” says the off-screen producer.

That story was uncovered by Channel 7’s Mark Llewelyn, executive producer of Spotlight, who interviewed McLachlan and his long-time partner Vanessa Scammell.

Speaking to The Australian this week, Llewelyn said “it was more than legitimate for the ABC and Fairfax to pursue the McLachlan story in 2017”.

But he says the actions that came close to coaching by journalists telling this story were shocking. “To coach critical talent, before the allegations have been tested or even put to the accused is inexcusable. It’s also unnecessary. Smart questions work. You don’t need to cut corners.

“No matter how comfortable it feels on the high moral ground it doesn’t mean you can put aside your ethical responsibilities as journalists. It’s too easy to think you’re infallible and the story is ‘so important’ that the means justify the ends. Well, they don’t.”

“It doesn’t make it right to say

— before going to the person you are investigating, before hearing their replies, before finding and testing critical evidence — that you ‘want them out of the job’.

Llewellyn is referring to another off-screen comment by Fairfax journalist Kate McClymont who, when discussing when to air their story, said, “ultimately we want him out of that job”.

This week the award-winning McClymont said that she had been taken out of context, that she was talking about McLachlan starting a new Rocky Horror Show tour.

How does that make her comment appropriate? “We want him out of the job” is not OK. And not even multiple Walkleys can buy immunity from critical analysis.

When it came to telling Mc-Lachlan’s story, Llewelyn says: “I didn’t give Craig McLachlan a free kick. Hard questions were asked. Hard questions had to be asked. The ABC should have done the same. In fact, it’s the first lesson I learnt as a cadet at the ABC many years ago. One that has stayed with me ever since. It’s why the clear evidence of words being put in the mouths of people being interviewed by the ABC journalists surprised and saddened me.”

Sadder still is the derision poured on McLachlan’s partner, Vanessa, a smart, independent, accomplished woman. She has been written off, diminished, disregarded, even though she was backstage, and in the audience, when some of the alleged assaults were said to have happened. She has a story to tell, but as McLachlan’s loving partner, she doesn’t fit the feminist zeitgeist.

McLachlan had every right to tell his story, and Channel 7’s Llewellyn told it fairly. Here is a complex, cautionary tale about a man who should have known better. It is also a ghastly, highly political chapter in a bigger story about a women’s movement that has become a calculatingly closed shop. So closed it is unwilling to ask questions that might chip away at its inherently flawed edifice that all women who make allegations of sexual harassment and assault must be believed, and that even a man judged innocent by the law has no place telling his story.

‘I don’t think we should be putting words into her mouth’