What can we do about the Weinstein scandal?

COMMENT: There are a lot of things we can do to try to stop sexual predators in film and theatre. We should not let it turn into weirdo-bashing.

So, it looks like we a Jimmy Savile Mark II on our hands. One news story on reports of sexual assault by a powerful public figure have snowballed into a vast number of stories, both of the original person and other people in similar professions. Before we go any further, it is important to do this properly: as it stands, all of these reports are at allegation stage. Harvey Weinstein denies them, and we have yet to see what emerges in the legal process. However, based on the evidence that’s emerged so far (and also his own flimsy response) it’s not looking good. And even if it does somehow turn out that Weinstein is telling the truth and all these sexual acts were consensual, that is still a massive abuse of a position of power.

Naturally there has been a lot of reaction to this. And, of course, the conversation has spread to theatre. Some responses inside and outside theatre, sadly, are opportunistic rhetoric to use the scandals to push pre-existing agendas. However, on the whole, the discussion in UK theatre has been pretty good, and an event held at The Royal Court appears to have handled the matter well.

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Warning! Very long post ahead!

So the question inevitably arises whether anything like this is going on in theatre. So far, one figure has been outed (defenders say it was connected to a stroke, but even if that’s true it was shocking that this behaviour was known about and tolerated for so long); at the moment, I don’t know whether this is one bad apple or the tip of the iceberg. What I do know, however, is that the way the performing arts world is set up makes it a lot easier for anyone in power who wants to do this sort of thing to get away with it. It’s more by accident than by design, but that does not make this any less concerning.

I’m not going to come up with a comprehensive list of recommendations – I’m happy to leave that to people with more experience than me. Instead, I’m going to throw in some thoughts as someone largely on the outside. One disclaimer though: I am concentrating on how we can stop this happening, rather than what we can do for assault and harassment that have already taken place. I don’t have anything new to add there beyond reinforcing the obvious points that victims deserve support and perpetrators deserve their just desserts.

In no particular order, here are some things I think should be done that I suspect aren’t getting the attention they need.

1) This can only be fought with eternal vigilance.

I can’t imagine many people think that a new set of guidelines is going to single-handedly put a stop to future Harvey Weinsteins, but for anyone that naive: it won’t. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are already illegal, but it still happens. The people who do this know exactly what they’re doing, know what society thinks of it, and do it anyway. And if Mr. Weinstein has done what it looks like he’s done, he went to the lengths of employing people to dissuade victims from speaking out. Now, in theory, this could apply to any workplace where someone has too much power, but there are three reasons to believe that performing arts is especially vulnerable to it.

The first problem is the casual nature of performing arts jobs. Normal employment protections don’t apply to most actors and creatives, who go from one show to the next. That’s not to say sexual harassment can’t happen in a steady job – of course it can – but sacking someone thinking of speaking out (or even the threat of it) is risky. A string of dismissals of young attractive female employees is going to attract suspicions sooner rather than later. But it’s a lot easier in casual work to punish someone for speaking out or refusing an unwelcome advance. By simply giving the part to someone else, or refusing to hire in future plays, it gets a lot harder to detect.

The second problem is largely self-inflicted but inevitable. Most people are in this business because it’s something they deeply care about doing. Why else anyone put up with the lousy pay and lack of security? Sadly, that is easy to abuse. Threatening the sack from a shitty menial job (even a zero-hours contract with no protection) is not a great deterrent. It’s hard to imagine the threat of “I’ll see you never work in Burger King again!” carrying that much weight. But when it’s a job you want do more than anything else in the world, you have way more to lose by stepping out of line.

The final problem is the lack of professional separation between work and play. In the arts, fringe theatre in particular, it is perfectly normal to talk shop over a drink after a play. That is often where new contacts are made, new ideas are floated, and whilst you can stay out of this, you may forfeit opportunities by doing that. And the other way round, personal life heavily crosses over into work. It would be unthinkable to ask probing questions about sexual relationships in a normal job – but in film or theatre, this can be justified as character development. So something that would clearly overstep the line in a normal job is a grey area in the arts. And grey areas are easy to exploit.

Whether you like it or not, there’s no prospect of any of this changing any time soon. Neither casual contracts nor after-hours networking constitutes sexual harassment, but it’s very easy for scumbags to hide behind this. Practices that would be massive red flags in a normal workplace are quite standard in the arts. And serial perpetrators are experts at using this to cover their tracks. Reforms of working practices might make that harder, but expect them to adjust their tactics and carry on. So don’t expect the fallout from Weinstein to lead to a solution that puts an end to this. It won’t. All we can do is keep up eternal vigilance.

2) The casting couch culture has to end.

As regulars to my blog will know, I have a long-standing gripe that theatre is far too hierarchical, with a small number of people having a huge amount of power but very little accountability. Having already had a go at people using this situation to push pre-existing agendas, it would not be appropriate for me to do that here. However, there is one thing that I think needs urgent scrutiny, and that’s casting – and more specifically, auditions. There can be few situations where prospective victims are more vulnerable where one wrong move could cost you a job you desperately need.

First reform I’d make is to completely end the practice of auditioning alone. I don’t think many theatres do this any more, but really, there’s no justification for a director or producer in a theatre of any standing to conduct auditions without a panel. Sure, there might be an innocent reason why someone wishes to audition that way, but there again, there might be an innocent reason why someone in youth theatre wants to photograph children under 16 using their own camera. It doesn’t matter, we don’t give the benefit of the doubt. Anyone insisting on one-to-one auditions should be treated with a massive amount of suspicion.

Needless to say, that won’t do much to stop anyone who can install a bunch of stooges on a casting panel. So this brings me on to the second reform I’d propose, and a more radical one. I would make it standard practice that all professional auditions have someone independent on the outside supervising it for fair play. For UK theatre, a representative from Equity is a logical choice, but I’m open to other suggestions. Obviously no-one’s going to proposition an auditionee with someone from Equity watching, but the outsider can also keep an eye out for other unacceptable practices such as unexpectedly questioning about sex lives or asking them to take their clothes off. Most importantly, supervisors from the outside must be able to put their foot down and say no. An actor who really wants the part certainly can’t.

I don’t know if any theatres already do something like this; if they do, I’d be interested to know how. But I must stress is important that the independent supervisors must be truly independent. They must not be answerable to the theatre running the audition, and they preferably should not be receiving money from the theatre either. If this sounds over-cautious, I’m basing this on my experience of occupational health, where I discovered the hard way that employers are experts at leaning on supposedly independent doctors to twist their words into something that suits them. So I’d be wary of any theatres who claims their casting takes care of independent scrutiny. Is this scrutiny really independent?

I’m going to be realistic: these reforms will be a small step in the right direction at best. There’s a lot of loopholes to abuse. What’s to stop producers deciding who to cast in advance? If they make a decision based on the outcome of an “informal” one-to-one “meeting” over “dinner”, can you prove that? And a lot of casting by-passes auditions completely. Big-budget West End productions and films rely on getting big names on board. Small fringe productions are often dependent on assembling a team who like each other and can work together. And there’s plenty of other good reasons why you might want to cast without audition – but every good reason is another loophole to exploit. But clamping down on the most blatant abuses of power at the audition will be a start.

3) Don’t assume all victims are women. Don’t assume all perpetrators are men.

This should go without saying. But I’ve heard enough horror stories about treatment of male victims to have my doubts. Male-on-male abuse is beginning to be taken seriously, female-on-male, I’m not so sure. I don’t want to start a victim fight here, but the worst stories I’ve heard of male victims are basically the same as the worst stories of female victims, with the added insult that it’s okay they were raped because men like this sort of thing don’t they. The very worst cases involve a man who is obviously the victim being presumed the abuser.

How much of the abuse going on in film and theatre is male-on-female, female-on-male, male-on-male or female-on-female is anyone’s guess. Certainly, with the exception of Kevin Spacey, the vast majority of stories emerging now are male-on-female, and it may well be because this is representative of what’s going on. Or it might be that male victims (and female victims of other women) are still keeping quiet because they still don’t believe they’ll be taken seriously. It doesn’t matter. No ifs, no buts, all victims deserve to be taken seriously regardless of whether their demographic covers 1% or 99% of victims.

That’s it. I really hope that’s the last time I need to say this. I do not want to have to come back to this after someone who comes forward is dismissed out of hand, or laughed at, or told to shut up (because they’re invalidating the experiences of proper victims). But I will if I have to.

4) We need support for witnesses as well as victims.

We need all the support we can get for victims. Of course we do. Especially when they’re up against a hugely powerful public figure dishing out reprisals to anyone who breaks the silence. So a popular narrative is the the blame lies with everyone else who knew what was going on and kept schtum. I could easily take the moral high ground here and join in the condemnation and say that of course I would have spoken out had it be me. But I’m not going to claim the moral high ground because I cannot, in all honesty, say I would have done the right thing. And neither can you.

For the people in the payroll of sex predators who actively helps them cover their tracks, yes, fuck them, they’re no better than the rapists. But what about everyone else who knows what’s happening? They’re in no better a position to be believed than the victims. They face the same reprisals if they speak out. Now, in theory, you could go to the Police, but that doesn’t necessarily protect your anonymity. You could also, in theory, find other people who won’t stand for it so you can all speak out together? But how do you know who to trust? How do you know you won’t get blacklisted when they find out you’ve been asking around?

And even if you’re certain that you’d go to the Police anyway and hang the consequences, what about if you’re not sure abuse is going on? What if it’s only hearsay and gossip? Now, if you report it, not only do you risk reprisals if it’s true, but you also risk reprisals if it’s false, with the added insult that you possibly rocked the boat over nothing. Don’t get me wrong: the right thing to do in all cases is to tell someone. It’s just that the reality is that it’s not nearly so easy to blow the whistle as is should be.

Which is why I think we need some sort of whilstleblower hotline where people can report allegations in confidence, both victims and witnesses. Preferably one where they can get back to you if enough people have come forward to make a credible case. We already have a well-established method of reporting safeguarding concerns when you suspect a child is being abused, but it’s assumed that the only adults who need the protection of safeguarding concerns are those with learning disabilities – an assumption that looks pretty naive in hindsight. Heck, we even have hotlines to report financial malpractice. Why isn’t there one to report sexual malpractice?

Obviously some difficult decisions would have to be made. When multiple independent allegations arise against the same person where there’s consistency over the methods used, that’s a warning you may have a sex offender on your hands. But how much evidence should be needed before you take action? There are moral questions marks over whether it’s fair to name and shame based on allegations alone. Although it must be pointed out that the DBS can bar you from teaching if there’s enough consistent allegations, even if none of them can be proven in court. I’m not sure whether a whistleblowing hotline would be better as something specific to performing arts or something wider. Whatever we choose, a lot of care will have to be taken that the people in charge of this don’t abuse their power. We do not want them selectively enforcing justice or turning a blind eye.

It’s far from ideal. We should not have to wait for allegations of five different incidents before action is taken – in an ideal world, perpetrators should be caught, tried, punished and disgraced after the first time. But if it’s a choice between putting a stop after five victims or being powerless to do anything until there’s five hundred, give me the first option.

5) This must not be allowed to turn into weirdo-bashing.

My last thought is a more cynical one. It is right that the whole of Hollywood and beyond has turned against Harvey Weinstein, but the motives of some are highly questionable. Specifically, plenty of figures in Hollywood, male and female, were still defending Roman Polanski right before the Weinstein business blew up. Polanski actually has been convicted of child rape, and fled the country to dodge jail, not to mention the evidence that there’s more victims. For one reason or another, didn’t suit them to have a narrative of an acclaimed film director being a rapist on the run from the law. Weinstein, on the other hand, was the sort of person it was acceptable to demonise. I’m struggling to see the difference here, unless you think it’s forgivable to only rape five women, which I don’t.

I have some similar doubts over the moral high-horsing during Jimmy Savile fallout in 2012/2013. Now, I do believe that he is most likely guilty of what he was accused of doing, but the motives behind the trial by media were dubious. There were two main reasons used to judge guilt. One was the number of people coming forward – that is a bit simplistic (it was the consistency between the allegations that the Police used as evidence of guilt, not the numbers alone), but I can understand where they were coming from. That’s okay. The other reason, however – endlessly insinuated by the tabloids and repeated by far too many people – was that we always knew he was a bit weird so he must have done it.

This is dangerous, as is the whole concept of trial by media. I accept, reluctantly, that trial by media for someone like Harvey Weinstein was probably necessary, as this was the only way to get enough enough victims to come forward for the story stick. But are we really judging the accused on evidence or are we judging them on character? Do not underestimate the power of misplaced public outrage – when public opinion leans on the Police and Courts, they take short cuts that leads to convictions such as the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. It’s easy to imagine doing this to someone judged guilty on the grounds of general weirdness, and if the court of law doesn’t destroy them in a sex assault case, the court of public opinion will.

Due process exists for very good reasons. In the case of Harvey Weinstein – who, in all probability, doesn’t have a hope in hell of clearing his name – it’s tempting to think due process can be skipped, but it’s a short step from doing this for one person to doing this to anyone with a persona deemed sufficiently rapey. By all means form an interim judgement based on what you know, and if he goes on to be convicted, sure, it’s open season. If he isn’t convicted, and you think the reasons against a conviction are wrong (and unfortunately that is a distinct possibility with Weinstein given the US’s ludicrous  statute of limitations), then, fine, say why it’s the wrong decision. But please give the police and courts a chance to do their jobs, and please respect the right to a defence. Once you dismiss one person’s right to a defence, you dismiss everyone’s, with judgement of guilt passing to media, with their inconsistent moral standards based on knee-jerk judgements of character.

If you think that normalising trial by media is an acceptable price to pay to root out abusers, then bear in mind there’s this isn’t the only price you’re paying. No, as well as punishing some innocent people, you let some guilty people off the hook. Celebrities and the media played a big part in letting Polanski get away with rape, putting pressure on Polish authorities to refuse extradition to face justice. That would never had happened had they shown some basic respect for due process. And given the complete absence of contrition from the Polanski defenders in the height on Weinstein outrage, it seems that the price of trial by media is the power of the media to defend the right kind of rapists.

Sorry if this has been a lot more cynical than most of my posts. There is an air of optimism amongst some that these revelations mean the bad apples are going to be rooted out once and for all, and things will be different from this point on. I hope that turns out to be the case. But I’ll believe that when I see it. We still have the power structures that make this possible, we still don’t have support for whilstleblowers, and we still have a hypocritical media that acts as apologist for some and lynch mob agitators for others. What hopefully has changed for good is a culture shift where victims will be more confident to come forwards. But the people who do this will adjust their tactics and carry on if we let them. The downfall of Harvey Weinstein is only a battle won. We must not make the mistake of thinking we’ve won the war.

UPDATE 02/11: The Kevin Spacey story broke whilst I was composing the blog post, which is why he didn’t feature in the original post. Since then, I’ve been thinking about this further. Now, there is a possibility that there could be an element of aforementioned weirdo-bashing going on with the judgement here (because, apparently, being unmarried and unattached makes you odd says society), so I am always wary about these stories until the accused at least has a chance to response. But he has, and, if anything, this points to something worse than the original allegation.

Quite simply, his claim that he has no memory of this incident is strange. To be clear, this allegation is no case of inappropriate remarks that might have been mistaken for a sexual advance: according to Rapp, Spacey climbed on top of him in bed. If he’s telling the truth and the really doesn’t know whether he did this, that is strange. I refuse to believe you can just forget you did something like that, even 30 years later. There’s only one way I believe you could not be sure if you carried a 14-year-old into bed when you were 26, and that’s if you do this sort of thing all the time. As always, I’ll keep an open mind if Spacey wants to offer a better explanation. But what he’s told us so far lessens the chance of a one-off act of stupidity and increases the chance of something calculated and systematic. Oh dear.

However, the thing that prompted me to post this update is me getting progressively angrier over the hypocrisy in the Weinstein fallout. (I have suspicions of political opportunism too, but currently I don’t have enough evidence to call out examples.) Roman Polanaksi, I’m swiftly learning, is not an anomaly: there are lot of sex offenders (and by that I mean people who were proven guilty in a court of law) who carry on as high-profile artists, adulated by Hollywood and Broadway with no regard for the victims. One thing that really stoked by ire was this story about James Barbour, who plays the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, no less. Who was convicted on sex crimes against a 15-year-old when he was 35. And I read about this in a blog post. Not one single news outlet has questioned this since the Weinstein news broke.

True, there have been two stories about him last month, that he’s leaving the role in December, so possibly some Broadway producer thinks hiring a child abuser is now more trouble than it’s worth, but both stories completely miss this detail. We have a bizarre double standard going on here. What James Barbour did is just as bad, if not worse, than what Kevin Spacey appears to have done. And yet whilst Spacey’s career ends in disgrace, Barbour gets to leave with a golden handshake. It seems that sexual abuse carries only carries a harsh punishment for celebrities during periods when these scandals dominates the news. Get caught and tried when the media’s busy with something else, you get a slap on the wrist, and showbiz friends who denounce people exposed in the wake of one scandal defend you.

I was hopeful things would change for the better a few days ago. Now I’m quickly losing faith. If collectively we’re serious about getting rid of sex abusers who’ve covered their tracks all this time, we could start by getting rid of the sex abusers we’ve already caught. If we don’t, what the hell are we fighting for?

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