The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety survey tells us that one in six women have experienced at least one sexual assault since the age of 15.
If we assume cabinet is representative of those figures, then at least one person sitting around the cabinet table with the Prime Minister and Attorney-General has a personal story to tell about the issues in the news.
So too more than one of the journalists involved in covering the story. And that is only sexual assault. If we included sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, then all of them will have stories to tell.
These women journalists and politicians have made their way in professions where men speak loud, take up space, routinely interrupt and speak over women and where some have carried that sense of entitlement and impunity into breaches of the criminal law.
This is the most important change, the main reason why our current politics is unprecedented. It is why approaches that have worked in the past to damp down controversy are unlikely to work now.
There are a welter of thorny journalism ethics issues surrounding this new interrogation of power.
Most of them are difficult for an outsider to assess because the key interactions are hidden.
How much pressure should a journalist put on a survivor of sexual abuse to go public? On the one hand, the journalist rightly believes the exposure of abuses of power is important – and indeed part of the justification for a free media.
On the other hand, victims and survivors have already been robbed of power and agency. It is their story to tell if they wish, their right to decline.
In the places where journalists gather, these issues are being debated. Tory Shepherd, now a freelancer but formerly working for the Adelaide Advertiser, told of her calculations in The Guardian last week. She spoke to the complainant against Porter more than a year ago, but chose not to publish the allegations.
She wrote: “This is a confession about human frailty and complicated moral decisions, not about a media conspiracy to cover up an alleged crime.”
In part, Shepherd’s decision was because the woman then seemed uncertain about going public.
Other journalists have developed a reputation for approaching complainants with a zeal that has left some feeling harassed. Complainants in these matters are a new kind of whistle-blower – particularly abused, particularly vulnerable.
All these interactions take place outside the view of audiences and other journalists. It is therefore impossible to pronounce on the ethical decisions.
Except for one. Porter alleges “trial by media” – a phrase routinely trotted out by people on the end of adverse media scrutiny.
Was the Crown Casino trialled by media when The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers and Sixty Minutes first aired allegations now found to have been true? Was the banking industry trialled by the media?
Of course not. The rule of law is vitally important but not the only important thing. Most abuses of power never come before the courts, and this is particularly the case for sexual assault.
“Trial by media”, correctly understood, has a narrow meaning. It applies when the media sets itself up as judge and jury, or when it prejudices a legal proceeding.
Neither apply in the Porter case. Some journalists are calling for an inquiry. They are not saying what the findings should be. There is no legal proceeding to prejudice. It is central to the role of the media to expose allegations of abuse of power.
The new thing is that with more senior women journalists and politicians, sexual discrimination and abuse are being seen in that frame – not personal matters, not about lust, not even about sex, but about power.
Journalists and politicians should get used to this new understanding. Women and decent male reporters will not let it go, nor should they.
Margaret Simons is a journalist, academic and author.
Margaret Simons is an award-winning Journalist, author of many books and essays and an academic.