It is usually spoken about in whispers in this industry, but our brave women leaders are finally speaking out about sexual harassment in media organisations. Peta Krost Maunder reports.
o “We were away on a story and returned to our hotel after a few exhilarating interviews when my photographer pushed me against the wall outside my room and said ‘let’s fuck, you know you want it’. I pushed him away, astounded. I tried to be nice when I told him to back off.
“He didn’t. He kept making lewd suggestions when he passed me at the office. I pleaded with the news editor not to send us on stories together.”
o “It was a Friday night, our paper had gone to bed and most of our newsroom was having a drink at our regular pub. I walked out the toilet and my colleague came up from behind me and rubbed himself against me. I was horrified and he just laughed and walked off, calling me a party pooper.”
o “It was a weekend and the newsroom was quiet and I happened to be the only woman sitting with a group of colleagues chatting. One of our editors started talking about a good friend of mine who sat next to me in the newsroom. ‘She is so hot, I just want to pomp her.’ The others agreed and went on to describe how they would like to have sex with her. I was appalled and said so but they just laughed at me as I walked away.”
o “We were covering a press conference and one of my seniors came up to me afterwards and grabbed my bum and told me he has wanted to do that for ages. There were other journalists around who saw this. I was so shocked and totally humiliated. I am angry with myself for not saying anything and I now avoid him just in case…”
These are true stories from senior journalists in the local media. They are not unique or even rare. Many of us who have been in this industry for longer periods have our own or close friends’ sexual harassment stories. Some are far worse, while others may be difficult to pinpoint whether they are light-hearted fun or actual harassment.
But what is rare are the women (or men) who actually report the harassment and file official complaints. And when those brave women actually do that, it is rarely acknowledged publicly.
Women who work in the media are generally intelligent, fairly confident and have progressive feminist views on how women should be treated. As a general rule, so do their male counterparts.
Then why is sexual harassment and the culture of sexism still rife in our industry?
Most women, including those who allowed me to quote their experiences, will not discuss this topic. It is a taboo subject because there is a fear of reprisal. Despite most media houses having policies on sexual abuse or any kind of harassment, most women are afraid to stick their necks out in the institutions in which they work.
“It is just not worth it,” said one. “I love my job and don’t want to jeopardise it. I may hate that this happened to me but I deal with it. Besides, what happens if I do complain?” More than anything, women in this industry don’t want to be seen as weak or victims because it would affect their work and how they are perceived in the newsrooms.
I contacted some of the most powerful women in the industry to share their experiences and insights.
“As much as one wants to believe that no element of sexual harassment exists in your organisation, it is a reality that can simply and under no circumstances be ignored,” says Terry Volkwyn, Primedia Broadcasting chief executive officer.
“I think it happens far more than we think and goes unreported, says Saturday Star editor Cecilia Russell. “When it was first brought to my attention, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t believe it could occur in a ‘liberal’ organisation full of educated people who always stand up for what is wrong.”
Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, says “we live in a patriarchal society so it does exist” but it needs to be nipped in the bud as soon as it becomes apparent.
The Times editor Phylicia Oppelt says, “Let’s be frank about sexism and sexual harassment – it’s there. It happens and far too frequently – and probably as much as it does in any other professional workplace in South Africa. How it gets dealt with is another story and a very difficult one.
“I’ve been at The Times for two years now and have yet to deal with a sexual harassment complaint. I think that perhaps it has much to do with the fact that I am a woman editor and so the culture is more open and less masculine. I would hate to think that younger female colleagues starting out in this industry are still dealing with blatant sexist attitudes and being harassed. If it is happening, they don’t tell. But I suspect it is and often young women are too scared of what will happen if they make a formal complaint, especially if the advances are made from more senior colleagues. No one wants to be seen as a cry baby or a sissy and, unfortunately, it just makes it easier for male bullies to continue and for secrecy to exist about this.
“On a personal level, I’ve dealt with unwarranted male attention. Dealing with it is difficult because quite often there is a power imbalance. So what I’ve done a number of times is to have a frank confrontation with a warning that I would take up the issue in a formal manner if it persisted.
“It’s difficult because one’s first instinct is to ask if you did anything to invite this. The first time it happened I didn’t know how to deal with it because the person was a senior manager. When I asked him why he would do such a thing, his answer was beyond illuminating – ‘you can’t blame a guy for trying’. This was after being pushed up against a door and kissed.
Haffajee has had her own experiences. “Once someone tried to kiss me and another person assumed he was coming up to my hotel room with me for the night. I nipped it in the bud swiftly,” she says. In three years at City Press, she has faced two incidents that she describes as “gobsmacking”, but they were quickly and appropriately dealt with.
Media24 chief executive officer Esmaré Weideman, too, has come face to face with sexual harassment. “In my career I have found myself in a few uncomfortable situations – inappropriate advances by men in senior positions. In some cases, I have subtly passed on the information to my seniors to ‘have a word’; in other cases I have kept quiet. Why? Because sadly, it is still true that women – or men – who have been at the receiving end of sexual harassment are scared they will be branded as troublemakers if they lay a complaint. People think twice – five times – before taking action because they fear intimidation or simply find it too awkward to have to work with someone they’ve laid a charge against. So, yes, I do think many cases unfortunately go unreported.”
Another senior executive, who asked not to be named, has had a three-year situation with a senior male colleague. “He initially approached me, saying he needed to talk. I assumed he wanted to discuss work issues, but he wanted to talk about the growing sexual tension between us. I tried to be nice about it, told him that he must have misread something I said. I thought that was it.
“Shortly afterwards, I got a mail from him saying that under other circumstances we could have had an affair – he is married. I was irritated, sent him a response telling him to leave me alone.”
That didn’t stop him. She got another letter, asking her to give him one last signal that she was interested and he would have an affair with her. “I was infuriated. I had tried so hard to ignore this advance, but the letter left me feeling exposed and, in some way, quite accosted. He went on and on about his lust for me.”
She told her boss about it but said she would deal with it. She took the letter back to him and told him to leave her alone and never speak to her again. She tried to avoid him and never to look in his direction but only after he left the company did she actually feel comfortable again.
These are clear-cut cases against powerful women. These same women agreed that sometimes there is a fine line…
Says Haffajee: “There are a whole lot of political journalists who are happy to sleep with political office bearers which also affects the perception of female reporters.”
There are also many budding relationships that bloom in newsrooms that can initially be misconstrued. Also, says Oppelt, “I see how some women behave and it allows for men to interpret stuff that could later be described as harassment. Women are not always totally innocent, but when it is a clear-cut case of harassment, it is nasty, ugly and quite frightening.”
Russell tells of a young reporter who would come to work inappropriately dressed and the males, senior and junior, were all over her. “I wrote an email to all the staff, saying it was necessary for everyone to dress appropriately as they represent the newspaper and what was acceptable dress. I got a flurry of emails from men on staff, including the senior staffers, saying how I was ruining their fun.”
She explains that Independent Newspapers have very strict policies and procedures about harassment and it is “simply not tolerated and a firing offence”. Russell says: “There needs to be more discussion about this in newsrooms. I know of a handful of incidents where I suggested to the person that they lay charges but they didn’t. I think it is rife but, generally – particularly because the victims are often so young – they don’t do anything about it.”
Weideman explains that in Media24, there have been eight formal cases of alleged sexual harassment in the past five years and all eight were investigated. Some of these resulted in dismissals and others in final written warnings. The alleged victims were mostly women, but there were also charges brought by men. “The landmark case in Media24 was the Sonja Grobbelaar vs Gasant Samuels and Paarl Media case, some years ago, in which the company was found liable because it failed to respond adequately and speedily when the case was reported,” she says. “Since then we have been very strict about instituting an investigation whenever a complaint is made.”
Haffajee has invited Lisa Vetten, an expert and activist in gender abuse, to hold discussions in her newsroom, making it very clear that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. “I am forced to be hard about this because there are a lot of egos around. So, even people undressing others with their eyes, making them uncomfortable, is unacceptable behaviour.” Haffajee believes that the way to root out this behaviour is to have a newsroom that is balanced in terms of men and women in power. “The solution is holistic and not a one-pronged approach.”
But, she says, it is normal for journalists to hook up all the time in a newsroom environment, with the pressures, deadlines and long hours together. The media industry is peppered with love stories. After the two recent incidents, she says, in future “I will not tolerate sexual abuse, I will fire you first and deal with the CCMA later”.
Weideman insists: “As industry leaders, we should create an environment where our colleagues feel free to report incidents which violate their rights – be they racist, sexist or harassment in any form. It’s the kind of openness I try to create at Media24 – firmly based on our four core values of courage, integrity, respect and accountability. “
Oppelt insists that just as much as there has been a very concerted effort to root out racism – to instill norms and values in newsrooms that racism is not acceptable – so too should it be with sexism and harassment.
“Women need to know that unacceptable behaviour from their male colleagues will not be condoned and that it will not be treated as a joke,” she says. “We need to educate both male and female colleagues about their rights. I think everyone shies away from dealing with sexual harassment because it is just so awkward. But we can’t afford to because the repercussions are enormous and negative. Besides, no media organisation wants to be the subject of a very public and embarrassing lawsuit.”
Volkwyn explains that Primedia Broadcasting hasn’t had any serious incidents on her watch, but a few isolated cases where issues of sexual innuendo were brought to her attention. “Our human capital department deals with these cases decisively and walks staff through the process of resolving the matter and taking action against the perpetrator. I personally involve myself during this process considering the sensitivity of the matter and the dire consequences for all parties if left unattended.
“However, our policy is clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and the necessary processes are in place to ensure that it is dealt with accordingly. We have an internal tip-off line, Prime Tips, that allows staff to report sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct to management anonymously. This has assisted us greatly in recognising the warning signs early and act without delay.” The tip-off service is a necessity in a company that employs hundreds of staff.
Volkwyn agrees that sexual harassment is sadly a reality in the media industry and more often swept under the carpet without discourse. “We need to lead and set the example to our staff that we are indeed on their side and if they fall victim to harassment, that we take action.”
This story was first published in the August 2012 issue of The Media magazine.