Since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, dozens of people have stepped up to denounce his behaviour. While it’s undeniably good to hear so many voices united against sexual assault, it’s important to make sure that we don’t wave through everyone that’s lining up to speak out – especially when our own industry is not without its problems…
When it comes to celebrity sex assault stories, you can always rely on the BBC to mess the bed before too long.
With the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal, the shit started soaking into the sheets when Victoria Derbyshire decided to bring Richard Hillgrove of Hillgrove 6 PR on the air to give his take on the matter.
If you know who Richard Hillgrove is, you’re probably already reading this through your fingertips in embarrassment and horror.
If you don’t know who Richard Hillgrove is, then a quick crash course:
Hillgrove is best known in journalism circles as the kamikaze PR who got wrapped up in a tax evasion scandal a few years ago. When HMRC collared him for almost £100,000 of avoided tax, instead of going quietly Hillgrove went nuclear. Shortly after his arrest, he sent out a press release to his full contact list loudly claiming that his conduct was small fry and if HMRC was truly serious about tackling tax fraud they should be arresting his clients James Caan, Sting and Trudie Styler – who he actually chose to call out by name.
It was a spectacular self-inflicted wound and (as you might expect) business has been a little slow ever since. In fact, just last week, Hillgrove was declared bankrupt.
But any journalist who didn’t automatically redirect Hillgrove’s emails to their spam folder may also remember another story about him. One from 2013, when he launched his full-voiced defence of advertising svengali and wife-throttling arsehole, Charles Saatchi.
While everybody in their right mind lined up to condemn Saatchi when pictures of him grabbing Nigella Lawson by the throat outside Scott’s restaurant emerged in the press, the boy Hillgrove decided – against all decent reason – to stand by Saatchi.
It wasn’t just that he thought Saatchi was being unfairly maligned. He actively tried to push the line that Saatchi was the innocent victim of a cleverly orchestrated smear campaign masterminded by Nigella Lawson. Not just once, but over and over and over – for days.
And lo and behold! If it’s not exactly the same story he’s now pushing for Harvey Weinstein (a man he prides himself on having met twice).
The substance of Hillgrove’s argument is not worth giving any further air. Suffice it to say, he thinks the allegations against Weinstein are all a cleverly orchestrated smear campaign (organised by none other than… Donald Trump!)
Quite what made Victoria Derbyshire’s team think he’d be a suitable person to interview in this context, we couldn’t say. Though, for what it’s worth, Victoria Derbyshire did a pretty decent job of pulling him up on his argument – and left him looking about as much of a whopper as he unquestionably is.
Perhaps that was their intention all along. In which case, fair enough. Can’t say we’d have done the same, but maybe that’s why we aren’t running the BBC.
However, the incident highlights a slightly trickier problem that’s tucked up into the media coverage of the Weinstein story. For while it’s easy to spot attention-seekers and consciously controversial types like Richard Hillgrove in the sea of people loudly decrying Weinstein, there are some other bad agents floating about.
The ones that are harder to spot are the ones making all the right noises but are, to some degree or another, guilty of similar shithousery.
The press often gets a bad rap in these situations, and not undeservedly so.
Newspapers, magazines and online outlets are an essential part of the process and, alongside the police and the courts, should be working to ensure that justice is delivered for victims of assault.
So when it turns out that these stories have been common knowledge in the industry for twenty years or so, it can often reflect badly on the press. People are apt to ask why they have let this go unreported for so long. How they could let it go unreported for so long.
For our part, we’ve tried – as far as the law will permit us – to talk about this sort of thing. In Weinstein’s case, since about 2002 (and longtime readers of Popbitch probably weren’t surprised to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s name in the list of women who spoke out about their experience this week).
We’ve still had to tread pretty lightly though, so we can tell you what some of the difficulties are.
A lot of these stories existed as second-hand rumours. Talk between actresses. Talk between junior movie execs. Talk between disgruntled assistants and studio rivals.
None of that makes the substance of their stories any less true, of course, but if you plan on reporting a second-hand rumour, then you risk a number of things:
– You risk getting yourself sued to high heaven
– You risk being lambasted for engaging in gutter journalism
– You risk aggravating the suffering of a reclusive victim
– You risk destroying the reputation of an innocent person
– You risk making the wrong sort of enemy
– You risk making the wrong sort of ally
– You risk becoming the focus of a thousand thinkpieces about the dire failings of the modern media
– You risk your credibility
If, however, you choose not to run these rumours, then you leave yourself open to attacks of a different nature. You are accused of inaction. Of allowing monsters to flourish. The blood is on your hands. You didn’t do enough to bring these people to justice sooner.
And even when you offer up what seems like absolutely watertight reporting, like the New York Times and the New Yorker did this last week, the criticism still rolls in: “Why are we only just learning this now?”
It was true with Harvey Weinstein, and it was also true of Bill Cosby. Of Roger Ailes. Of Donald Trump. Of Terry Richardson. Of R Kelly. Of Jimmy Savile. Of any number of the ever-growing list that is worryingly easy to reel off.
But even when they have a first-hand source, there’s still a number of reasons why the media won’t run with all the stories of sexual assault they are handed. Some of those reasons are pragmatic (not having sufficient evidence to be able to stand the story up in court, should they be called upon to do so); some are sympathetic (knowing that a story should be told, but not wanting to force a victim to relive their trauma in public).
Others, though, are based in wilful blindness – and nowhere is this more prevalent then in entertainment journalism.
Blinded By The Lights
In order to report on the entertainment world effectively, you need to ingratiate yourself with the people working in it. Thankfully, a lot of the people in the industry are extremely pleasant and professional. We daresay the vast majority of them are.
However, a handful of them are massive dirtbags. And sometimes it just so happens that, a la Weinstein, those dirtbags are the ones calling the shots.
This means a certain amount of nose-pinching is required when going about your business.
It can be as light and inconsequential as pretending that a celebrity wrote a book that you know for a fact they definitely didn’t.
Most of the time, it’s things as dull as turning a blind eye to someone smoking, or doing coke, or pretending to ignore some ill-fated cosmetic procedure.
Other times though, it’s pitch black. It’s having to remain uncritical about Woody Allen when discussing his new film (about a man being seduced by a women and her stepdaughter) knowing all there is to know about Woody Allen – so as not to miss out on interviews with Kate Winslet, or Justin Timberlake.
Or it’s having to be uncritical about Louis CK’s new film about predatory men in the movie industry, ignoring the impending shitstorm it’s bound to unleash given the widespread and unaddressed allegations about him.
Does the principled entertainment journalist ignore these things and just get on with the job at hand? Or do they refuse to engage with it, even though they know that, in all likelihood, someone with fewer scruples will be drafted in to take their place?
It’s not always an easy compromise to strike – and with the ever looming threat of big-ticket litigation, journalists often find themselves falling on the safer side of the line.
But it is these same reporters who could (and should) be breaking these types of stories. The journalists who are rubbing shoulders with the major players, the ones for whom Hollywood scandals are their bread and butter, should be at the forefront of this stuff. And yet they aren’t. And to be honest, they never have been.
The implied arrangement is that if you turn up to the Oscars as a guest of Miramax, or you get paid to host a junket at Cannes, or you get an exclusive sit-down interview with the star of a Weinstein vehicle, then you go easy. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
And to an extent, that’s just good manners. You don’t turn up to a dinner party only to spend the whole evening calling your host a cunt (certainly not if you ever want to get invited back).
But if the host is a cunt – and, what’s more, you know them to be a cunt – what can you do?
It’s simple. You don’t show up. You don’t take a seat at their table.
Yet too many newspapers, magazines and journalists are unwilling (or unable) to forfeit the access. They can’t turn down the interviews, the parties, or the chance to get their upcoming book optioned by someone like Weinstein.
The easily-offered excuse that’s always trotted out in this situation is: “I didn’t know that these rumours existed; I am shocked to learn of this.”
Well, if that’s true, we have news. We don’t believe you. No-one believes you. And what’s more: you absolutely fucking suck at your job.
If you’re a reporter attending Hollywood parties, if you’re spending your summer in Cannes, if you’re overseeing front page splashes and conducting double page interviews on movie stars and yet you have somehow managed to have never heard a single Weinstein rumour, pray tell: what the fuck have you been doing?
Have you never had a late night drink with another journalist? Never gone off the record for a bit with an interviewee? Never noticed anyone acting even the teensiest bit shady at a premiere?
Maybe you’ve relied exclusively on the information that the studio has provided and never thought to seek out your own stories? If so, then our commiserations: you have been well and truly played. You are a fully-working part of the machine that has worked so hard to prevent exactly these sorts of accusations from getting out.
But the problem extends even further than that. It’s not just that celebrity journalism is peppered with a bunch of unwitting patsies. There’s another type of vocal Weinstein detractor we need to keep a keen eye on.
The ones who are lambasting Weinstein on the one hand, while doing the exact same thing in their own industry.
Tricks Of The Trade
Last week, we wrote about the copy approval fiasco that bubbled up around an article that Clare Balding’s PR team supposedly had changed. In it, we tried to point out that some of the journalists who were decrying the practice of letting PR people interfere in an interview’s content pre-publication were themselves engaged in far worse, far less ethical behaviour.
In particular, we spoke about the journalists who refuse to engage with PRs who insist on copy approval, but don’t think twice about letting it be known that they’ll write much more complimentary features in exchange for sexual favours – a practice which even has its own cute industry nickname: “Inches For Column Inches”
We didn’t invent this. It’s another of those ‘open secrets’ you hear so much about.
We have heard from certain young stars who say that they have been told, in explicit terms, that they will get better coverage if they’re prepared to get their heads down. We’ve reported on it before, but it hasn’t been picked up – and it’s mainly for the reasons we outlined above.
The stars don’t want to be named, because they fear the repercussions of the press turning against them (or, equally, their management). And we have to respect that.
Yet without those names – without a source who is willing to stand up and speak out – we, in turn, can’t name anyone who has made an inch-for-inch offer. Because if we tried, in all likelihood we would be slapped with legal papers before the hour was out.
So we do what we can. We hint and whisper. We nudge and wink – and we will continue to do so. But before we return to our code words, let’s just spell one last thing out absolutely clearly.
If you think you’re getting away with it, we can assure you’re not.
People know, and the tide is turning. It’s no coincidence that these allegations are cropping up with increasing frequency. Women (and men) across all industries are feeling much more confident to come forward with their stories.
It might take five years. It might take twenty. It might take longer and you might get lucky and die before the worst of it hits. But if that’s what you’re holding out for, you should know that you’re essentially following the career trajectory of Jimmy Savile.
And if your best hope is to become “the next Jimmy Savile”, you might want to reconsider a few things…