A Modern Day Witch Hunt

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

Moral panic. Mass hysteria. Mob lynching. These are the characteristics of a witch hunt and they have certainly been as prevalent in rugby league circles over the last week as they were in Salem in the late seventeenth century. Nineteen were hanged in Salem, another was crushed to death when he refused to give evidence and a further five died in prison all based on a moral panic created by the ignorance of the masses. We are not far off something similar now as a rabid media imposes their hypocritical moral views on a public divided between those willing to accept such trite moral guardianship and those who are forced into sympathy for the victims due to the fanatical nature of those leading the mob.

In Salem it was the church inciting the masses. Today it is the mainstream media.

A complex raft of issues that cover sexual assault, group sex, rugby league culture, celebrity, gender politics, sexuality, celebrity, editorial journalism portrayed as objective journalism, moral imposition and public relations have been simplified down to, due to the initial Four Corners story and the subsequent moral outrage that has defined the commentary on the piece, a referendum on the role of Matthew Johns in rugby league and the attempted lynching of any man who engages in group sex.

Such a simplistic view leads to Matthew Johns being viewed as either the martyr or criminal and his accuser being labelled as either the victim or a liar when in actual fact neither should be viewed as the white knight and neither should be viewed as the black. It is a shame those commenting on the matter have tried to cast Johns as the villain and the woman as the victim as this has led many to take the view that Johns is in fact the victim while the unnamed woman has been attacked as being deceitful and a liar by the those appalled by the treatment of Johns. And because of the lines drawn by commentators Johns, in a sense, has been victimised.

On the evidence that has been released so far, including comments from the player who left the hotel with her, the owner of the hotel where the woman used to work at and former workmates suggest that the woman engaged in group sex willingly with Johns and another player. A former workmate publicly stated she bragged about the liaison. The owner of the hotel said she is no longer welcome back at the hotel and disputed a number of statements the accuser made including the fact that the bathroom windows Sharks players are alleged to have climbed through were not big enough for anybody to fit through. The Sharks lower grade player who left with her said she was not distressed at the time. Johns also stated in his interview with Tracy Grimshaw that she was a willing participant and that he disputed her version of events.

None of that is designed to attack the reputation of the woman involved or to bring into question the impact her encounter with the Sharks has had on her and her life. She is clearly traumatised by the incident and is now an example of how group sex can go wrong. What may seem like a hot idea can turn out to be incredibly different in reality. Her testimony was harrowing and her distress real.

Rather, the dispute over the facts between her story and what others are saying is to highlight the complexity of the story. She, simply, cannot be viewed as a victim of sexual assault at this stage, particularly after no charges were laid against Johns or any other Sharks player. She should not, however, be viewed as an aggressor either as her anger at the situation seems genuine. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle and is something most of us will never know.

The only point relevant at the moment is the issue of consent and as police laid no charges, the evidence clearly doesn’t exist to suggest the group sex was not consensual. Moral arguments are irrelevant because morals are individual. The only explanation Johns owes is to his wife for his infidelity and they have clearly dealt with that issue years ago.

More concerning in all of this is the fact that sexual assault has somehow been linked to group sex which, firstly, is an insult to all victims of sexual assault and secondly, is more demeaning to women who consensually engage in group sex than the act itself is portrayed to be.

The blurring of the two issues is no doubt the fault of the Four Corners reporter, Sarah Ferguson, who attempted to link the case of Dane Tilse and the woman he sexually assaulted (where the facts are, seemingly, not disputed) with the story of a woman who, on the balance of probabilities, appeared to engage in consensual group sex with Matthew Johns and a number of other Sharks players that seemed like something she later regretted. Ferguson further blurred the lines by including Charmyne Palavi, who willingly acknowledges she pursues sex with footballers. In doing so, Ferguson undermined the sexual assault of the woman in the Dane Tilse case, allowing a legitimate victim to have her tale disregarded for a more salacious one where the protagonists had not yet been named. The two stories had nothing in common with each, in turn, having nothing in common with Palavi or her lifestyle other than the most basic element that sex was involved in each. Ferguson heaped a legitimate victim of sexual assault, a woman who regretted having group sex with a number of NRL players and a woman who acknowledges she pursues footballers and acts as a form of medium for footballers and girls, together. It was disgraceful journalism and it should have left most feeling sorry for the victim of Tilse. Unfortunately, due to the reporting of the story, the editorialising of group sex as “depraved”, the refusal to deal with the issue of consent all the while alluding to the fact the Christchurch woman was a victim and the fact Tilse has already been punished and thus the public’s thirst for blood quenched, her story has received little press.

That wasn’t the only failing of Ferguson or the documentary. The entire nature of the program was designed to damage rugby league and the NRL. No perspective was offered. There was no mention that either sexual assault or a culture of group sex crossed not only sporting boundaries but many segments of society. There was also no discussion on the legality of group sex. Rather, a moral judgement on group sex was offered by the journalist.

The NRL should be ashamed of incidents where players have assaulted or sexually assaulted women just as the NRL must accept some criticism of the attitudes of many players towards women. But to suggest the game of rugby league inherently encouraged a disparaging attitude towards women is, in the words of Tony Harrison, an outrage. Rugby league is a microcosm of society and reflects not only the positive elements but the negative. Yet Ferguson sought to tar all rugby league players with the same brush, be they Alan Tongue or Dane Tilse, Nathan Hindmarsh or Greg Bird. There certainly are players who have extremely poor views of women in rugby league just as there are in most elements of society. It is not right but it is fact. To suggest, as the story did, that this misogyny is a problem limited to rugby league was highly misleading.

Ferguson also, seemingly, sought to mislead with the coverage of the NRL education courses and the young Newcastle Knights player who, on face value, provided an incredibly crude statement about the best way to avoid trouble with women. It was later revealed that the quote, while mangled, was taken out of context and that the player had in fact reiterated what was learned in one of said courses. The editing of the program deliberately gave off the impression that players were learning very little from the educational programs when the contrary seems to be the case.

Ferguson also attempted to make the crux of the story a moral one rather than a legal one. She editorialised in the story that group sex was degrading to women while noting on the program that the Christchurch case was not about the legality of the incident. Most commentators have followed her lead as have a good portion of letter writers and talkback callers, none of whom recognise the right for one’s sexual behaviour, when legal, to remain private.

Rebecca Wilson, Tracy Grimshaw, Phil Rothfield and a horde of others have drawn their own line to determine what is right and wrong and determined that Johns and those in the room were wrong despite the presumption of consent. They have sought to make an incredibly complex story simple and the easiest way to do same was to make this a moral debate in order to garner the majority who have either little interest or knowledge of group sex. This allows for salacious headlines, the channelling of the masses disgust and the selling of newspapers and ad time. As such, Johns has been publically tried not for a crime but for an alleged moral failing.

The subtext of the moralistic commentary put forward by Rebecca Wilson, Tracy Grimshaw, Phil Rothfield, Sarah Ferguson and company is obvious: women who engage in group sex are too stupid to make their own decisions and are incapable of making prudent decisions for themselves due to self-esteem, trust or love issues. These journalists with their puritanical attitudes refuse to acknowledge or simply don’t understand that some people, both men and women, enjoy group sex and are willing to make the decision freely to participate in it. To suggest otherwise is patronising in the extreme and reinforces the notions of gender inequality along with sexual morality. It is these attitudes that demean women more than participating in group sex.

And lets not even draw on the utter hypocrisy of journalists such as Wilson, convicted of drink driving, attempting to impose their moral values on others.

The rabid nature of the moralism was designed to inflame moral outrage. And every story needs a villain and Matthew Johns was cast in the role. The mob demanded his head and that is exactly what they got.

To not only vilify Matthew Johns for engaging in a legal and consensual act of sexual intercourse is a disgraceful imposition of the morality of some onto him. Would the NRL prohibit a homosexual player from playing in the league if a certain segment of society deemed it to be immoral? Would a law firm dismiss a solicitor if they found out he had a penchant for bondage? Would a policeman be forced out of work if he enjoyed sex with multiple females simultaneously? Would a white nurse be fired if she slept with black men? If all engaged their fetishes and proclivities in a consensual manner then I would suspect not because sex is a private matter.

And group sex is no different. It is a sexual proclivity and when engaged in by consenting adults it is no different to engaging in homosexual intercourse, S & M, interracial sex and a billion other variations that are not considered illegal. There would be outrage, and rightfully so, if a man was fired from his job for being gay or if a woman was fired from her job because she slept with a black man. Morality is not concrete and should play no role in somebody’s employment and certainly shouldn’t be used by members of the media as the basis for character assassination and an attempt to take away the livelihood of someone.

The NRL, simply, has no right to adjudicate on moral issues and we have no right as a society to either expect them to or to impose our own values on people who play the sport of rugby league, just as we have no right to impose our own moral values on anyone else.

We all look back on the Salem Witch Trials with derision just as we now all reflect on the McCarthy hearings with shame. We will, one would hope, look back on the events of the last fortnight with shame as well. Shame that we allowed a multi-faceted issue to be reduced to a two-dimensional battle fought along moral lines. Shame that a taxpayer funded network has been allowed to impose a moral judgement on the viewer that further damaged the woman in question along with destroying the reputation and livelihood of Matthew Johns. Shame that the commentary on the story offered little critical discourse on the clear violation of the rules of objective journalism. Shame that the debate was not limited to the issue of consent rather than a moral argument about the rights to participate in group sex. Shame that women have once again been stereotyped as the weaker and less able of the sexes, incapable of making their own decisions on their own sexual practices. Shame that a sexual assault victim was cast to the side because of the status of her attacker and the fact he had already been publicly punished. Shame that an already traumatised victim was further hurt due to a chase for ratings and ill-informed commentary. Shame that an entire sport was allowed to be tarnished. Shame that we equate the level of punishment for a celebrity with their industry standing. Shame that there were few leaders in either rugby league or society who called the story out for what it was. Shame that we can gather as a pack and tear to shreds anybody who may be different.

This has been the low point for Australian journalism and a blight on the supposed Australian values of tolerance, forgiveness, individuality and a fair go. One would hope we never reach such depths again and that some of the wrongs will one day be righted and that the perpetrators of said wrongs will be held to account.

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