Why I'm wary of Mau's #MeToo campaign

Deborah Hill Cone,
Publish Date
Monday, 12 March 2018, 12:02AM

Journalists are not therapists. I guess that's pretty obvious huh. A journalist's primal motivation is to tell a good story. A therapist's primal motivation is to safeguard their patient's wellbeing. I think that's about right. But maybe this is changing.

Because it seems that sending a message to a celebrity is now recommended as the way for a vulnerable person to process their trauma.

I just read an interview with Alison Mau, on The Spinoff website, talking about how she has launched a public campaign, #MeTooNZ asking people to contact her with their stories of sexual harassment.

In just a couple of days she said she had received 200 messages from people detailing what she said were sometimes very serious complaints. She described some of them as "heartbreaking" and "horrific."

She said she had found the stories of how harassment or abuse had ruined people's lives "affecting."

"They leave their jobs or even their careers. They end up broken. It's awful."

Quite a few of the people who had contacted her had never spoken about their situation before and just "wanted to tell somebody in confidence", Ms Mau said.

It strikes me as a mistake to choose a journalist as the best person to tell anything "in confidence." Let alone your most traumatic experience.

This is where the role of the journalist and the therapist seem to have become a bit confused.

The Spinoff says: "Garnering support from journalists and the public alike, #MeTooNZ provides a myriad of ways for people to securely get in touch with Mau and her investigative team, and promises a range of support options once they have reached out."

I am encouraged that the media organisers say they have "a range of support options". But what are those exactly? I have a mental picture of therapists standing by in the newsroom, with old dial phones, like a sort of 0900 sexual harassment Telethon, but apparently not.

"If you had somebody who came forward with quite a serious complaint and needed quite immediate help, the sexual assault support services generally work by referral from the police so you can go that way."

I am not sure what the waiting lists are like for free counselling, but I hope they are not too long and that they will fund proper therapy. I have spent almost four years in twice weekly therapy. Dealing with painful emotions from the past takes time.

There has been some criticism of Mau's campaign with fears it will be a witchhunt and innocent men, in particular, will have their reputations damaged. That is not my focus. I am more concerned right now with the way vulnerable people are being encouraged to exhume their pasts in public.

I respect Alison Mau and I am not questioning her sincerity. But I do wonder what training she has in dealing with trauma.

As a journalist in the course of her job she is likely to have interviewed victims of serious crime or natural disasters. But in that role, there are clear protocols which provide some distance and boundaries for the interaction. But when a journalist sets themselves up as an ersatz trauma therapist, I'm not quite sure what rules apply.

For example, Mau admits she has not yet replied to some of the people who have sent her their "horrific" stories. I am not a therapist, but I do know from personal experience that bringing up long buried traumatic experiences can set off a cascade of powerful emotions and reactions, even fragmenting quite stable people. Reaching out to someone who does not even reply, does not sound very – sorry, overused word – "safe".

Mau says: "It'll be the first time that many of those people have had an avenue to speak out." I would wish for everyone to feel they have a right to speak their truth. But the liberating experience comes from owning it yourself, not reliving your trauma for everyone else's consumption. I know a bit about this through my own misjudgements in spilling my guts in this column, in ways that sometimes I have later regretted.

Mau: "I haven't talked to anybody who is involved in any of these initiatives who hasn't said 'yay, let's go, let's get these stories out there in the hope that we can shape some long term change'." That sounds positive, but I can't help wondering what happens when these "yay lets go" journalists are preparing these stories for publication and their whistleblowers change their mind about going public?

Maybe I am worrying for nothing because perhaps in this new media landscape journalists are not conflicted. Maybe they are more interested in pursuing social change than getting a scoop. And maybe Janet Malcolm was wrong when she said:

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

For vulnerable victims of sexual abuse, I hope so.