Stop the rot in media workplace culture

I have received a copy of a social media post that appears to be the result of the judgement-impairing effect of emergent testosterone in Year 9 schoolboys. It was sexually explicit and gross.

Unfortunately, it was not the work of a spotty teenager with a warped understanding of manhood. It was created by a prominent member of a major New Zealand media organisation.

I hasten to add that it was not sent to me by its creator. It was forwarded by a contact who shares my unease at the persistence of unacceptable cultures within the country’s media.

I was dumbfounded when I saw it. How can this sort of thing be circulating when scandals and enquiries into unacceptable conduct have been swirling around these outfits?

We had the forensic investigation by Maria Dew QC into allegations of misconduct at MediaWorks – including sexual advances toward a member of the public at a company function – that was initiated by new chief executive Cam Wallace after the radio division was split off in the sale to Discovery.

We had an enquiry by employment lawyer Bridget Smith after NZME received complaints that drivetime host Martin Devlin had thrown a punch at a colleague, followed by allegations of further inappropriate workplace behaviour, including sending female staff members “uncomfortable” emails. Devlin, according to a statement by NZME, had been exonerated on both counts and would keep his job. Stuff reported that the initial complainant had left the company.

The NZME-owned New Zealand Herald reported that five Radio New Zealand employees have been accused of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct or sexism in the past five years – three of whom have left the broadcaster as a result. The other two people were no longer working for RNZ at the time the allegations were raised with management. No changes have been made to RNZ’s sexual harassment policy as a result of the complaints.

The Herald also reported that there are have been five incidents of alleged sexual harassment or sexism at Television New Zealand in the past five years. Information released to the Herald under the Official Information Act has revealed two workers and one external contractor have also been asked to leave due to sexual misconduct in the workplace.

Now the New Zealand Broadcasting School at the Ara Institute of Canterbury has launched yet another external enquiry after an ‘incident’ over which it is currently throwing the cloak of privacy. The announcement also follows allegations of harassment at the school that were posted on a social media page.

What the hell is going on?

I suspect it is telling us that the “Boys’ Club” identified by Maria Dew in her MediaWorks report is endemic in the industry. It was manifested a fortnight ago by the sudden withdrawal of a totally inappropriate promotion for Radio Hauraki (pictured above) that ‘made light’ of sexual harassment.

Cam Wallace is moving to change the workplace culture within MediaWorks  with a top to bottom approach that embraces the board as well as the workforce. Over coming weeks we can expect to see initiatives rolled out across seven projects – first to staff and then to the public. The planned level of transparency is impressive and Wallace deserves credit for the way he has approached a catastrophe that was not of his making.

There can be little doubt that the fact he came to the industry from ‘outside’ has contributed hugely to both his perspective on workplace culture and his determination to do something about it. However, other industry leaders also need to stand up and be heard by their own staff and by the public.

Protecting those within the industry (and staff relations with members of the public) must be the first priority for change and reassurance. It should point industry leaders to concerted and transparent action. And, for those who need an added incentive to act, they might also consider the effect that this dirty laundry is having on public perceptions of the media.

Media have long rated down there with used car salesmen in the eyes of the public. Revelations about misconduct across a wide spectrum of the business is likely to push the reputation even lower.

It is a reputation that, for the vast majority of people in the industry, is completely undeserved. They are sensible individuals who know the meaning of appropriate behaviour and respect for their fellow workers. They are let down by those who think there is something about media that grants a licence to behave badly with impunity.

They excuse that behaviour by linking their actions to a past they characterise as ‘a man’s game’ in which boys-will-be-boys and work-hard-play-hard prevailed and everyone (women included) had to be tough-as-nails because, hey, that’s-the-name-of-the-game. And that is bullshit.

The past was boorish and sexist. There were hard nuts, bullies and fools. It was far from being a politically correct environment and it required fortitude, particularly for young women who had few of the safeguarding processes that should now be available in the workplace. That lack of formal redress was why sexist schoolboy antics and bullying were shrugged off and did not have the consequences they deserved. It didn’t make it right, or any less hurtful to the victim. Today’s die-hard miscreants are simply trying to justify the unjustifiable by looking in a cracked rear-vision mirror.

There has not been a uniform approach to examining and changing workplace culture to make it appropriate for the times. Some members of the industry have been more proactive than others and transparency has been an issue with most of them. Some have been ready to shine a light on others but not quite so diligent about reporting on themselves. MediaWorks may provide a blueprint for others to follow. They should keep a close eye on the radio company between now and Christmas.






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