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[OPINION] Sexual harassment and the media

There can be little doubt that Primedia made a big mess of how they handled the Mark Jakins sexual harassment charges and his subsequent resignation. Failing to name Mr Jakins even after he had resigned, waiting to play catch up with social media and offering limited information left them on the back foot and looking like they were hiding something.

It goes against their news brand and often strident talk show host approach. To be fair, such a response is hardly surprising. As the saying goes, you can always tell a cobbler by his/her shoes. You only need a quick Google search to find that whenever media houses find themselves the subject rather than the reporters of news, they tend to be less than open and transparent. It’s understandable, but not good enough.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge the speed with which Primedia moved on the allegations. If the CEO is to be believed, Jakins was put on special leave the day after a woman/women came forward. An advocate was appointed and charges were laid against Jakins, at which point it seems he chose to resign with immediate effect.

The problem doesn’t end there though. A piece in the New Age gives credence to social media allegations that there were other women and that incidents had occurred some time ago with no action. While the New Age story doesn’t cite or even corroborate the 'source', Primedia’s closed response means people are more likely to believe the story than had Primedia responded differently.

The reality is that sexual harassment, and discrimination more broadly, is a reality in our workplaces. We have among the highest rates of gender-based violence globally and live in a deeply entrenched patriarchal society. It would be extraordinary to imagine that our media houses would be immune to the scourge.

Despite the high prevalence, the levels are lower than other sectors, which gives some indication of just how rife the problem is. Research we carried out in South African newsrooms in 2014 revealed that for 78% of respondents, sexual discrimination was a reality. Over 50% of respondents said it occurred between once a week and once a month. So not only is it a problem, it is also frequent.

In terms of the kinds of sexual discrimination, the most common were gender stereotypes being used, pay inequality (this resonates with experiences in the BBC where senior women are paid significantly less than senior men) and also experiences of the glass ceiling. Sexual harassment itself was a reality for 40% of respondents. In terms of the level of women who experience sexual discrimination, unsurprisingly, it tends to be junior level reporters.

The good news is that the majority of newsrooms have policies to deal with sexual discrimination. While awareness of the policies was reasonably high, only 38% of women said they would report the problem to senior figures. It seems the most common reason for the low reporting level is the power imbalance where junior level people would be reporting incidents of senior-level figures - to other senior figures. It appears many people’s response would be to comfort a colleague who experienced sexual discrimination.

Tragically, if we were to repeat the research today, we have little reason to believe that the findings would be significantly different. What is different, however, is that unlike four years ago, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment are being mentioned significantly more frequently.

If we look at coverage over the last two years we were finding approximately 40 stories a day across roughly 100 media we monitor. This has been steadily increasing where for the last quarter of 2017 and January 2018 we see a daily average over 150 stories a day. It remains a fraction of coverage, and in the run-up to elections, issues of gender-based violence and sexual discrimination are so under-reported they constitute a handful of stories.

Astonishingly, of the stories that mention sexual harassment or gender-based violence, there is not a single female source in the 15 most quoted people. In other words, news stories that have these terms present are dominated by men’s voices. The increase in mentions is, however, important and positive.

The fact that Primedia’s response is now the subject of heavy critique - even when they acted swiftly - is a positive outcome. This suggests a growing intolerance for sexual harassment to be allowed to be quietly dealt with. Next time we hear about an incident we need to ensure we demand answers sooner, and greater transparency.

The struggle for equality continues.

William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Billbobbird

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