A year and nine months after she founded NOW Australia claiming it was meant to focus on the problem of women being sexually harassed in the workplace, former TV newsreader Tracey Spicer is once again avoiding public appearances in order, she claims, to focus on her own mental health.
Spicer has retreated like this on earlier occasions too: she disappeared after actor John Jarratt was cleared of harassment charges and also when actor Geoffrey Rush won a case against the Daily Telegraph that had accused him of sexual harassment.
After a series of incidents that can only lead to one conclusion – Spicer’s embrace of the #MeToo movement was meant more to embellish her own image than anything else – the women’s movement in Australia has been put on the back foot and left wondering how it will recover from the Spicer show.
In 2006, after 14 years at Channel Ten, Spicer was sacked when she returned to work after having a second child. She turned it into an exercise to gain publicity, accusing the network of discrimination and threatening a court fight, but later accepting a settlement. That itself should have made any observer understand what she was about; had she wanted to expose discrimination, she would have gone ahead with the threatened case. But this episode served its purpose and gave her a public profile.
After a stint with Sky News, with whom she worked until 2015, Spicer took up the #MeToo mantle soon after the exposure of the antics of film moghul Harvey Weinstein in the US came to light in October 2017. She put out a tweet, inviting women to send her their stories of harassment, saying: “Currently, I am investigating two long-term offenders in our media industry. Please, contact me privately to tell your stories.” It must be noted that prior to this, Spicer had dropped hints here and there that she understood that the problem was widespread.
But when her tweet resulted in a large number of responses, Spicer professed that she was amazed to hear from such a large number of women. This contradicted what she had been saying prior to her tweet. She could not keep up with the responses to these poor souls. In March the following year, NOW Australia was set up, apparently to cater to these women’s needs. They needed professional help – from lawyers, counsellors, psychologists and the like. Spicer has no qualifications apart from a general graduate degree.
Unlike its American counterpart, known as Time’s Up, NOW has not managed to raise the funds or support needed to run such a show. It has been something of a disaster and the rosy pictures painted in the media have been an exaggeration. In fact, the media coverage has been the only area in which NOW has excelled. In reality, the women who sought solace by writing to Spicer have been led up the garden path. And there are a fair number of them, more than 2000.
Spicer has used some of the material she collected to front a three-part TV program on the ABC under the name Silent No More. But that has led to more revelations which do not cast her in a very good light.
For one, Spicer, who has always played up the fact that she has 30 years’ media experience, allowed the production company making the show to film her sitting at a computer where complaints from some women were clearly visible. This was in early versions of the program which were distributed to media for publicity.
One thing which journalists are taught on day one is to never reveal sources or source material. Yet when Spicer was asked about this major lapse, she blamed the ABC and the production company! It is part of a pattern – she refuses to accept the blame for anything that has blown up in her face.
When three of the women whose names were exposed in this manner made comments to media outlets that were critical of Spicer, she retaliated by sending them legal notices and demanding they keep mum. In one case, Spicer demanded $1500 as legal costs. The saviour of sexually harassed women had turned out to be a different kind of harasser herself. Would this encourage women to tell their tales to others? Hardly.
Spicer has also lied when it suited her and helped to boost her profile. Australia set up an inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace in 2018 and, in a newspaper article, Spicer claimed that she had proposed the idea to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. But Jenkins denied that Spicer had any role in the setting up of the inquiry, telling the Buzzfeed website: “Tracey Spicer was not involved in conceiving of or establishing the national inquiry, nor did she suggest the idea of the inquiry to me.”
In November, Spicer managed to wrangle an invitation to address the National Press Club in Canberra. After her talk, she fielded questions from the audience. Three questions from women journalists – Claudia Long of the ABC, Gina Rushton of Buzzfeed and Alice Workman of The Australian – were met with spin.
Long asked whether Spicer’s mismanagement of the responses had possibly knocked some of the steam out of the women’s movement; Rushton asked whether the remainder of the 2000-plus women who had written to Spicer should also be concerned about their privacy; and Workman asked why Spicer had allowed cameras to film her computer screen and whether she was concerned that this was potentially unethical as a journalist.
Spicer evaded answering any of these questions. She just talked around the queries in what was a perfect display of what PR people do.
The impression that Spicer has used her foray into the #MeToo movement in Australia as a PR blitz for herself gathered steam after she was given three hours on the ABC to front a program titled Silent No More.
There was little of substance in the program which only served to give people various angles of Spicer’s visage, featured numerous motherhood statements from her and some patronising comments to both men and women at large. It gave the impression that sexual harassment is a PR problem.
The absence of any serious discussion of sexual harassment with qualified people – psychologists, counsellors, medical staff or lawyers – was notable. Spicer has no qualifications beyond a general graduate degree and is incapable of bringing an expert view to the issue. She, herself, has not experienced sexual harassment beyond the garden variety that practically every woman in the workplace goes through.
Whatever happens to the women’s movement in Australia, one thing is clear: Tracey Spicer has put the brakes on at a very pivotal moment. As the saying goes, one needs to strike while the iron is hot. That moment has long passed. Spicer has done sexually harassed women a singular disservice.