Between tribal personality politics and lurid speculation it’s been a bleak week for the spirit of #MeToo, writes Dani Garavelli.
In last week’s column, written shortly after news about the sexual assault allegations against Alex Salmond broke, I wrote that the way we responded to them would come to define us.
So seven days on, where are we? In a deeply depressing place, that’s where. In the interim, a storm has swirled through Scotland, reshaping the political landscape, deepening faultlines and spawning conspiracy theories. Elsewhere in Scotland on Sunday, my colleague Euan McColm is examining the political fall-out; the impact of events on the SNP and broader independence movement.
But I want to explore what Salmond’s reaction and the coverage of the story means in the context of #MeToo. What does it show us about power and status and the importance placed on the eradication of the sexual harassment still rife in many workplaces?
When actresses such as Rose McGowan started making allegations about Harvey Weinstein in October last year, it felt as if a dam had burst. Bastions of macho behaviour, such as Westminster and Holyrood, finally began to apply themselves to creating a culture where victims of sexual harassment felt confident enough to come forward.
Given last week’s circus, however, that fleeting optimism feels naive. Seeing the way the allegations have been shunted to one side by a variety of diversionary tactics, you can’t help but wonder: what woman would choose to put herself through all this?
Before I go any further, I should stress again that I have no view on the validity or otherwise of these particular allegations. Salmond has denied them and is innocent until proven guilty. Nor am I unsympathetic to the plight of those who are falsely accused. It must be a terrible thing to have to defend yourself against offences you have not committed.
Nevertheless, in the period since the allegations became public, the former First Minister has engaged in behaviour which could be construed as intimidatory. Of course, he has every right to try to challenge the Scottish Government’s new investigatory procedures through a judicial review, but, whether he realises it or not, his very public mustering of support has implications for all victims of sexual harassment, who must be looking on aghast. What was his crowdfunder, if not a display of power and popularity? As a man who could afford to pay his own legal costs, the message he was sending out is that he was still the big political beast of yore.
He has also been casting himself in the role of wronged hero. Take his hashtag #forFairness. No-one who was not directly involved in the Scottish Government investigation can know whether the procedures were properly adhered to. In addition, as law professor James Chalmers has pointed out, the crowdfunder does not make clear which decision Salmond is challenging nor what remedy is being sought. Those who have contributed have signed up less to a specific goal than to a nebulous sense of grievance.
Some have gone further and said they are donating because they believe Salmond. Imagine how diminished these women must feel, seeing scores of SNP supporters rushing to his corner with no possible insight into what he has or hasn’t done. And imagine how offputting it will be for other women still waiting in the wings with their own complaints.
This obsession with Salmond’s plight, at the expense of the complainants’, was echoed in some of the newspaper coverage and on social media. There was much eulogising about his achievements which, while undeniable, are irrelevant. Some commentators spoke about “trial by media”, though, thankfully, there has been none of the tabloid character-blackening you used to see pre-Leveson.
One high-profile columnist tweeted that Salmond was about to be cast into oblivion by “a couple of lurid front pages”. What a devastating dismissal of serious allegations. And I’m not even convinced it’s true. Last week, stand-up comedian Louis CK received a standing ovation when he appeared at a club nine months after he admitted masturbating in front of women without their consent; footballer David Goodwillie – found in a civil case to have raped a woman – plays for Clyde. And these are people who have either admitted or been found guilty of something. If the police inquiry finds there’s no case to answer, it is not inconceivable that Salmond could launch a fresh leadership bid.
Alongside these pieces have been others asking what Sturgeon knew and when. Though it is not unreasonable to question the timeline, it does seem odd that in a story about allegations against a man, so many headlines should have been directed at a woman, who has been clear he must be investigated without fear or favour.
This background noise will make little difference to Salmond’s fate. The justice system is not a popularity contest. But the mood music matters none the less. It tells women there has been less progress than they thought; that even now – when some are claiming #MeToo has gone too far – it takes nerves of steel to bring allegations of sexual harassment against a public figure.
I should address one last issue. Over the past few days, many people have suggested that if I’m so worried about the women involved, I should direct my anger towards the source of the “leak”, which has thrust their allegations on to the front pages. I do have concerns about the way the events unfolded, but like many things in this case, it’s complicated. As I understand it, the Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans, who led the investigation, sought to make basic details public at the point at which the report was handed to the police, backing off only when Salmond sought an interdict.
Presumably, at the point where Evans was poised to make her original statement, the government felt it had a duty to be transparent. Can you imagine the outrage if at a later date it emerged it had been covered up? Whether or not anonymity is ultimately desirable, it is not unusual for those at the centre of a police inquiry to be named and, in any case, it would all have become public as a result of Salmond pursuing the judicial review.
The second leak – if indeed they were separate – of the more detailed allegations splashed on the front of the Daily Record last Saturday was, to my mind, far more damaging both to Salmond and to the women. I don’t know who was responsible, and therefore who to call out, but I don’t doubt the source will be investigated at some point.
Overall, the whole thing is a terrible, damaging mess. One wee chink of light, though, is the way those repulsed by Salmond’s crowdfunder sought to counter the great-man-brought-low narrative with one of their own. As his crowdfunder easily surpassed its target, they championed donations to women’s aid and rape crisis centres as an alternative.
In a thank-you tweet, Rape Crisis Scotland wrote: “For any woman considering speaking out about abuse or harassment, we say: ‘You are not alone’.” It was a powerful and necessary antidote to so much that had gone before.