It started with a tweet. Two years ago, journalist and author Tracey Spicer became the face of Australia’s #MeToo movement in less than 140 characters.
“Currently, I am investigating two long-term offenders in our media industry. Please, contact me privately to tell your stories,” she wrote on Oct. 18, 2017, 13 days after the Harvey Weinstein story broke in the New York Times.
It blew up. By the following March, Spicer had founded the organisation NOW Australia, intended as a “one-stop shop” where people who had been sexually harassed or assaulted could access legal and counselling services. Next month, Spicer will accept the Sydney Peace Prize alongside Tarana Burke, the grassroots founder of #MeToo, for her work.
NOW was the Australian version of Time’s Up, the organisation started by Hollywood celebrities in January 2018 that has raised more than $22 million for its legal defence fund, and connected thousands of men and women to lawyers.
But in its first 18 months, NOW Australia has built up no such momentum. Launched hastily and with much fanfare, the organisation has failed to live up to any of its lofty promises.
In an era where tweets have launched social movements, NOW offers a cautionary tale: how a well-intentioned group lacking infrastructure and experience can collapse under the weight of its own expectations. Elsewhere, #MeToo movements have turned momentum into action and legislation – but the Australian iteration has struggled to lock in its cultural gains.
Glowing media coverage of NOW promised a triage service that would direct survivors to legal support, counselling and journalists. But behind the scenes tensions were running high between Spicer and board members over what they could realistically achieve.
Spicer stepped away from the group, later saying she had experienced vicarious trauma. The triage plan was abandoned after a strong backlash from existing services and advocacy groups. And people already working in the trenches of the sexual violence sector are furious, accusing NOW of squandering a moment they will never get back.
One of the names “mentioned more than any other” in Spicer’s inbox was Don Burke, a beloved Australian television presenter who hosted gardening program Burke’s Backyard. And, it turned out, a relentless sexual harasser with an anger management problem, according to a blockbuster joint investigation from the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC, working closely with Spicer, in November 2017.
It was Australia’s first major #MeToo story. And more seemed just around the corner.
Spicer was a household name herself, a veteran newsreader who publicly took on the commercial TV network that dismissed her shortly after she returned from maternity leave. She later called out the sexism of the media industry in her “femoir”, The Good Girl Stripped Bare.
She regularly trumpeted the fact that her inboxes were bulging with messages from survivors. Hundreds of women came forward within a day of her tweet, she said. On the day the Burke story dropped, another 100 rolled in, taking her count to 670. Initially Spicer pledged to reply within 24 hours, then 48. She repeatedly said that women who disclosed their story to her would get the support of professionals.
The tweet was short and non-specific, but Spicer was a journalist and the context of the Weinstein story suggested she intended to expose serial high-profile predators. In its wake, she claimed to have learnt about dozens of household name offenders, most with multiple accusers.
Some stories did come. Shortly before the Burke story was published, Wolf Creek actor John Jarratt was accused of rape in News Corp tabloid the Daily Telegraph. (He was found not guilty this year.) The same newspaper published a story on film star Geoffrey Rush at the end of 2017, then the Herald published accusations against actor Craig McLachlan in early 2018. Rush and McLachlan sued for defamation, and things slowed down.
There were early signs Spicer wasn’t coping with the influx of disclosures. In February 2018 Spicer posted that she had discovered hundreds of messages from mid-December 2017 that she hadn’t yet answered.
“Eek!” she wrote on Facebook. “So sorry. Will get on to these in the coming weeks…”
A week later, she wrote that she had realised investigating the stories was “too big” a task for her and the “swamped” team she was working with. Spicer announced she would be working with a wider pool of media outlets.
In the same post — a month out from NOW’s launch — Spicer revealed she was starting an organisation to help people who had experienced sexual harassment or assault. In effect, NOW would be taking the triage work off her hands.
Sydney woman Amelia — a pseudonym to protect her privacy — had only ever disclosed to a handful of people the sexual harassment and assault she experienced at the hands of a TV personality she worked for.
But in November 2017 she read that Spicer was soliciting disclosures to an email address set up by the journalism and entertainment union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).
“Women sending information will be offered counselling and any support they need,” Spicer told the Daily Telegraph at the time. She would later say publicly that she had connected “every person who has disclosed to me” to lawyers or counselling services.
A large number of disclosures flowed into the inbox at the end of 2017. An MEAA spokesperson said it was monitored daily by a union staff member and Spicer was also able to access it.
Amelia was one of the women who sent an email. It had the perpetrator’s name in the subject line and included a detailed description of what she and her colleagues had endured.