An innocent man, and a defence for the guilty ones
The NRL Footy Show might be good for a lot of things – such as cross-dressing or making jokes about people who wear tracksuits and live in Bankstown – but it’s probably not the ideal forum for an impartial examination of the law of sexual assault.
For starters, there appears to be a small issue with gender balance. To describe the program as blokey doesn’t do it justice. Like its AFL equivalent, this all-male show has long resisted attempts to bring female analysts of the game into the fold, either by ostracising them on the rare occasion they are allowed on air, or by rubbishing their work at rival media outlets.
Given that the program is presented by former greats of the game, it is heavily skewed towards the players’ perspective when it comes to the degree of scrutiny they face, the demands placed on them, their hounding by fans and groupies.
We saw this last year when the program’s general line on the Matthew Johns sex scandal was that poor old Matty was the real victim in an episode which had been blown out of proportion by a bunch of female journos.
And so it was last Thursday when The Footy Show became the uncritical vehicle for absolution in the Brett Stewart case.
Just to be clear - Brett Stewart deserves absolution.
On the facts available, it seems deeply regrettable that the case against him even made it to court. The guy is shattered by what has happened to him. The cost to his reputation and career has been immense. He received significant public support from smart high-profile women such as senior counsel Margaret Cunneen (who prosecuted Bilal Skaf) and former Manly Sea Eagles board member Wendy Harmer. They spoke of a decent and civil man who would never have done something like this, a position with which 12 jurors swiftly and unanimously agreed.
But in the public debate surrounding the Brett Stewart case, one important point should be remembered.
There’s a big difference between offering absolution for Brett Stewart, and offering a dangerous kind of generalised absolution which seeks to excuse, dismiss or downplay behaviour which at best is boorish and at worst should be the subject of criminal charges.
There was an undercurrent to last Thursday’s Footy Show which, either unwittingly or by design, presented the Stewart case as proof of what they’ve always suspected – that there’s plenty of sheilas out there who just make this stuff up.
Phil Gould might be the self-styled intellectual of rugby league but when it comes to interviewing the bloke is more Oprah Winfrey than David Frost.
What Gould does is lend a sympathetic ear, which is why there was no examination on Thursday of the reckless culture within the Manly Sea Eagles which directly placed Brett Stewart (and every other player present) in a very iffy situation at last year’s season launch.
Stewart’s unfortunate encounter with this girl came at the end of an all-day booze-up organised by the club at which one of the players insulted a sponsor for letting his daughter attend while she was dressed like a slut.
Gould opted not to explore this interesting feature of the story, which you could easily argue suggested dereliction of duty on the club’s behalf, but opted instead to waffle on about whether the case showed how careful blokes have got to be these days.
The unspoken conclusion to that sentence is, blokes have got to be careful because there’s plenty of sheilas out there who just make this stuff up.
It’s of some credit to Gould that he left it unspoken. But in the public domain, on news websites, fan websites and talkback radio, it was not so much spoken but shouted. Stories were stitched together about other cases – ie, two cases - which had also fallen apart to create an artificial sense that pretty much any allegation or charge ever levelled against a league player was a fantasy.
And that of itself is a fantasy.
League doesn’t have a monopoly on this problem. This is not a league-bashing exercise. There are a couple of blokes in Saturday’s losing AFL grand final side who have provided the Victorian Police sexual assault unit with a bit of work in the past couple of years. Yesterday we learnt that the two players from the premiers Collingwood are under investigation over sexual assault allegations arising from post-match celebrations this weekend. It transcends codes, class, colour and creed.
And we have all got a problem if we look at the Stewart case as proof at last that sexual assault allegations should be viewed with suspicion, or that the system is somehow skewed against men.
The system remains massively skewed against women. It was only a few years ago that in NSW the laws governing the cross-examination of rape victims were changed after a defence lawyer asked a gang rape victim if she had an orgasm while she was being raped.
The danger is the public debate surrounding the Stewart case might discourage other women who actually have been victims of sexual assault from coming forward. It should not.
The added negative in this case is that so much has been made of the woman’s mental illness. This has been one of the more tasteless features of this whole sad tale. It’s been an open secret for months in media circles that the woman was “not all there” because people at the Manly Sea Eagles launched a whispering campaign ahead of the trial to rubbish the allegations against Stewart.
On the basis of what the jury found, those allegations deserved to be rubbished.
But the disturbing end result of it all is that we’ve now got a ready-made “mad sheila” defence which can be used by men who, unlike Stewart, don’t deserve sympathy but a long stint in a cold cell.
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