Male silence at the core of Matthew Johns scandal
In a week when the nation was confronted with a $58 billion budget deficit, when more than a million Australians were stripped of their private health rebate, when plans were unveiled to push the pension age to 67, there was obviously one story in town - Matthew Johns.
Knocking the federal budget off the front page of a major newspaper in budget week is no mean feat. The last people to do it were called Todd and Brant. They hijacked the coverage of Peter Costello’s 2006 Budget by spending the previous 14 days buried alive in a tiny air-pocket in the collapsed Beaconsfield mine.
While Costello was frustrated by his own burial on the inside pages, Wayne Swan might have been faintly relieved that, just two days after sheepishly unveiling our biggest-ever deficit, replete with some fingers-crossed growth forecasts which may have us not on the path to surplus but bankruptcy, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph devoted its first three pages to Matthew Johns affair.
It was the right call. While the Johns story has got a big run nationally, in Sydney it’s been off the scale – for the benefit of non-Sydney readers, in the course of a 45-minute drive home Wednesday night, I scanned Radio National, ABC 702, 2GB, 2UE and two of the commercial FM stations, and every single outlet was covering it at length.
A media colleague compared it to Lindy Chamberlain in terms of its divisiveness. Everyone has an opinion and they are often jaw-dropping in their ferocity, couched in terms which defy the normal strictures of slander, with Johns being labelled a virtual rapist, the woman a cheap whore, by male and female callers interchangeably.
The allegations at the centre of the story, and the way the story has unfolded, have been nothing short of horrible. Sarah Ferguson’s Four Corners interview with the New Zealand victim was almost unwatchably distressing. But Matthew and Trish Johns’ appearance on A Current Affair was also harrowing – at the end of the interview Trish Johns ran from the set and vomited.
In the background, the public debate has been dominated by those at either end of the spectrum, in discussing an event which has no shortage of grey areas.
Johns’ most vehement detractors have treated the absence of police charges and the victim’s admission of consent as an irrelevance. They have also forgotten or ignored the (obvious) group nature of Johns’ conduct in subjecting him to such rabid individual persecution, when a more curious person might focus on the identity of the other cowards who also had sex with this woman, and have done nothing this week to come forward and shield their so-called friend from being the sole focus of justified public ire.
At the other extreme, misogynists (of both the male and female persuasion) have shown themselves for the dullards they are by saying the woman, one year out of her teens, was a stupid, drunken floozie who “knew what she was doing” and “was asking for it”.
One anonymous player, who probably fancies himself a gentleman, was quoted on a Fairfax website as saying: “You’re not supposed to say it publicly, but everyone knows that if you’re polite afterwards and pay her cab fare home you usually don’t have any problems.”
This modern-day June Dally Watkins also pitched the players as the victims, saying they faced constant harassment from young women, the poor petals.
This is the most repellent aspect of the debate – that in this day and age, people still think that a 19-year-old girl, confronted by a group of men more than a decade older than her, can somehow be the instigator or predator in the equation.
If what Johns did was not criminal, and the police evidence suggests that it wasn’t, it was still indecent, bizarre and cruel.
This story has generated so much noise but it is in essence a story about silence – male silence, where a group of men extending well beyond the drunken pack inside that New Zealand hotel room have conspired to suppress or ignore terrible events, plural.
Long-term, the most dangerous thing which can come from this week is the smug and convenient assertion that this has been a rugby league story.
There is clearly a culture within league that provides cover for this type of conduct, and possibly encourages it.
But it is a lazy bit of class snobbery to say – as so many have done this week – that the problem is peculiar to league.
Sarah Ferguson’s report on Monday was excellent, but not without some flaws. In one scene we saw a rookie player who has just been picked to play juniors spouting his shocking opinions on women. Now, this is a kid at the start of his footy career. He has arrived at rugby league with those views. His parents, his friends, his school – they’re the ones who should be challenged as to how he’s turned out like that, not the game he’s about to start playing.
And to those who say that this boofhead kid has at least ended up in the right code, I can think of four AFL players, one of whom is still going around, who have never been called to account for a group sexual incident that took place in Adelaide’s southern parklands some 10 years ago.
And for every small group of footy players there would be some men out there who are stockbrokers, bankers, journalists, lawyers, builders or retailers, who have watched this terrible story unfold with an uncomfortable level of interest.
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