ABC’s ‘breathtaking’ error exposed

 

The ABC has been accused of violating women's privacy and compromising their safety, after circulating a documentary which included the real names, faces and personal stories of rape and domestic violence victims, without the survivors' knowledge or consent.

One woman who works in the media says she now has significant safety concerns, and has no way of knowing how many people have seen her name and private disclosure.

Silent No More, is a three part documentary about the #MeToo movement in Australia produced by Southern Pictures for the ABC. It stars former newsreader turned "accidental advocate" Tracey Spicer who received more than 2000 disclosures of sexual violence and harassment, after publicly calling for women's stories in the wake of the #MeToo hashtag going viral in October 2017.

A preview version of the documentary was distributed by the ABC's marketing department to media outlets in early October, in anticipation of the November 25 televised launch.

But a joint investigation conducted by news.com.au and BuzzFeed News has found that the already circulating documentary has included disclosures received by Spicer regarding rape, harassment and domestic violence, without the women's consent.

The victims - whose names and faces also appear - had no knowledge of the documentary's existence, or that Spicer had shared their confidential disclosures with a film crew, until contacted.

One woman, Mary* who was gang-raped as a teenager, disclosed that information to Spicer in a private Facebook message sent in March 2018.

Mary's real name, face and disclosure have appeared in the circulated preview documentary, in a scene where Spicer reads out details of the gang rape, including the specific suburb and niche industry where Mary was working at the time of the assault.

"This is the first I've heard about the documentary" Mary said, when contacted for comment last week.

"I didn't consent to [my name] being on the screen. Tracey didn't ask me" she said.

Mary* says she never consented for her name or photo to appear in the documentary. Picture: Supplied/Red redaction added
Mary* says she never consented for her name or photo to appear in the documentary. Picture: Supplied/Red redaction added

Spicer has said she is "utterly gutted" and apologises "deeply and unreservedly to those whose names were visible" in the preview version. The ABC blamed "human error" for uploading an "early version" of the documentary to their online portal. It has since been removed.

A second woman Tiffany* who works in the media has also confirmed that she did not give permission for her name, face and private disclosure to Spicer of workplace sexual harassment to ever be shared with anyone, let alone filmed and included in a documentary.

"I sent a private DM [direct message] to an individual woman, I didn't expect my comments to end up in a documentary," she says.

"I didn't consent and she hasn't told me she would use my information in this way.

"Other people have seen it now. I don't know who they are. It's a breach of trust. It's not professional, it's unethical."

Tiffany* feels unsafe now that her story has been circulated among unknown numbers of media. Picture: Supplied
Tiffany* feels unsafe now that her story has been circulated among unknown numbers of media. Picture: Supplied

Spicer says she "was assured survivors' identities would be fully protected" by Southern Pictures. Spicer did not answer questions regarding why she didn't seek Tiffany and other women's permission before allowing a camera to film their various disclosures. The ABC has confirmed Tiffany's disclosure will not appear in the final broadcast version. They have not answered questions regarding how many times the current documentary has already been viewed.

Tiffany says that even if the ABC removed her section before broadcast, she now has safety concerns and feels "aghast".

"[My offender] might have already seen it," she says "He would be well placed to be able to obtain a [preview] copy. He has powerful friends in the industry. It's alarming."

Tiffany's original message described "a well-practised and highly manipulative predator" who works in a tight-knit area of the media industry. She referred to the man as "a Weinstein, a Trump, a misogynist, a narcissistic predator" adding "people around him know but have yet to speak up".

The specific film genre the man works in was also included on screen, along with Tiffany's real name, photo and profile picture.

'IT WOULDN'T BE SAFE FOR THIS TO BE AIRED'

Concerningly, Tiffany's disclosure also revealed that she is currently living in a domestic violence situation. For ethical and safety reasons we will not repeat the contents of that disclosure, except to say that it was also included in the preview documentary without Tiffany's consent, and fully identifies the male individual.

"There is a duty of care if you're using people's stories," Tiffany says. "I was never told my story would be used or contacted by anyone at the ABC about this.

"I would like the ABC to acknowledge what they have done. There has clearly been harm done and I'd like that on the record."

The ABC has said they apologise "for any harm or upset" caused to the women or their families, adding that "it has always been our intention that these names and details be blurred before broadcast".

When news.com.au and BuzzFeed News sought to contact a third woman to determine if she had consented for the ABC to include her real name, profile picture and rape disclosure, we discovered that the woman is now dead, having passed away in recent months.

‘Utterly gutted’: Spicer has had to apologise to women for sharing their stories and names without permission. Picture: Supplied
‘Utterly gutted’: Spicer has had to apologise to women for sharing their stories and names without permission. Picture: Supplied

In the documentary, Spicer reads out aspects of the now dead woman's story while her name, age, and other identifying features appear on screen alongside the details of her rape which occurred when she was 15.

The ABC did not respond to specific questions about whether they sought permission from the woman's grieving family before circulating the documentary, but it is understood her name will not be aired in the final version but details of her story will, based on consent she allegedly provided while alive.

Elsewhere throughout the series, several other emails which were sent to Spicer by victims are included. While names are redacted, other details of what happened to the victims are included, it has been confirmed that not all women consented to this usage.

Ironically, the documentary makers did successfully redact the names of male trolls who have attacked Spicer, as well details of Spicer's correspondence related to professional matters.

The ABC did not fail to ensure the identity of male trolls were protected. Picture: Supplied
The ABC did not fail to ensure the identity of male trolls were protected. Picture: Supplied

SHATTERING AND BREATHTAKING

Lawyer Adair Donaldson has described the situation as "breathtaking".

"Abuse is about betrayal of trust," he says. "When survivors have had the courage to come forward and trust someone again, it's mortifying to think this could happen."

Donaldson has suggested that anyone impacted by the breach seek legal advice on their options.

Hayley Foster, CEO of Women's Safety NSW, has echoed concerns, saying that using survivors' stories without their knowledge or consent in any context can be "shattering" for the victim and can exacerbate existing trauma.

"It may be some time again before [a survivor] feels safe to reach out for help, if at all," she says.

Foster says that the privacy breach may also undermine survivor confidence in the media more broadly, and that other survivors who contacted Spicer may now also "experience anxiety in relation to their own information" even if not affected by this particular breach.

Since approaching ABC, Southern Pictures and Spicer for comment on Monday morning, the ABC has cancelled a scheduled live screening, writing to attendees to say "We regret to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, tonight's preview screening of Silent No More at Palace Central has been cancelled."

Separately, yesterday morning Spicer pulled out of an event with the original founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, which was set to be held last night at the University of Sydney. The email to attendees read:

"Unfortunately, Tracey Spicer AM has had to withdraw from tonight's event due to unforeseen circumstances. Tarana Burke will still appear in conversation with Jan Fran, focusing on the movement more broadly and lessons from the United States."

The email announcing Tracey was pulling out of Tuesday's event with Tarana Burke. Picture: Supplied
The email announcing Tracey was pulling out of Tuesday's event with Tarana Burke. Picture: Supplied

Last month - after the faulty preview copy of the documentary had already been uploaded online and distributed to other media outlets - Spicer told Buzzfeed News that "at all points I have treated disclosures with the utmost confidentiality". In earlier correspondence obtained by BuzzFeed News from August 2018, Spicer claimed that since receiving approximately 2000 disclosures "not one of those disclosures has been shared with anyone, unless I have the person's express consent". She added that she had been "meticulous in this".

Spicer says she is "relieved that the ABC has swiftly moved to take [the preview version of the documentary] down".

SPICER AND #METOO IN AUSTRALIA

Spicer became the figurehead of the Australian arm of the #MeToo movement in late 2017, after calling for disclosures. She has frequently cited the number of disclosures she received also claiming in 2017 that she was investigating up to 40 household names, of men who work in media.

In 2018, more than $100,000 was donated to an enterprise jointly set up by Spicer - NOW Australia - which promised to triage sexual harassment victims to counselling and legal support.

But two years on, both the triage service and the bulk of the disclosures failed to ever materialise.

'Eek!'; Spicer has struggled to stay on top of the many disclosures she solicited from survivors. Picture: Supplied
'Eek!'; Spicer has struggled to stay on top of the many disclosures she solicited from survivors. Picture: Supplied

Spicer has since split with NOW Australia, who issued Southern Pictures a cease and desist letter in September this year advising them that "if any of our NOW Australia branding appears in the documentary, please ensure it is removed".

Spicer is scheduled to appear today the National Press Club on #MeToo, before collecting the Sydney Peace Prize on behalf of #MeToo survivors on Thursday, along with Tarana Burke.

NOT THE FIRST TIME

In recent years the ABC has been celebrated for their reporting on sexual assault and domestic violence, especially in their Hitting Home series and their coverage of Saxon Mullin's 'I am that girl' 4 Corners episode.

But this latest debacle is not the first time the national broadcaster has been accused of violating a rape survivor's privacy or outing a survivor without their consent.

In a 2007 civil lawsuit - "Jane Doe v the Australian Broadcasting Network" - a rape victim who had been identified on ABC radio without her consent was awarded $234,000.

Doe was 27 when she was attacked by her estranged husband who raped her twice. On the day of his sentencing, the ABC broadcast three radio news bulletins where they identified the perpetrator by name and described his offence as rape within marriage. The broadcast reports also revealed the offences had occurred in Jane Doe's home, named the suburb and described the part of Melbourne where the suburb was. In addition, one of the bulletins identified Jane Doe by name.

Doe was devastated, saying she felt "stripped naked in public".

"I felt humiliated. I felt like everyone in the street and everyone around me knows that it was on the radio".

The judge heard extensive evidence of how the broadcast had exacerbated the woman's trauma, "hurtling her back into the powerlessness and the fear" that she felt during the original assault.

In ruling in Doe's favour, Judge Hampel also blasted the ABC's legal tactics describing them as "oppressive, unfair and inappropriate" after they wrote threatening correspondence to Doe's lawyers advising Doe that they would pursue her personally for costs, and that her claim was manifestly hopeless and had no real prospect of success.

The ABC's legal team had also served subpoenas on a considerable number of her family and friends trying to determine whether she had disclosed that she was a rape victim to anyone, which, they argued, would show that she had already surrendered her right to privacy. The ABC's defence also tried to argue that there was no evidence that anyone outside of Doe and her counsellor had heard the radio bulletins.

The judge eventually found in Doe's favour.

While Silent No More will still air - albeit with some changes to the version originally sent out - for Tiffany the damage is already done.

"I've become so much more cautions, I'm less trusting of the world," she says. "There's a part of me that has been stolen that really doesn't trust people now."

Nina Funnell is an award-winning journalist and sexual assault survivor advocate.

*Survivors names have been changed

People can call Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia on 1800 424 017 (24/7)