Comedian and host of the ABC ‘Tonightly’ show Tom Ballard has been accused of sexual assault. Has ABC completely mishandled its response?
I would argue, that in many ways, yes it has.
This is undoubtedly a difficult situation for everyone involved. But in light of the increased scrutiny of the #MeToo era, and the fact that the ABC is one of Australia’s largest (and publicly funded) media organisations, people have certain expectations.
Now to be clear at the outset: no criminal charges have been brought against Ballard. He is absolutely,100% entitled to a presumption of innocence.
Also to be clear: I am not in any way calling for a knee-jerk response from the ABC. Claims like this can do irreversible damage to people’s professional, as well as personal lives. In his own statement, Ballard has said these claims have been distressing for him and caused him mental anguish.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m actually a big fan of Tom Ballard. I think he’s not only an incredibly talented and funny guy, he’s also played an important role as a visibly out and proud gay entertainer. I don’t in any way want to add pain or anguish to anyone involved in this already difficult and painful situation.)
That is in part why I’ve considered writing – and publishing – this article for a while now. I’ve sat on it for a few days expecting an op-ed piece to appear about this issue in the Australian media. But for some reason, the media (both mainstream, as well as LGBT media) have stayed unusually silent on this issue.
Which to me, signals it’s more important than ever that someone should say something.
Even if that someone is me. Yes, I’ve been blogging for 5 years. But I openly and freely admit I’m not a qualified journalist and I know nothing about handling these types of situations from a PR perspective. As always, I’m just one guy expressing his own, personal views.
I really only have one goal in writing this article – and it actually doesn’t have much to do with the specific details or parties involved in this particular case.
The reason I am writing this article is because I believe the ABC’s mishandling of this situation could deter other people from speaking up in the future with their own claims of sexual harassment and assault. And that’s a situation that I think we can all agree, shouldn’t happen.
As a powerful and well funded media organisation, the ABC should not only be held to a higher level of scrutiny, it also has a moral responsibility to lead the conversation in a constructive, respectful and inclusive way.
In my opinion, the ABC hasn’t done that. At all.
Here are some examples of how I believe it has mishandled the whole situation – and how it could have handled things better.
They release one short – and incomplete – statement
This was perhaps their biggest mistake. The official ABC statement is glaringly short. Maybe they hoped that the less said, the quicker this might blow over?
Here is the full ABC statement:
“The ABC is aware of a claim made on social media against Tom Ballard. Tom has denied this claim in the strongest terms possible.
The ABC takes any allegation of harassment very seriously and does not condone or tolerate any inappropriate behaviour. All ABC employees are made aware of and must abide by our discrimination, bullying and harassment policy at all times.
We have no further comment to make at this stage.”
While their response didn’t need to be pages long, it did need to cover off on some important points and details. Not only is the statement short, it also doesn’t actually really say anything either.
Compare the ABC statement to the joint statement put out by production company Media Rights Capital and Netflix less than 24 hours after actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of sexual harassment:
“Media Rights Capital and Netflix are deeply troubled by last night’s news concerning Kevin Spacey.
In response to last night’s revelations, executives from both of our companies arrived in Baltimore this afternoon to meet with our cast and crew to ensure that they continue to feel safe and supported.
As previously scheduled, Kevin Spacey is not working on set at this time.”
It’s not that much longer than the ABC statement, but it provides more details, specifically: what they are doing about it. Their response came within 24 hours of the allegations being made public. How long has ABC been aware of this issue? When did they find out about it, and what have they done since finding out about it? All unanswered questions.
ABC hasn’t conducted an internal investigation
At least, we don’t know if they did – or didn’t – conduct any internal investigation into the claims because well, see point 1 above.
At the very least, conducting an internal enquiry into the matter shows that a) they actually do take these allegations seriously as opposed to just saying that they do and b) would give them a chance to present findings publicly (if appropriate) or pass details on to the relevant authorities.
Either way, it would have shown the public the ABC actually DOING something – as opposed to just saying something.
Didn’t mention the person who made the accusations by name.
The person who made the claims has done so publicly. Therefore, his identity – and name – is known. He is JooYung Roberts.
This is a recent Twitter post he shared:
Speaking up takes courage. Especially when it’s one person speaking out against a powerful, well known person who works for a national media organisation.
Consider this in light of the statement made by Transparent creator Jill Solloway in response to sexual harassment allegations made against the show’s star Jeffrey Tambour:
“I have great respect and admiration for Van Barnes and Trace Lysette, whose courage in speaking out about their experience on Transparent is an example of the leadership this moment in our culture requires.”
Mentioning people, who have of their own free will identified themselves already, simply affords them a basic level of respect. It recognises them as people, not as the “claims” they’ve made.
Tambour was subsequently fired from Transparent – after Amazon conducted an internal investigation.
No mention of future actions
Irrespective of the outcome of this situation, ABC missed an opportunity to state its ongoing commitment to ensuring a safe work environment or the standards it expects from its employees. It could have used this as a “teaching moment”, in the same way Starbucks recently conducted diversity training following an in-store incident.
ABC didn’t have to make it a huge public event. Has it reached out to its own internal staff, especially those working on ‘Tonightly’ to offer them support or guidance? Has it done anything at all in response to these claims?…
Whenever mention is made of suicide or depression, we see numbers and contact details listed for relevant organisations that can help people feeling depressed or suicidal. Perhaps something similar could be done whenever sexual assault or harassment is mentioned too?
No option for further discussion
The last sentence in the ABC statement is for me, the one that makes me feel both angry and disappointed:
“We have no further comment to make at this stage.”
That kind of ‘sweep it under the rug’ approach may have worked in the past, but in today’s hyper connected world, ABC doesn’t just get to back out of this conversation. Whether it likes it or not, it has found itself smack bang in the middle of a controversy. It clearly doesn’t want to be here, but it is.
One option to make something good out of this bad situation would have been offering to take the lead in this important conversation. As a large and influential media company, ABC has at its disposal an array of platforms it can utilise to bring this, and other matters, to light for exploration and discussion.
But instead of conversation, they chose silence. People like JooYung Roberts are choosing to speak up. They deserve to be heard. And they deserve to be safe and treated fairly throughout the process until a conclusion is reached.
The sad, yet unfortunate, reality is that there are many more people who have yet to speak up.
ABC’s mishandling of this situation does those people a disservice. In a short-sighted, short-term attempt to protect itself and its talent, ABC may have inadvertently done long-term damage to all those who are yet to speak out.
Here is the statement made by Tom Ballard:
As a comedian, I am no fan of being taken seriously. But today is an exception. This is an extremely difficult statement for me to write, but it’s necessary.
Over the past six months I have become aware of a claim being made about me. It involves an allegation of sexual assault: an allegation that I completely deny in the strongest terms possible. It fundamentally goes against who I am as a person and everything I believe in. Today that claim was aired publicly.
Four years ago I had a consensual sexual experience with someone. I had absolutely no idea he believed it wasn’t consensual until six months ago. His version of that experience as described on social media is simply not what happened.
This false claim has been spread via social media, text messages and gossip. It has been deeply distressing for me, my friends and my family. It has affected my work and my mental health.
I abhor sexual assault and sexual violence. I absolutely support the philosophy of the #MeToo movement: I believe in supporting victims and ensuring those who have done wrong face justice. But I have not done anything wrong. Any suggestion otherwise is false, deeply distressing and unhelpful.
Thank you for reading this.