‘Sorry’ state of affairs: After #metoo, #whatnext?

With CBS and other broadcasters weathering scandals, will there be an effect on on-screen action as well?

The #metoo movement has been an important part of the last year or so, exposing abuses of power particularly in the entertainment industry (though politics and religious institutions are close behind). Behaviour and attitudes – which at best belong in an era long past and at worst never belonged at all – have been exposed with many women (and some men) coming forward with claims of not only isolated bad behaviour, but how they were repeatedly physically and emotionally abused by people in positions and the subsequent effect on their careers and lives.

In the ensuing maelstrom, there have been debates over the moral and the practical elements…. on statutes of limitations; the balance between presumptions of innocence and the protection of victims; the weight of previous mea culpas and apologies and the pragmatic, best ways to move forward in each case. In some cases, criminal and civil suits are being started, in other cases the ambiguity or age of the allegations means there’s little chance of any meaningful retribution on an individual basis. Actual lawsuits and legal actions largely remain works-in-progress, but the movement and the rightful shift in lack-of-tolerance have created a notable shift in the industry dynamic. Such a tsunami has already effectively ended the careers and influence of heavyweights such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Les Moonves, Louis C K and others who have pleaded selective innocence, admitted to individual ‘ill-advised’ incidents or acknowledged long term patterns of unacceptable behaviour. And though they dominate positions of power, it’s not just men: Asia Argento, ironically an early mover-and-shaker in the #metoo movement, has also been accused of sexual activity with a person under age dating back several years.

Harvey Weinstein’s downfall had been predicted by some for a long while – there had been many rumours of problems and he was infamous for bombastic and demanding personality. The departure of CBS head-honcho Les Moonves, a man who had had senior positions in the company for over two decades and was credited with steering much of the company’s fortunes, was more of a surprise, at least to the general public. The broadcast company, a massive heavyweight with top shows regularly the most watched on television (including the NCIS franchise, Hawaii Five-0, The Big Bang Theory etc) had excellent ratings but not the best of years in public relations. Behind the scenes there have been legal rumblings over conflicting attempts to control its board of directors. Brad Kern, who was show-runner for NCIS: New Orleans was recently removed from the position after repeated allegations of sexual harassment surfaced last year – he was demoted to a consultant position in May 2018 and then suspended entirely after a third allegation ahead of the new season. CBS‘s much respected veteran journalist Charlie Rose, who fronted the network’s This Morning show vanished from the screen in the wake of a string of allegations regarding sexual harassment and Jeff Fager, veteran producer of 60 Minutes also left CBS this week after they claimed he was guilty of  ‘inappropriate conduct’ involving alleged threats to a journalist working on a story about allegations against him.  The broadcasters award-winning raft of late-night hosts, never ones to ignore industry news in their monologues, were needing to pick their words carefully, though they all backed the investigations and the need to be transparent.

The question, as the #metoo movement continues apace, is #whatnext?

One can fairly point to the considerable woes of CBS and wonder about the climate that allowed it, but the scandals are hardly isolated –  Fox News had recently been the one in the spotlight, seeing the departure of controversial but cornerstone (and previously untouchable) personalities Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, both under a cloud of allegations from other employees…

Many are asking what lessons are being learned, that in the shadow of the many, many examples of abuse, that  codes of practice need to be re-evaluated and enshrined: that all employees should be able to work in an environment where they feel safe and not pressured to do things to get or keep a job that aren’t relevant to the job description. Equally, there’s a perfectly fair parallel argument that expresses genuine concerns of a trial-by-media climate where careers could be destroyed by exaggerated headlines or simply malicious, opportunistic complaints rather than genuine ones. In an era of both genuine scandals and lucrative book deals, it’ sometimes hard to tell which is which in the opening salvos.  And even in the case of those already leaving the premises with their heads bowed…. well, Les Moonves may be gone from CBS but his pay-out could still be substantial  – before the recent allegations there was talk he could get $120 million on departure and though that figure may be massively reduced if allegations are upheld, the amount he eventually receives regardless – judged on his years where his company did well on a business-level, may still be significant.

And it’s not just physical incidents under the microscope – the accountability climate means comedians have seen a backlash when their ‘material’ or attention-seeking antics have gone beyond snark and shock value and into abject racism, ignorance and sheer bigotry. Louis C K tried to make a comeback and decided blowing a rape whistle would be funny, Norm McDonald had to apologise for snarks about #metoo (and then apologise for the apology where he’d compared stupidity to Downs Syndrome). Roseanne Barr’s lucrative return to primetime evaporated when she compared a black Democrat to a monkey – showing that big companies were becoming aware no amount of profits could shield them from public backlash. Age old allegations weren’t safe either – director James Gunn might have acknowledged and apologised five years ago for older comments about rape and demonstrably become a changed man, but still lost his directing gig in 2018 when a conservative website chose to complain about them again in response to his Trump-bashing.

Given that many of the executive culprits have been in positions of power for a long time and once operated in a toady culture that was complicit or directly opportunistic accessory to their behaviour, looking the other way or brow-beating  accusers out of  (or into) jobs, it’s likely we’ll see more examples of people being felled by their past failings of character coming back to haunt them. And though it would be good to see more women in positions of power from which they were once excluded, it will be just as important to monitor future abuses of position regardless of gender.

The average viewer may not see much difference on the screen, but the connective tissue and the machine behind it may be utterly changed in the decade to come as people note they are being watched and judged on the way they treat others – and not just in primetime…