In August last year, I made a formal complaint to Ofcom about the way I was interrogated, dismissed and written off for “talking as a woman” as I disclosed my sexual assault during a TalkRadio interview with James Whale.
Now, I’m pleased to be able to report that Ofcom has found in victims’, and all decent listeners’ favour, by ruling that the programme was in breach of section 2.3 of the broadcasting code, which judges the “harm and offence” of content – and that “the potential offence to listeners was significant” and “liable to discourage other victims of sexual assault to talk publicly about their experiences”. Currently, 80% of victims don’t ever come forward about their assault, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). After some eight months’ investigation, Ofcom has sent a clear message – that interrogating victims of sexual assault and compelling them to defend themselves and their actions in the aftermath will not be tolerated in mainstream broadcasting.
Since I stood up to Whale during that unexpected twist of an interview last summer, I’ve had to take time out from work and suffered bouts of anxiety and depression for which I’ve had to seek therapy and medication. But I’ve also been contacted by hundreds of people offering support, sharing similar stories of assault, and expressing concern that this is the level of public discourse we deem acceptable around it.
It’s because of this I felt I had to challenge the message sent out by my interview, both for listeners affected by such a sensitive but far-reaching topic (some 158,162 sexual assaults were recorded by the ONS between October 2017 and September 2018), and for victims, who might worry about being met with interrogation and doubt if they also choose to disclose their assault – and remain silent as a result.
In their report, which is published on the Ofcom website today, Ofcom has made it clear that the #MeToo campaign has been a watershed moment for how we talk about sexual assault in the media, and that any broadcaster that hinges a discussion around it, as TalkRadio did last August, must be aware of the very serious issues that discussion might raise, however it is initially framed.
In their attempted defence of the breach, TalkRadio described me as “more than a match for Whale … who gave as much, if not more, than she got”. But Ofcom has rejected the notion that this meant no offence was caused either to me or the listeners. That sets an important precedent for how we treat any interviewee who reveals themselves to be a victim. It doesn’t matter if you manage to keep it together or how you talk about what happened to you – reveal something so serious and you should be afforded due respect.
TalkRadio has tried to defend the exchange by claiming that the interview between me and Whale, which included such remarks as, “You’re very patronising, do you know that?” and “It doesn’t matter what you are, you’re talking as a woman, aren’t you?” as I revealed details of my assault, was “arguably no more offensive to either interviewee or the audience than could be seen or heard on a lively edition of Question Time”. But Ofcom, like many of those who complained about the interview last summer, disagrees.
Disclosing jarring details of your sexual assault and then being forced to defend every aspect of your behaviour in the aftermath, even when you’re a media professional, is hardly comparable to fighting your political corner as an MP or commentator. TalkRadio’s assertion that I could have been said “to have come out on top” completely – and worryingly – misses the point of why I stood up for myself and the facts about sexual offences in that interview.
Crucially, this is not a matter of crushing free speech. It’s a matter of reinforcing the importance of appropriate tone and interviewing method, something the best interviewers know to deploy when tackling deeply upsetting issues that affect a significant proportion of the population and by proxy, their audience. Rarely is a question off limits, if only you know how to ask it with due sensitivity. And when some 3 million women have been sexually assaulted in the UK, and nearly 700,000 men, understanding the need for that sensitivity is vital.
The conversations we see and hear on TV and radio have enormous power to enable people to come forward with their own stories. Let’s hope this ruling from Ofcom sets the precedent for supporting victims of sexual crimes, wherever they choose to open up.
• Nichi Hodgson is a sex and relationships author and broadcaster