Sunday, June 11

The Noel Clarke allegations struck a chord: TV is blighted by sexual harassment | meriel beale

IIn the television industry, it’s the sound recordists who are often the first to realize if something isn’t right. It’s easy for someone on set or in the studio to forget they still have their mic on. So when they are whispering something to a colleague, it gets picked up, however quietly the words are spoken and whatever is being said.

I have been navigating the world of television as a freelancer for more than 20 years. I heard stories of soundies hearing all sorts of inappropriate things, and they have come forward and offered their support. But there’s one truth that is universally acknowledged – it’s usually said by a senior man to a junior woman.

This industry is creative, pressured, exhilarating and exhausting. I have worked my way up through the ranks, had some amazing experiences and made friends for life. Running a live gallery, where the show team sits to run the programme, involves some of the slickest teamwork you will ever see. Out on location you literally have the camera operator’s back as the presenter walks forwards and you walk backwards holding on to the operator so they don’t fall over. Everyone’s role is important. I love this industry for many reasons and that is why I want to see it change for the better.

I know when TV productions kick off every year. Not because of any industry news, but because my phone starts ringing with people wanting to talk to me about their experiences of being bullied and harassed. Since first speaking up about bullying in the industry in 2020, I became the keeper of secrets. Hundreds of people shared their stories with me. From this, a campaign to raise awareness was born – Unseen on Screen. In my spare time I started to volunteer as the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theater Union’s (Bectu) unscripted bullying and harassment officer. I hear it all. One person told me a man they work with encourages women on his teams to dress in a certain way. If they don’t, he makes their lives a misery.

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At 9pm on an April evening in 2021, the Noel Clarke story broke. Twenty women came forward accusing the actor and director of sexual harassment and bullying. My phone lit up for hours with women I know telling their stories. It was a catalyst: in our bedrooms, with friends, with our families, we felt now it was finally the time to open up and talk about our experiences with bosses, senior colleagues and other presenters or actors we have worked with.

Some older women would say they hadn’t experienced any problems in this industry. “Well, there was that time my boss leaned down and whispered into my hair that he… oh.” They stop. They realize. The allegations made against Clarke were distressing because so many of us have similar stories to tell, some buried long ago.

The morning after the story broke, I wrote a letter. I wrote about how there’s a problem in my beloved industry. About how women are not listened to. About how this has happened to so many of us that it has been effectively normalized. But it shouldn’t be normal. I wrote about how women are exhausted and angry. More than 2,000 people signed the letter, including many brilliant men.

A year has passed since that letter. We now know that the Met police won’t be pursuing the Noel Clarke case. What does this say to all the women who spoke up? As women we are expected to behave a certain way in society – to be nice, to not make a fuss. We’re supposed to make light of a situation that was in fact upsetting. And many of the people who we would be making complaints to are the ones in power. Many small production companies don’t have human resources departments – so if you need to make a complaint you’ll probably be doing it to the person who is the problem.

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In the television industry, the problem is one of power. Endemic freelancing and short-term contracts mean we always need to impress. The need to cultivate a good reputation is all-consuming. Why speak up when you only have a few more weeks on a job? Why take a risk when there are 100 runners who would be ready to jump into your coveted role tomorrow?

But bullies should remember that power imbalances aren’t fixed. Although many of those who harass and bully are still being rewarded and applauded, change is now happening on many levels. I am far from the only campaigner for this; Bectu supports freelancers on a daily basis. Initiatives such as the TV Mindset are helping bring the industry together to address its demons, while Share My Telly Job has transformed attitudes towards flexible working and the Film & TV Charity offers support and wellbeing facilitators.

We now need a universal independent body that provides HR and mental health support for the industry. Companies of all sizes will need to demonstrate they follow HR guidelines in order to gain funding from broadcasters. The Met’s announcement that it wouldn’t investigate Clarke left me dismayed. But I am hopeful. The conversation is happening, and women’s voices are getting louder.

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