Culture

Shaming And Blaming The Victim: Why The Jamie Briggs Controversy Continues To Escalate

Despite Malcolm Turnbull saying the complaint against Jamie Briggs was a "serious matter" and a cabinet vote unanimously agreeing that "ministerial standards were breached", Briggs supporters maintain it was all a misinterpretation.

On Tuesday, junior federal minister Jamie Briggs resigned after allegations he ‘behaved inappropriately’ towards a 20-something female public servant at a bar in Hong Kong. During a visit as Minister for Cities at the end of November, Briggs invited the woman, as well as his Chief of Staff Stuart Eaton, out for drinks to a “popular, and as it transpired, very crowded” bar — a detail that is apparently very relevant to the events that followed.

According to cabinet-level investigations into the matter, the woman was so uncomfortable with Briggs’ behaviour on the night that Eaton suggested she stand next to him, away from Briggs. Despite this standout suggestion, the former minister still allegedly managed to make some unwanted advances, including a remark that she had “piercing eyes” and a kiss goodnight.

Briggs, who is the same minister who turned up to a party room meeting in a wheelchair after Tony Abbott’s loose farewell party, says it was a kiss on the cheek; the woman, according to her testimony in a cabinet-in-confidence report, says it was on the neck. In an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph today, Samantha Maiden mused that “there is a spot of difference between a peck on the cheek and a kiss on the neck from your boss”. Importantly, that boss is also a married man with three kids.

“We interacted between the three of us and with others in what I believed at the time was an informal manner,” Briggs said in his resignation statement.

“At the conclusion of the evening, the public servant left to return home and my chief of staff and I returned to our hotel together. At no point was it my intention to act inappropriately and I’m obliged to note for the record that nothing illegal has been alleged or in fact did occur.

“However, in the days following the evening, the public servant concerned raised concerns about the appropriateness of my behaviour towards her at the venue. I’ve apologised directly to her but after careful reflection about the concerns she raised and the fact that I was at a bar late at night while on an overseas visit, I have concluded this behaviour has not met the particularly high standards for ministers. Therefore, the proper course of action for me is to resign.”

Despite Briggs’ attempt to pass the complaint against him off as a misinterpretation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said it was a “serious matter”, and a cabinet vote unanimously agreed that “ministerial standards were breached”. So, why hasn’t it ended there?

Defending The Accused And Attacking The Accuser

In yesterday’s Weekend Australian, an article — which literally begins with, “The young woman at the centre of Jamie Briggs’s downfall sent a text message to his chief of staff on the morning after the late Friday night drinks session, saying she was glad the minister had ­“enjoyed the program” in Hong Kong” — implies the incident has been blown out of proportion.

For several paragraphs, it focuses heavily on the timeframe between the night in question and the woman’s formal complaint, as well as the content of text messages between her and Eaton the following day (which appear professional and friendly in nature). Not being an editorial, the piece relies on clever framing to get its point across, but the suggestion that the claims against Briggs are unserious is quite obvious.

The article also reports “several government ministers” are concerned that acceptable ministerial conduct had been set impossibly high. Though the particular ministers aren’t named, you have only to look around on Twitter for the posts backing Briggs as a “good bloke” to narrow it down.

Quite unsurprisingly, Australian associate editor and trusted women’s advocate Chris Kenny hasn’t been quiet on the issue either, backing Briggs and diminishing the whole thing to “a drink or two”. 

Publicly Shaming The Victim

The Australian‘s article wasn’t only problematic in how it framed the woman, but also how it described her. On Twitter, many have pointed out that the piece left nothing to the imagination, particularly for other employees inside her department — with her exact age, title and posting given away, it wouldn’t take long for colleagues to figure out her identify.

Even more concerning, Briggs has admitted to sending a photo of the woman — taken on his phone on the night — to a few of his colleagues, despite initially saying to the public that he would protect her privacy. A censored version of this same photo has even been used as the feature image across multiple articles about the scandal. Briggs denies to have leaked it to the media, however his Chief of Staff did provide the text messages between him and the woman to the Australian.

This blatant disrespect for the woman’s privacy — and her side of the story — is inarguably why so many women hesitate to report sexual harassment. According to a study into sexual harassment in the workplace, only 16 percent of people who experience sexual harassment will make a formal complaint. And when you look at how Briggs handled being accused of such a thing, it’s no wonder why.