Women’s groups fear for victims of harassment after Alex Salmond case

Sarah Pederson says the former first minister has diverted public discussion away from women's issues and on to political concerns.
Sarah Pederson says the former first minister has diverted public discussion away from women's issues and on to political concerns.
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#MeToo complainants may be cowed by powerful men after Alex Salmond’s public relations drive, warn campaigners.

A number of organisations have told Scotland on Sunday that they fear the high-profile public relations offensive mounted by the former First Minister may “set a blueprint” for future cases where “famous, powerful men” are involved. There are even claims he has been able to “reframe” himself as the victim in this case.

Women's groups fear for victims of harassment. Picture: Getty

Women's groups fear for victims of harassment. Picture: Getty

The former SNP leader strenuously denies allegations made by two women that he sexually harassed them during his time in office at his then official Bute House residence in Edinburgh. He has launched a judicial review of the Scottish Government’s handling of the case and claims the country’s top civil servant, Leslie Evans, will “have questions to answer” if he wins.

He undertook a concerted effort to get his side of the case made public, with a full day of media interviews the day after the allegations broke. He also launched a contentious crowdfunding campaign which raised more than £100,000 in just three days, before being closed last night.

While Salmond has publicly sought to defend himself, his successor as leader of the SNP and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been among those who have warned that the episode must not create an environment in Scotland where women are fearful about coming forward to make claims.

But Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland said events of the past few days show why women might be reluctant to report such claims.

“Women worry about not being believed, or about their credibility being attacked,” she said.

“This is particularly the case when the person they are accusing is in a powerful and/or prominent position. It has been extremely disheartening to see some of the public questioning of the women who made complaints against Alex Salmond – why didn’t they come forward sooner, why didn’t they go to the police.

“This is depressingly familiar.”

Salmond’s use of a crowdfunder is also an unprecedented move in a case of this nature.

Brindley said: “The use of a crowdfunder is these circumstances seems to us to be about power – if either of the women who made the complaints against Mr Salmond had concerns about the process, it’s extremely unlikely they would be able to raise over £60,000 for a legal challenge in a matter of hours.

“When the #MeToo movement started, some people were shocked at the level of sexual harassment women were experiencing but not feeling able to report. We need to create a climate where women feel able to come forward and report sexual harassment – no matter who the perpetrator is. Events of the past few days have not helped.”

Salmond has insisted that he bears no animosity to the women making the allegations and claims their confidentiality may have been jeopardised by “sustained” leaks by the Scottish Government. The process used by ministers to investigate the claims has denied him “natural justice”, the former SNP leader adds, because his legal team was not allowed access to witnesses or to call his own witnesses in the case.

Rachel Adamson, co-director at Zero Tolerance, said: “The high-profile nature of these allegations mean they have the potential to set a blueprint for the way future cases are handled and as such both the Scottish Government and the Scottish press have a key role to play. We know that women are already reluctant to report sexual crimes and a large part of that is their justified fear of not being believed – this is often exacerbated when the accused is a famous, powerful man.

“As an employer, the government must handle reports of sexual offences with care, responsibility and sensitivity towards survivors. The media must ensure that reporting is focused on the key issue – male abuse of power.

“Unfortunately, until we live in a world where women enjoy full gender equality, we will continue to see cases of men’s abuse of power in the workplace. Regardless of outcome, survivors of sexual violence will be watching the way in which the government handles the allegations against Alex Salmond as well as the media’s response – we must make sure that they feel able to speak out.”

The way the news media has covered the issue has been called into question by Professor Sarah Pederson, who specialises in women’s engagement with the media at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. News organisations are too quick to focus on the political issues, she warns, rather than the sexual harassment claims at the heart of the current case.

“Mr Salmond has been able to seize the initiative and reframe public discussion, presenting himself as a victim and attempting to influence the court of public opinion,” she said.

“This illustrates the continuing dominance of male voices in the media, which of course now includes social media. Salmond’s use of social media to appeal directly to supporters also demonstrates how these channels can be used to shape a fast-moving story and to offer an alternative viewpoint to that of the mainstream media. The MSM may well have wished to focus more on the original story, but Mr Salmond has easily been able to refocus the discussion – and the press has followed him.”

She even suggests the Salmond case may be seen against a broader reaction against the wave of sexual harassment claims which have emerged globally since the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood.

She added: “We should also look at the story within a wider backlash to #MeToo – for example the return to performance of Louis CK – and the continuation of popular myths about women who come forward to make such accusations. There is always a concern when the media reports these cases that other potential accusers of powerful men, whether in politics or elsewhere, may be deterred from coming forwards by the way in which they are discussed in the media.”