‘MY FAMILY’S BEEN THREATENED’ Tracey Spicer reveals the toll of her fight to make a difference
The journalist on feminism, raising girls and making a difference
Walking through the streets of Jaipur, Tracey Spicer was stopped in her tracks when she spotted a toddler in the arms of an older man, and when she looked closer, she was shocked and disturbed to see he was touching her inappropriately. She knew then she might not have the power to save that little girl from abuse, but she vowed to campaign hard enough to help one girl at a time. Speaking to WHO exclusively, the former Channel Ten newsreader discusses becoming an “accidental activist”, setting an example for her children and a possible return to TV.
You played a huge part of bringing #Metoo to life in Australia. How did it feel? It was quite overwhelming, but I felt I had a duty of care to every woman and girl – and really anyone regardless of gender – to hear their story. For so long people have been silenced, particularly [those who suffered from] violence and sexual assault. So when I saw the Metoo hashtag break in the US, I put out a tweet and said I wanted to do stories on two men I knew were predators in my industry.
What was that reaction like?
The next day I received 2000 disclosures from a bunch of people all over Australia, sharing their stories. It’s been a real privilege to be a witness to these people’s stories. Some of them have never told anybody before so this is a huge moment in history.
Were you worried about your safety?
I think anyone who speaks out about inequality does get threatened, particularly anyone who speaks out about feminism. I guess I’m kind of accustomed to it after receiving a couple of death threats five or six years ago. I know how to manage it now, I know which ones I need to take to the police. I’m comfortable blocking or muting people if they get too aggressive. If people are getting angry, it’s because we’re effecting change. That’s shaken people up and I understand why they’re frightened and angry. So as long as I’ve got good strategies to protect myself and my family, then I’m pretty relaxed about it all.
Did you consider your family before putting your hand up for #Metoo?
I felt I had to do it for the sake of my children and the generations to come, because we might have them going into workplaces or on the streets where they feel vulnerable and under threat every day. The only way to effect change is to speak out, so the benefits absolutely outweigh the disadvantages.
How do you feel about Bill Cosby’s recent conviction?
I think it’s really important people who are survivors of sexual harassment and indecent assault see consequences for people. A lot of the people who emailed me said: “Oh God I couldn’t believe it, this person just kept offending and there were no consequences – he kept getting promoted.” What happened to Bill Cosby, it’s important that we have highprofile instances where people are held to account, otherwise people who are victims and survivors think, “Oh what’s the point of talking if nothing is going to change.” I know Harvey Weinstein was an important story, but I think the Bill Cosby case – they were very clear consequences after a long time, after many women came forward. That’s extremely significant and will give a lot of women comfort knowing if they do speak out, something might happen.
Will it be the first of many?
Yes. Although I do think the movement has gained more traction in the United States than it will in Australia. For a couple of reasons – we have defamation laws in this country that clearly protect the rich and powerful. We also don’t have a first amendment for freedom of speech. I did have difficulties doing my stories in Australia, so it’s more the slow burn in this country and that’s why we started NOW Australia, because I knew the investigative journalism wouldn’t be enough – we needed a not-for-profit organisation to continue the momentum and help people regardless of what industry they work in.
Can you tell us more about NOW Australia?
In January, I started connecting with people who reached out to me on social media saying, “If there’s anything you
“I had to speak up for the sake of my children”
want to do, like start a Time’s Up in Australia, I’d love to be involved.” So I gathered a group of about 30 women from some very different backgrounds together to build this not-forprofit, which we launched in March with a crowd-funding campaign. Some work in law, some in HR and some in the sexual assault sector. It’s just a really diverse and inclusive group – a really fantastic representation of different communities, including people from the Islamic community, lots of women of colour, women who are LGBT. We wrapped that up in June and now we’ve got an executive director on board who is building a service – and scoping it out properly, because we don’t want to replicate any services that are already offered. We want to be able to fill the gaps in the existing system.
You’re also involved in Sponsor #1000, a World Vision initiative. How did you get involved in the campaign?
I’ve been an ambassador with World Vision for more than a quarter of a century and had the great privilege of working with communities – particularly women and girls in developing countries – doing documentaries, covering stories, trying to make the people of Australia aware of the plight of girls in particular.
Which country has touched you most?
The country I went to that really affected me most was India. Five years ago, we went out to a prostitute village on the outskirts of Jaipur where the young girls – once they turn 12, have to choose between being a child bride or a prostitute. Which is an unfair choice for a young girl. I then discovered that the rate of female fetus genocide in India has actually been going up in recent decades, with more aborting of female fetuses. After the ultrasound technologies that came in, a doctor will say, “You are definitely having a girl, you should consider an abortion.” Females are seen as less than boys, as a burden even before they’re born.
Why is this campaign so important to you?
It’s so important because World Vision does wonderful work across the globe, including to educate girls, and we know that when girls are educated they’re much less likely to marry young and they’re much more likely to educate their daughters. So education is the pathway out of poverty, and it’s a grassroots campaign that can not only lift a girl out of poverty, but also her family and her community – I think the ripple effect is huge. I also believe that while #metoo is fantastic, it still hasn’t helped those who need it the most, for example, in Australia in low-paid industries, people in marginalised communities and globally, girls in developing countries. These people, they might not have public toilets in a certain area, so if girls have to go to the toilet out in the field or something, they’re more open to being sexually assaulted. Just little things like that can change the lives of vulnerable girls. The statistics are quite fascinating, that after natural disasters girls are displaced. Women and girls are more affected by the catastrophic flooding in Bangladesh because a lot of them lose their homes and they’re going to cities to work in the sex trade. The infrastructure is sort of swept away with the floods and the toilets are swept away, then the girls are more vulnerable because they’re out in the open, so in a lot of ways girls are discriminated against all over the world.
What’s the most shocking thing have you seen while working on this campaign?
We went to a prostitute village, I saw this little girl … She would have been about three or four and she just had these big, dead, empty eyes, like she’d been through absolute horror. This older man in a stained singlet was bouncing her on his knee and really touching her inappropriately for a young girl and there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to just grab her and take her away from these
“Girls choose between prostitution or getting married”
circumstances, but I knew there was no way that I could do that. She’s going to have to grow up in that village and at 12, face that choice … it was just horrific.
Did you speak to these girls?
We sat on the floor of one of the huts and I spoke to a group of mothers and even though I’d experienced a lot of aid trips, I guess I came to it from a pretty naïve perspective. Because I asked: “Do you dream that one day your girls will go to school?” And they laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. It was so outside of their realm that their daughter could go to school they said, “No, no, no—we’re really happy with World Vision because prior to World Vision coming in, the girls had to become prostitutes at 12 … We’re happy that girls now have a choice of being married and certainly in the next generation or the generation after that maybe girls will be able to go to school, but things take a long time to change.” That really struck me. It’s not easy to come in there with a quick-fix solution. And that’s what I like about World Vision, they work with these communities for decades to effect long-term change.
How has becoming a mum changed you? Has it made you more empathetic?
Oh definitely, my kids are 12 and 13 and I talk to them about the aids that I’ve done – we’ve sponsored a child in Africa and her photo is on the fridge. We talk about the challenges she faces and how they are so different to those that privileged kids in Australia face. But I also explain to them that gender inequality is on a spectrum and even though the challenges that girls face in Australia are quite different, they still arise from the fact that girls are valued less than boys and women are valued less than men. Things like the gender pay gap, the lack of women in leadership, the huge skewing in society’s wealth towards men compared with women, too. So we have huge discussions about it.
You’re very passionate about activism, but do you ever miss your newsreader days?
I consider myself an accidental activist. I’ve always been interested in personal justice and inequality – I’ve always done those stories as a journalist. I still consider myself a freelance journalist. Occasionally I’ll miss newsreading or hosting, but not very often, to be honest. I’m more intellectually challenged and energised by digging [up] stories that are not often told in society. I’ll watch a news service these days and I’ll see car crashes, robberies and murders, but you don’t often see the reasons behind why. When I became a journalist – whenever we would report on domestic violence, we were told it was “just a domestic”. These days I’m more interested in the reasons behind the story, rather than the actual stories themselves.
Would you go back to TV in some capacity?
Possibly! I’ve never had a five-year plan with my career, I just tend to take opportunities as they come and I’m kind of relaxed about it. I’m really happy with what I’m doing now, speaking and writing about issues I’m passionate about – whatever comes from that in the future I am pretty relaxed about. Once everything dies down, I’ll probably write another book. But beyond that, who knows!
Spicer with her daughter Grace.
The activist spoke to mothers and daughters in New Delhi, India, in 2013.
Tracey and friends walked in support of those marching on Washington DC in defence of women’s rights and protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 21, 2017. Tracey at a NOW Australia Event earlier this year, alongside Erin Brockovich and Yumi Stynes.
Tracey with former Channel Ten colleagues Natarsha Belling and Ron Wilson in 2000.