Con­tes­tant tells her story to Alison Mau

Sunday Star-Times - - FRONT PAGE - Alison Mau

Not long ago, in the mag­i­cal world of re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, a beau­ti­ful young woman learned the hard way never to raise her head above the para­pet lest it be lopped off by trolls. I can’t tell you her name, thanks to con­trac­tual is­sues with the tele­vi­sion com­pany. So we shall call her L. L had sur­vived an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship. She thought go­ing on the tele­vi­sion show would be good for her self-con­fi­dence. She would prove to her­self, she thought, that there was hope; that she was ca­pa­ble of any­thing (this may have been a lit­tle naive – mak­ing tele­vi­sion is not glam­orous and can in fact be hard, bor­ing and shal­low. But L is only just a few years older than my kids, so I can for­give her that.) What she learned in­stead, is that some New Zealan­ders re­ally are ca­pa­ble of the worst kinds of things. The show was bad enough. On the night the first episode aired, about 20 of her near­est and dear­est gath­ered to watch. It wasn’t the fun time they’d imag­ined – the bul­ly­ing among the con­tes­tants made her mum so up­set, she couldn’t keep watch­ing. But L was philo­soph­i­cal, at least un­til she opened her so­cial me­dia. The vit­riol that poured into her ac­counts, from peo­ple she had never met, was breath­tak­ing. ‘‘I didn’t re­alise on­line bul­ly­ing was as bad as it is,’’ L says. ‘‘I con­sider my­self a nice per­son. The big­gest les­son I’ve learned from all of this is how hor­ri­ble as a coun­try we are.’’ If you’re al­ready feel­ing cranky about L, be­cause you think that peo­ple who get to go on the telly should be grate­ful and just shut up about it, its fair to as­sume you’ve never been the tar­get of on­line trolling. On L’s so­cial me­dia ac­counts, the death threats, sug­ges­tions that she kill her­self, and com­plaints that she was fat, ugly, and should never have dared to put her her­self for­ward for the pro­gramme, be­gan to flood in. Late last year, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­searched on­line abuse in New Zealand. They set the bar pretty high – we’re talk­ing rape and death threats, not just in­sults – and the re­sults make for very sober­ing read­ing. Around a third of women sur­veyed said they’d been abused or ha­rassed on­line. Of that num­ber, al­most half said they feared for their phys­i­cal safety, and a whop­ping 75 per cent said it af­fected their sleep. Al­most a third said they feared for the phys­i­cal safety of their fam­i­lies. L says she felt all of the above, and was even­tu­ally too scared even to visit her gym in case she was abused in per­son. She ended up at her GP’s surgery, was di­ag­nosed with se­vere anx­i­ety, and pre­scribed med­i­ca­tion. Mar­ried At First Sight con­tes­tant Lacey Swanepoel talked pub­licly of death threats re­ceived af­ter an episode of the show in Oc­to­ber last year. Con­tes­tants on The Block (twins Ju­lia and Ali) and The Bach­e­lor (Naz Khan­jani) have spo­ken of sim­i­lar abuse while Heart­break Is­land con­tes­tant Caitlin Smith told a ra­dio sta­tion she was bul­lied on and off set. Both tele­vi­sion net­works say they’re aware of, and are re­spon­sive to, the dan­gers. A TVNZ spokesper­son told me health­care pro­fes­sion­als for both phys­i­cal and men­tal well­be­ing are on staff dur­ing pro­duc­tion. An on-call psy­chol­o­gist is avail­able for con­tes­tants af­ter shows wrap, and the ser­vice is ‘‘en­cour­aged, un­lim­ited and con­fi­den­tial.’’ Me­di­a­works’ spokesper­son said they stayed in con­stant con­tact with re­al­ity show con­tes­tants through­out, and ‘‘all have ac­cess to in­de­pen­dent psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port as well net­work ex­ec­u­tives dur­ing film­ing, while the show is on air and af­ter the show fin­ishes if re­quired’’. Still, the voices and opin­ions of or­di­nary Kiwi women like L, are be­ing shut down. Amnesty’s re­search found more than three quar­ters of Kiwi women who’d been ha­rassed on­line, changed the way they use so­cial me­dia. A third said they’d stopped ex­press­ing their opin­ions on cer­tain is­sues. We have leg­is­la­tion, just three years old, that’s in­tended to deal with all this. There have been more than 170 cases brought un­der the Harm­ful Dig­i­tal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Act, but the ma­jor­ity have been for re­venge porn, an of­fence usu­ally com­mit­ted by a per­son who knows the vic­tim – a part­ner or ex-part­ner – not a bunch of strangers threat­en­ing rape or death. The only re­course for peo­ple like L, is help from Net­safe to block and re­port the abusers, and ask the so­cial me­dia plat­form to in­ter­vene. A re­view later this year has been promised. It must con­tain some­thing that helps pro­tect the men­tal health and the rights of ev­ery­one to speak with­out fear of ha­rass­ment on­line.

Stars of Kiwi re­al­ity TV: Naz Khan­jani (The Bach­e­lor), Ju­lia and Ali Heaney (The Block), and Lacey Swanepoel (Mar­ried at First Sight).

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