Silence Breakers is more than a 2017 moment

I am proud to be a Time Person of theyear but speak­ing out on sex­ual as­sault must be­come eas­ier

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - FOL­LOW Jane Mer­rick on Twit­ter @ jane­mer­rick23; READ MORE at tele­ opin­ion JANE MER­RICK

In a north Lon­don stu­dio last month, I met the ac­tivist and char­ity worker Bex Bai­ley for the first time. She had been among the first women to pub­licly come for­ward to add West­min­ster to the #Metoo move­ment, shar­ing her har­row­ing story of how she had been raped at a Labour Party event in 2011 and had been told to keep quiet by a se­nior of­fi­cial. Along with Har­vey We­in­stein’s former as­sis­tant Zelda Perkins and the Ger­man Green MEP Terry Rein­tke, we were, amid ut­most se­crecy, be­ing pho­tographed for Time mag­a­zine’s Person of the Year cov­er­age.

While it was clear we were on the short­list, we did not know that the women – and some men – in­volved in the #Metoo move­ment were be­ing named win­ners, as the “Silence Breakers”, un­til just af­ter mid­day on Wed­nes­day, when it was re­vealed to the world. Over the past two months, as al­le­ga­tions about Har­vey We­in­stein and other rich and pow­er­ful men spilt out of Hol­ly­wood, New York and Washington, it was clear that mo­men­tum was build­ing be­hind the move­ment to call out cases of sex­ual harassment and as­sault. When it reached the UK in late Oc­to­ber, it hit West­min­ster straight­away – un­sur­pris­ingly, given the way power is hard cur­rency.

Yet, even when I played my own small role in this story, by re­port­ing Sir Michael Fal­lon to Down­ing Street for lung­ing at me af­ter a lunch when I was a 29-year-old re­porter, trig­ger­ing his res­ig­na­tion as De­fence Sec­re­tary hours later, I did not fully ap­pre­ci­ate what a game-chang­ing moment #Metoo was.

In­deed, Time’s recog­ni­tion of the “Silence Breakers” as shap­ing the news of 2017 mat­ters be­cause, in those early days, it was easy to feel like things would never change. When those of us in the UK, par­tic­u­larly in West­min­ster, spoke out, there was a back­lash from some quar­ters. When Bex came for­ward, some asked why she hadn’t gone to the po­lice (not ap­pre­ci­at­ing that this is a tough thing for a rape vic­tim to do). I was asked why I hadn’t spo­ken out sooner – when in fact my de­ci­sion to come for­ward was mo­ti­vated by hear­ing of more re­cent al­le­ga­tions in­volv­ing the De­fence Sec­re­tary, made by women who didn’t want to go pub­lic. When Kate Maltby, the theatre critic and jour­nal­ist, told of how she had been ha­rassed by Damian Green, Theresa May’s deputy – which he de­nies – she found her­self put through three lev­els of scru­tiny: first, by tak­ing the coura­geous de­ci­sion to speak out; next by be­ing sub­jected to what amounted to a char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion by a na­tional news­pa­per; and fi­nally by a Cabi­net Of­fice in­quiry by Sue Gray into the claims, which has been on­go­ing for a month. While she has had to main­tain a dig­ni­fied silence since giv­ing ev­i­dence to the in­quiry, the First Sec­re­tary of State’s friends have ac­cused her of ly­ing and have ques­tioned her mo­tives.

Of course, it’s only right that, when al­le­ga­tions are dis­puted, there be a thor­ough and fair in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But at­tempts to pub­licly dis­credit Kate, which come on top of the al­ready stren­u­ous in­quiry process, send a ter­ri­ble mes­sage. From pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions I have had with other women over the past few weeks, this over­all effect has forced some who were on the verge of speak­ing out to re­treat back into the shad­ows for fear of reprisals.

Yet de­spite this back­lash from some, there has been huge sup­port from oth­ers, both men and women and of all ages and lev­els of se­nior­ity in the me­dia and pol­i­tics. This sense of sol­i­dar­ity must con­tinue, be­cause while we have had sup­port, it is now our duty to help other women in all parts of so­ci­ety who can­not speak out, who do not have the same me­dia pro­file or fol­low­ings on Twit­ter. For Time to recog­nise this moment as its most im­por­tant of 2017 is some­thing to cel­e­brate, be­cause it does feel as if, de­spite the back­lash, a dif­fer­ence will fi­nally be made.

I am proud that, along with Bex and Zelda, we are the first Bri­tons to be recog­nised by Time as Per­sons of the Year since the Queen in 1952. Yet what is clearly a moment of 2017 must not be­come trapped in the zeit­geist of this year. What was a trend­ing topic on Twit­ter must turn into last­ing cul­tural change in so­ci­ety. Men who are used to act­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ately with im­punity need to un­der­stand that this be­hav­iour will no longer be tol­er­ated. And hav­ing be­come the silence breakers our­selves, it is the duty of all of us on Time’s list to break the silence for oth­ers.

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