The trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp is like a poisonous gas, seeping into all of our lives. I set futile barriers, unfollowing all the gossip Instagram accounts that had soured with their gleeful spectatorship of the gruelling trial. I didn’t seek out the websites for whom this miserable saga has proved so lucrative.
But broadsheet newspapers still pushed it to me, and the faces of the plaintiff and defendant have become ubiquitous on my timeline. It feels like Depp and Heard are oddities in a menagerie, and all of our noses are being pressed against the glass.
I have neither the desire nor the qualifications to parse through the bleak evidence and declare, as so many others have done, who should be villainised and who should be lionised. Regardless of who manages to steal a win from this miserable episode, it has been horrifying to see how one woman has become internationally reviled — to a degree I don’t ever recall any of the men exposed during #MeToo enduring.
Perhaps this is why the extraordinary hate campaign that Heard has been subjected to has been christened as “the end of #MeToo”. It feels a ironic to watch the downfall of America’s sexual harassment movement through a defamation trial, from a country where our defamation laws smothered our #MeToo movement before it could even begin.
I know that after a while, it must get boring listening to journalists talk about how desperately draconian Ireland’s defamation laws are. But this is one example where the effects of having some of the most restrictive defamation laws in Europe has truly worked against the public good. Over the last few years, I have had more conversations than you could imagine with women who — inspired by the international movement — had wanted to expose their abuser. (Remember: the Weinstein case was revealed through journalism, not the courts.)
The fact that we have not had a similar reckoning in Ireland is not for lack of sleazebags, believe me. There are plenty of industries here where whisper networks have already tried to unveil abusers. Yet infamous predators still enjoy relative sanctity in their respective fields; be they comedy, journalism, sport, or politics.
The fact that you may not have heard about these abusers yet is because the evidence of their well-known assaults does not meet the impossible threshold required to expose them in the Irish media.
Some of these men — and all of the cases that I am aware of are men — have perpetrated some of the most serious crimes we have on our statute books. But we all know they will never be prosecuted for them, as even the Government concedes that the experience of a rape trial in Ireland is often too gruelling for the victim to reasonably expect to take on.
So these sexual predators have enjoyed notoriety, fame and respect while the women they assaulted are left to wrestle, alone, with the demons that sexual violence unleash in a survivor.
I can understand completely how and why a woman in that position, changed irrevocably from the misfortune of crossing the path of a sociopath, would seek justice in other ways. The things that make women feel vulnerable are threats to our safety. The only thing that seems to make these particular men uncomfortable are threats to their reputation. I can empathise completely with someone who, having survived sexual violence, would choose to turn to a journalist rather than a guard.
But there’s little to nothing we can do for these women, save for some extraordinary case where the evidence of the abuse was beyond dispute. But that’s not usually how it happens, is it?
Many years ago, as a student journalist, I had the bad luck to accept help on a story from a man who worked hard to make it seem like he had my best interests at heart. That wasn’t the case, and his disguise soon fell apart to reveal a nasty, predatory creep. Not too long ago, by chance, I came across a number of women who also had very bad experiences with this man — who has since made quite the career for himself, often as a supposed defender of women’s interests.
One of these women, propelled by a thirst for justice that I wish I had, took the great personal risk of trying to expose him herself online. She got a visit from the guards for her troubles. The message to the rest of us was clear. We’d do well to keep our mouths shut, as we were clearly dealing with someone who was prepared to go to great lengths to save his reputation from the consequences of his own actions.
I saw his ‘good’ name in the newspaper recently, unscathed. His character and credit remains unblemished, his connections with his esteemed colleagues undisturbed. Those of us who know better about him also know better than to try to change that.