Abuse of power can cause not only trauma and depression, but it can negatively impact productivity.
Sonia Ossorio, second left, president of the National Organization for Women New York, speaks outside the News Corporation headquarters, in New York on Thursday, a day after Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly was fired. (Richard Drew / AP)
Celebrity power, like political power, is a responsibility, not a right. Abuse of that power can result in severe consequences, both to individuals and to institutions, as evident in the spectacular fall from grace of Bill O’Reilly, the long-time Conservative host of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News,
Late night talk show hosts and comedians savaged O’Reilly in monologues and jokes following the statement by 21st Century Fox (the parent company of Fox News Channel), that O’Reilly would not be returning to the show “after a thorough and careful review of allegations.” The New York Times had previously reported that either O’Reilly or Fox News had given $13 million to five women in exchange for their silence about his behaviour. Stephen Colbert deadpanned that “Bill O’Reilly always had your back, and if you were a woman, he might have a go at your front too.” Ouch.
But the discussion delved deeper than jokes. An unusually frank exchange on CNN, between Margaret Hoover and Alisyn Camerota, both former Fox news journalists, demonstrated the insidious effect of harassment in a news room.
While neither Hoover nor Camerota (who is now a co-host on CNN’s Morning Show) were sexually harassed, Hoover had to “navigate a mine field” to make sure she was never in a vulnerable situation with O’Reilly.
Cameroto had experienced more than one issue with Roger Ailes, the former chairman and CEO of Fox News, who resigned in July 2016 following more allegations of sexual harassment. She noted that the real harassment was emotional, caused by bullying, which in turn, created a “chilling effect.”
Nothing focuses the corporate mind or rattles the C-suite like the loss of revenue. Even the powerful Murdoch-owned network recognized the damage. Not only were they bleeding money, but their takeover bid for Sky news in the U.K. could be impaired. Riley was jettisoned, albeit with a rumoured pay out of $25 million, an amount that will cause further angst for the network.
However, the clout of the marketplace will not help any political staffers who allege harassment on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Except for those who work for NDP members, this particular cohort is not unionized — they are answerable only to the MP for whom they work. Most MP/staff relationships have strong bonds of trust and respect, but that bond does not negate the need for protection in the event of abuse of power.
A three-piece series in the Hill Times, an independent paper covering Parliament Hill, notes that few staffers report sexual harassment fearing job loss and reputational damage. The impetus for the series, which will next focus on the Parliamentary Press Gallery, came from the allegations concerning Senator Don Meredith. And just recently, new allegations of workplace harassment have surfaced regarding another senator, Dan Lang. (See Correction below)
Abuse of power can cause not only trauma and depression, but it can negatively impact productivity. Surely, Fox News did not want an advertising exodus. Surely, the senators on the Senate Ethics Committee who are considering Senator Meredith’s future, have other issues they would prefer to pursue. And surely, any staffer or journalist who experiences harassment would find it difficult to do her job properly.
There is no question that harassment charges require fairness and professionalism. Allegations cannot be frivolous because reputational damage can equally affect a person in a position of power who is falsely accused.
Nevertheless, tough as it may be, the exercise of power requires vigilance to keep it in check. Our Parliamentarians must keep at this issue. We don’t need a Bill O’Reilly on Parliament Hill.
Correction – April 24, 2017: Following submission of this opinion article, new information regarding Senator Daniel Lang were made public by the CBC News. According to the CBC, Lang contacted CBC with a statement stating, “My office is not subject to a harassment probe by the Senate. Neither I nor anyone in my office is in breach of Senate policy related to workplace harassment or any other Senate policy.”
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.