On the afternoon of Thursday November 17, Age editor-in-chief Mark Forbes sent an email to his newsroom.

“Wednesday night was The Age Music Victoria Awards, with sell-out crowds, great music and a lot of love for The Age’s support of live music in this town. I think I’m still recovering.”

Forbes’ career might never recover.

News filtered out among certain segments of Melbourne’s media class late last week that Fairfax was quietly conducting an investigation into the editor-in-chief, after a female journalist in the newsroom filed a complaint accusing him of having grabbed her bum at the work function. By Friday afternoon, media outlets had asked about the incident, Fairfax said the editor-in-chief had been “stood down” pending the completion of the investigation. “Fairfax is committed to a safe workplace and has zero tolerance for any behaviour that does not meet the highest standards.”

A Women in Media survey released this year revealed one in two (48%) respondents said they had experienced intimidation, abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace. While most female journalists have their war stories, it’s unusual for anything to be done about it. One of the most powerful newspaper editors in the country being stood down as allegations of such behaviour are investigated is unheard of.

At the Age‘s newsroom in Melbourne on Friday afternoon, the shocking news brought chaos as journalists wondered to whom they should now report. No announcement was made to staff, and many only found out about Forbes’ suspension after the story broke in other outlets.

For those in Brisbane on Friday, it came less than an hour before the commencement of the Walkley awards. According to several sources, Forbes was in Brisbane to attend the event. His name badge at the function, indicating his table number, remained uncollected.

Whatever he was doing on Friday night, by Saturday morning, his predicament had worsened.

In the wake of the reporting on Saturday morning, another complaint was filed with Fairfax’s editorial leadership. It alleged that at a work function on Wednesday February 10 this year (when Forbes was news director at The Age), he told a senior female journalist shortly after celebrations began at 7pm that she was looking “busty”, before adding, “not that I’m complaining”. The complaint reads:

“In addition to feeling uncomfortable that evening, I felt nervous around him in the office after he demonstrated that he was ‘on the prowl’ with his wandering eye. Also, we were often invited to the same work-related social functions. I confided in several people afterwards, even recently, and they are my witnesses.”

The female journalist has since left The Age. Forbes was promoted to editor-in-chief a week after the function — though the journalist didn’t file a formal complaint until now. The complaint, which was also sent to the union house committee, received a prompt response from Fairfax editorial exec Sean Aylmer, who said the company was taking the allegations seriously and would be in touch.

By Monday morning, Forbes had resigned. Aylmer very briefly addressed The Age’s newsroom this morning, describing the allegations as “unsavoury” and “disappointing”. He confirmed to those gathered that he had first found out about the allegations two weeks ago, but said he hadn’t been able to comment earlier. “While our competitors will write about it and comment on it, it’s very important that this doesn’t drag The Age down. The Age is a great masthead of great people … this can’t drag it down.” Aylmer did not take questions, but told staff Forbes would not be returning to the office.

At the Walkleys, Aylmer had spent a considerable chunk of time involved in what appeared to be awkward conversations with senior female journalists at Fairfax, who urged a broader investigation. Those journalists angry enough to be seen speaking to Crikey were fuming the alleged conduct had happened at a work function. Some were sceptical that the company appeared forced to action by media competitors, but many were glad the company had taken the complaint against Forbes seriously. Others commented on the general level of support in the newsroom for the unknown young woman who’d filed the first complaint — another positive from their point of view.

Last week, The Age’s Gina McColl filed an in-depth piece on the sexual harassment women in service industries put up with. Filled with first-person accounts of how it was dismissed and minimised, the piece prompted an editorial from The Age. The editorial, which would likely have had to be approved if not commissioned by Forbes, read:

The Age’s investigation indicates many women are experiencing verbal and physical harassment from customers daily. Common responses by employers and perpetrators — including ‘boys will be boys’, ‘he was drunk’ and ‘you should be used to it’ — show just how much work needs to be done to disabuse people of the notion this harassment is somehow normal or acceptable … Real men do not treat women with disrespect.”

Forbes struck a similar note in an email to staff this morning:

“I am stepping down from my position as Editor in Chief of The Age and leaving Fairfax Media.

The Age is one of Australia’s strongest journalistic institutions, and has campaigned strongly for social justice. We have been outspoken on the treatment of women, and harassment in any form. The Age demands the highest standards of behaviour from our leaders, in the community, business and politics. As EIC of The Age, I must uphold all the standards which we would expect in others.

“I acknowledge and accept that I have not done so. Whatever the circumstance, even a single lapse of judgement in upholding these standards should have serious consequences. Accordingly, I believe it is untenable to remain as EIC. I again apologise to the person concerned, and I apologise to all of you as, ultimately, I have let you down. I want the outstanding and courageous journalism of The Age newsroom, on gender, justice, inequality and holding the great and powerful to account, to continue unobstructed …

“This is, I hope, a reminder to all that our dealings with all women must be respectful and equitable at all times.

“For those who have expressed support over these recent days, I thank you, but I know in my heart this is the right thing to do.”

Peter Fray

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