If the money’s flowing the questions stop. This was what precipitated the downfall of Bell Pottinger: the PR firm lost the plot over what its South African subsidiary was up to and see a toxic campaign ultimately reduced the behemoth to rubble.
Similar dynamics are at work in the conditions that allowed 30 years of predatory abuse to be allegedly perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein. I have heard countless Harvey stories over the last week from industry figures none of whom were particularly surprised by the revelations that appeared in the New York Times and New Yorker.
But why wasn’t anything said?
Their responses were unanimous- power. As one director told me, “film-makers had one chance to crack America and it was him.” This complicity manifested in turning a blind eye here and there, writing off a sleazy grope or bathrobe flash as “eccentricity”.
Much has been made of the media’s part in covering for Weinstein. He provided access to the biggest stars and in return showbiz editors commissioned puff pieces in praise of the movie maestro and took at face value the smear campaigns against those who dared speak out. But it was also a rigorous and well-resourced investigation by a newspaper that sealed Weinstein’s fate. The real scandal is the cosy network of agents and PRs that knew full well what a one-on-one with Harvey entailed.
Weinstein had grown to become Hollywood’s Lehmans – he was to big too fail. Having written a book on the great Hollywood studio fixers of the 30s and 40s I am reminded that while the system may have structurally changed the way fame and reputation is policed has not. Old school Hollywood PR has undergone an unlikely makeover in recent decades. The Coen brothers’ zany homage ‘Hail Caesar!’ depict the likes of Eddie Mannix as earnest guardian of wayward scarlets. In reality, he was a thug tasked with terrorising talent into signing over their lives. Others such as Howard Strickling were involved in cover ups and aggressive smear campaigns for the sake of preserving the grand illusion.
The fixers of today lack the personalities of the golden era and speak in terms of ‘value propositions’ and ‘circling back’- but their stranglehold on truth remains just as firm. It is hard to fully blame editors for obliging to copy approval when they are dependent on studios and agencies for access and all-important advertorial income.
It is worth considering why it is now that these revelations are coming to light. The journalist behind the New York Times investigation into Weinstein is Ronan Farrow, son of Mia and well-known for his public estrangement from father Woody Allen. His accusation that the 81-year-old filmmaker abused Farrow’s sister Dylan is longstanding and the 29-year-old has been a frequent critic of the media’s adulation of Allen and other culturally revered icons. In an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter last year Farrow posited that traditional media is largely unable free itself from the ties that bind it to eminent old men. Citing Buzzfeed, Farrow argues that new media is much closer to the spirit of open-minded investigation. The looser financial arrangements of new media compared to traditional outlets enables them to ask these tough questions without fear or favour. The youth of its reporters is also surely an aid: they are less burdened by the legends of figures such as Allen and Weinstein.
It is meaningful that the opening salvo against the Weinstein came – via Farrow – from the traditional media. It suggests that the entanglement between powerholders and the media does not have to blinker journalism and that the old media is responding to the challenge of the new. Harvey Weinstein was too powerful but others enjoy similar levels of protection. Expect the tide to turn against the shadowy backroom forces that were paid exorbitant fees to obfuscate and apply pressure. There’ll be sleepless nights ahead for many in the city of stars.