It was not a cover-up or an establishment conspiracy that let the likes of Savile, Harris and Cosby off the hook for so long. So much had been invested into building their public personae. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em they are part of our cultural fabric. For a journalist to ask awkward questions would be to piss on that fabric and potentially lock them and their colleagues out of the star’s orbit. Besides, surely it’s the job of investigators-not poorly paid hacks- to dig up the dirt?
This is the blinkered thinking that accompanies our relationship to the ‘national treasure’. It is one thing to be healthily sceptical of accusations that at first seem far-fetched. It is quite another to refuse to even entertain the prospect. This thinking not only ‘takes care’ of bad publicity- it ensures that is doesn’t have any oxygen at all.
Woody Allen is a case in point. On Wednesday The Hollywood Reporter published a piece by Allen’s estranged son Ronan Farrow. The accusation that the 80 year old filmmaker abused Farrow’s sister Dylan is longstanding and the 28 year old has been a frequent critic of the media’s adulation of Allen. Nevertheless, the Reporter piece was particularly excoriating in its connection of the self-imposed silence that surrounded Cosby’s past and the media’s current reluctance to even report Dylan Farrow’s account. Appearing the day before Allen’s latest film Café Society opened Cannes –an honour second only to scooping the film festival’s top prize- the article was designed to wound.
Yet the next day’s reports from Cannes barely mentioned Allen’s alleged abuse. Of the key international titles only the Los Angeles Times positioned Ronan Farrow’s piece as a significant part of their Woody Allen reporting. Hundreds of journalists from around the world gathered at the Café Society press conference on the croisette and not a single one raised the allegations, thus underlining Ronan’s thesis. (Kate Muir of The Times, to her credit, did point out that given many of his films feature old men romancing younger women, had the director ever thought of reversing this gender dynamic?… no, apparently he hasn’t.)
Allen is one of the great cultural figures of last century. That, at the age 80, he is still producing work at such a Promethean rate deserves our appreciation. We have conflicting accounts of what happened between him and the then 7-year old Dylan Farrow. Posing hard questions does not undermine our admiration of Allen or force us to jump to conclusions about what happened. Ronan Farrow’s Reporter article posits that the traditional media is still unable to arrive at this latter point. 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 Cosby and Allen.
Some of these points are hard truths for a publicist. PR, at its best, is built on relationships –those we cultivate with the media and those we help to form between clients and journalists. Yet it is this entanglement of the media with the orbit of the stars –from their dutiful minders to the power brokers who pull the strings- that is partly to blame when grey areas are skirted around.
Today’s buzzfeeders have a degree of purity in being outside the networks of idolatry that cushion Allen. Yet eventually what is young will be old. Outlets like Vice and Buzzfeed are constructing their own cosseted networks. There is nothing inherently sceptical about their alternative spaces and they will have their own icons who may reach the heights of untouchability.
There is a truth for all generations to understand: beware of heroes.