Matty Johns' free ride back to fame

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Disgraced ex-rugby league player turned celebrity Matthew Johns made his return to TV on March 25, with the "family-friendly" Matty Johns Show being hailed a "success" by reviewers.

Last May, he was suspended from his hosting role on Channel 9's league coverage and The Footy Show after allegations were aired on ABC's Four Corners about what is now disingenuously referred to as a "group sex scandal".

On a 2002 trip to Christchurch with the Cronulla Sharks, Johns and teammate Brett Firman are alleged to have taken a 19-year-old woman known as "Clare" back to a hotel room for sex. The situation altered when over the next two hours, at least 12 Sharks players and staff came in to the room. Clare alleges that six of them "lined up" and had sex with her without asking while the others watched, some of them masturbating.

She also alleges that none of the perpetrators spoke to her directly, instead joking among themselves about her predicament and that, while his teammates degraded her, Johns "laughed and he joked and he was very loud and boisterous and thought it was hilarious".

Five days after the event, she made a complaint to police, who later dismissed the case over lack of evidence. All players and staff involved claimed that she did not object. She was later diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and attempted suicide several times as a result of her encounter with the Sharks.

Johns' popularity stems from his larrikin persona and "good bloke" image. The media industry exults this type of individual on the sports field and elsewhere.

Coverage surrounding his comeback has been full of terms like "forgiveness" and "redemption", and "Matty's" feelings have been discussed ad nauseum. Gossip surrounding his "defection" to Channel 7 and the supposed "ratings war" between him and his old Footy Show colleagues is presented as important news in order to shamelessly hype the new show.

Apart from vague references to group sex, his actions — including the alleged criminal acts by him and his teammates — have ceased to be mentioned in this media celebration of his resurrection.

However, the problem was not "group sex" but the abuse of a woman by a large number of men. The broader issues raised about the treatment of women by men have completely disappeared from the media.

Also ignored is the case before the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board concerning anti-gay vilification in a Footy Show sketch featuring Johns and a fictional gay brother, "Elton Johns".

It is hard to see what he has done to deserve forgiveness, except for sitting out his lucrative Channel 9 contract and copping some bad press. Obviously, this hardly matters to the media industry. The important thing is that one of their most "talented" and popular stars is returning to bring in the ratings and advertising revenue.

When the story broke, some commentators predicted his career's demise, but he was merely suspended from Channel 9 instead of sacked.

His saga has followed the same choreographed path of those of many stars before him: get caught out, perform an apology, disappear from public for a little while, then comeback as a "changed" person, and of course, rake in buckets of cash from the whole spectacle.

Johns' public apology was hardly compelling. Claiming to have done "nothing wrong", he only apologised for the "pain and embarrassment" he had caused Clare. He seemed far more concerned with the embarrassment to his family rather than the woman he allegedly helped traumatise. Indeed, why apologise if "nothing wrong" was done?

To facilitate his magic carpet ride back to stardom, the media has, with a few notable exceptions, taken his side in its coverage. A barrage of stories blaming the victim emerged, alleging she was a liar who "consented", was "fine" after the event and even "bragged about it".

Almost identical accusations were cast upon the woman concerned in the extremely similar 2004 scandal involving the members of the Bulldogs rugby league team.

Coverage critical of Johns from journalists such as Rebecca Wilson and Tracey Grimshaw was met with virulent personal attacks from his supporters in the media and public alike.

Rather than flatly deny the story, other journalists have tried to skew the issue by moralising about Johns' infidelity, "group sex" or the homoerotic implications of this incident. All this avoids discussing the issues raised concerning the abuse of women by men.

If a woman shows interest in one or more men she does not automatically become a plaything for anyone. The media's coverage of the Johns saga implies this is not important.

If this issue was fully discussed publicly, his career would be untenable. The seriousness of the alleged events, along with his apparent lack of genuine contrition and understanding, should taint him forever.

Instead, the topic has once again been brushed aside, along with Clare's shattered life, in order to maintain the career of a "good bloke" and all it represents — namely the image of "Aussie manhood".