Fr Andrew McMahon
For those aware of the recent storm engulfing Newstalk radio’s George Hook, but unfamiliar with its origins, let’s recall the basic facts: at the start of his High Noon programme on September 8, the broadcaster was drawing attention to stories in the news. One was a British court case in which a former Commonwealth Games swimmer faced charges of raping a 19-year-old student in Wales.
The young woman had met a fellow swimmer and best friend of the accused at a Cardiff nightclub and later that evening had consensual sex with him. She alleges that this man subsequently left her company while his friend came into the room and raped her.
The student believed she had been “passed around” and, 16 months later, approached police. The second swimmer was subsequently charged, but acquitted of one count of rape. He may yet face retrial on a second charge, about which the jury in the case had been undecided.
Having summarised this story, Hook went on to comment upon it. His commentary included the following, widely quoted remarks: “But when you then look deeper into the story you have to ask certain questions: why does a girl who just meets a fella in a bar go back to a hotel room? She’s only just barely met him. She has no idea of his health conditions, she has no idea who he is, she has no idea what dangers he might pose.”
Having thus outlined what he saw as the risks involved, Hook proposed that “modern-day social activity means she goes back with him”. Focusing on the alleged actions of the second swimmer, Hook remarked: “Should she be raped? Of course, she shouldn’t. Is she entitled to say no? Absolutely. Is the guy who came in a scumbag? Certainly. Should he go to jail? Of course. All of those things.” Hook then asked: “But is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?”
He continued: “But there is a point of responsibility,” and concluded: “The real issue nowadays, and increasingly, is the question of the personal responsibility that young girls are taking for their own safety.”
A tornado of condemnation followed these remarks, encompassing Government ministers, political leaders, women’s organisations, victims’ support groups and media commentators. His critics appeared to unite in alleging that, by using the terms ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ in such a context, Hook was attributing to the alleged victim a share of the blame for the rape – if a rape had indeed happened – and was, consequently, diminishing the responsibility of her attacker for the crime he had committed.
In the furore which followed, Hook was given no quarter. Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s chief executive, Noeline Blackwell, described his comments as “problematic, wrong and entirely irresponsible.”
The National Women’s Council of Ireland declared them to be “dangerous and a perfect encapsulation of rape culture”.
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan found someone in Hook’s position expressing such views to be “a matter of real concern”. For Labour leader Brendan Howlin it was “depressing and unacceptable”.
Third-level education minister, Mary Mitchell O’Connor described the comments as “a disgrace” and believed they were “representative of a deeply embedded culture in Ireland of misogyny, of sexism, of double standards and victim blaming”.
And there was much, much more.
But let’s return, for a moment, to the facts: Hook at no point suggested that if a rape had taken place, its perpetrator should not face the full rigour of the law. He at no point suggested that the teenager, because she had already had sex with his friend, deserved to be subjected to the alleged sexual designs of the second swimmer. He at no point suggested that she was not fully entitled to say ‘no’ to any such unwanted advances. Hook, in fact, dismissed each one of these inferences and - as the text above clearly verifies - dismissed them forcefully. So why the uproar?
In the eyes of his detractors, Hook’s offence appeared to be his critiquing the young woman’s activities earlier that evening, in the light of the ordeal she claims she later suffered, and his raising questions as to how responsible her overall approach had been when viewed against its alleged outcome.
He nowhere suggests that the young woman invited a rape upon herself, but he does clearly infer that she was somewhat reckless in her behaviour, exposing herself needlessly to danger. Hook reaches the conclusion, therefore, that while rape is abhorrent and its perpetrators should be jailed, young women should avoid leaving themselves in vulnerable situations and need to take appropriate responsibility for their personal safety.
It remains difficult to see what a Dublin Rape Crisis Centre could find so “wrong and entirely irresponsible” about Hook’s concerns, or why a National Women’s Council would find his conclusions so “dangerous”. Or what causes a minister responsible for third level students, and presumably sensitive to the dangers facing young people, to consider Hook’s remarks “a disgrace”.
What could be possibly so objectionable as to merit such outright denunciations?
Regrettable though it is to have to say it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what Noeline Blackwell believes is primarily at stake here is not so much young women’s safety as contemporary sexual politics and the ideological battles surrounding them.
George Hook did not face a furore in recent times because he proposed anything which might endanger the safety of any young woman. He faced a furore because he had the temerity to interrogate – in observing the experiences of this Welsh 19-year-old – the values underpinning a pseudo-liberal sexual culture so prevalent in our western world. He was effectively asking if a culture which had insisted, within a matter of years, upon throwing the rules overboard could easily evolve into any kind of safe place for its participants.
He wondered if a teenager whose behaviour appeared to embody its ‘liberal’ ethos did not, in turn, suffer from its largely unacknowledged underbelly. His concerns challenged the – now ascendant – assumption that sexual fulfilment and personal well-being are to be nurtured through a culture free from any meaningful restraints, save those resulting from individual choice.
If there’s anything that such a self-referential and self-indulgent culture despises, however, it is the notion of being challenged from beyond itself. And George Hook was taught this lesson, mercilessly, in the days following his utterances.
Irish Daily Mail columnist Mary Carr captured the spirit of much of the vitriol visited upon him. Hook’s “appalling comments”, she told readers, were “laced with anti-woman prejudice”, of which she provided an illustration: “They are based on the unspoken assumption that a woman who drinks her head off, is scantily-clad, behaves flirtatiously, or goes to bed with a man who she hardly knows, is somehow ‘asking for it’.”
Outraged at this example of regressive thinking, Carr went on to locate its origins within Irish Catholicism: “Hook is an old fogey,” she explained, “a throwback to the dark ages when Church-sanctioned sexual repression kept women in their place and encouraged men to see them as their property or vassals.”
The Irish Times’ Social Affairs correspondent Kitty Holland feared, moreover, that Hook was no rarity but had spoken “unfortunately, for many”. His views, claimed Holland, were underpinned by a society actively seeking to disadvantage women in a variety of arenas, not least the Constitution which “denies us the right to decide what happens to and in our bodies”. Holland’s allusion to abortion here is hardly surprising. It should serve to remind us, in this context, that so many of the unwanted pregnancies which feed the abortion industry in places like Britain result from a permissive sexual culture, especially among the young.
Hook was ritually put on trial, in recent times, for essentially questioning the maxims of that permissive society. Trying him was especially easy in an Irish Republic where politicians, police, public and voluntary bodies can be guaranteed to play along once an aggressive media whip is cracked. They all performed on cue in this case and, before long, Hook was apologising profusely for having dared to think outside the box.
Kitty Holland noted the “glee on social media” that Hook had been rounded upon by his colleagues at Newstalk radio, while the Irish Daily Mail, which had devoted much space to savaging him, appeared triumphant in reporting Hook’s “humiliating apology”. In this, at least, they were right. Hook’s apology was not just humiliating, it was - to borrow a Brendan Howlin word - depressing.
Duty of care
A voice which had, on a Friday, bravely called to account a culture which may yet be proven to have been party to a teenager’s rape, found itself, by the Monday, mouthing an apology which politically correct masters had clearly drafted: “Everybody has the right to enjoy themselves without fear of being attacked,” declared Hook, “and as a society we have a duty to our daughters and granddaughters to protect that right. On Friday, I failed in that duty of care, a failure I deeply regret and for which I am truly sorry.”
Hook’s tone of “both remorse and shame”, as he apologised, appeared to genuinely please Kitty Holland. “He sounded like he got it,” she concluded.
His fiercer critics proved more difficult to placate and, by Friday, RTÉ had got the Taoiseach involved. Leo Varadkar told Morning Ireland that the comments of the veteran broadcaster had been “indicative of attitudes that still exist in Irish society that need to change”.
Within minutes of this particular contribution, Newstalk announced they were suspending Hook.
Fr Andrew McMahon is a priest of the Dromore diocese.