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The M8 blog

An open letter to Michael Stutchbury, Editor in Chief of the Australian Financial Review

Update: now with more signatures (see end)

Over the past few years, many of us in the Australian startup community have been shocked observers of a campaign of sustained bullying in print, as Australian Financial Review columnist, Joe Aston, used his readership to discredit and belittle one of our industry’s own, venture capitalist, Dr. Elaine Stead.

At first, Aston’s coverage of the failure of Blue Sky Ventures under attack from activist hedge fund Glaucus Research seemed just like his coverage of other news. In his own words, he writes, “a combative and impertinent newspaper column.”

But over time it revealed itself as an alarmingly personal attack on Elaine herself; not just her performance in the role of managing Blue Sky’s tech portfolio, but also how she chose to be candid in her social media accounts. Aston went on to target Elaine for disclosures not just about the toll the Blue Sky attack had taken on her but on topics as personal as her mother’s health and the loss of a pet.

Behind closed doors, we talked — had you seen the latest column? Why do you think he won’t let up on her? Should some of us speak up about it? If we did, is there a chance he might target us next?

Some of us reached out privately to Elaine to offer our support — off the record, to stay off Aston’s radar. Which, sadly, is what often happens when men bully women.

Drag your eyes away from Aston’s latest column to the front page of our national newspapers and you’ll recognise that Australia has a problem with men who bully women. No matter where women are in their career, or how successful they have been in business, public service, politics or sport, some Australian men like to use what power and influence they have as a license to demean them.

In Elaine’s case, risking everything she had left but feeling she had no other choice, she sued Aston and his employer for defamation. A defamation case she conclusively won.

In his judgement, the Federal Court’s Justice Michael Lee concluded that Aston’s “targeted campaign of offensive mockery of Dr Stead was unjustified and improper,” amounting to “a form of bullying.”

When the court finds in your favour, you ought to have the opportunity to begin repairing the damage to your reputation and career.

But it only took a profile piece on Elaine’s journey, recently published in The Australian (the first time she’s spoken to the media in three years) to set Aston off again. This time, his column seemed to be criticism of The Australian’s reporting, and a rehash of his unsuccessful defence in the defamation case he’d conclusively lost.

You would be right to wonder whether there’s any relevance for AFR’s readers in this attempt to rewrite the findings of a closed court case.

But more concerningly, it suggests that the AFR doesn’t care if Aston’s bullying carries on, beyond all sense of proportion, for as long as he can contrive a new mud puddle to drag Elaine through.

What message does this send to the men and women who read the AFR, about what happens to women who speak up about being bullied and harassed?

Elaine is capable of defending herself, however, this culture of casually accepting the relentless harassment of women as just another news day, means there are many who don’t feel they can.

So it’s time to take a stand. Not just for Elaine but for all the other unnamed women and other underrepresented groups who have to deal with this type of behaviour every day, both in public as well as behind closed doors.

For the record, as Elaine’s peers, we consider her to be an effective, skilled and successful venture capital investor who deserves the chance to move forward without the oppressive fear of further harassment.

Today we’re publishing an open letter signed by 40 people from the startup investment community in Australia, asking the AFR to exercise the editorial leadership required to put a stop to this.

Thanks to all the individuals and the organisations they represent for standing up for one of our own.

Video interview with Simon Thomsen from Startup Daily about the open letter at the end of this news segment: (email registration required)

If you’re reading this and would like to sign the open letter too, use this form. I’ll update the signatory list weekly until signatures stop coming.

View the open letter below or download (PDF).

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Thoughts and opinions from M8 Ventures

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Alan Jones

Alan Jones

I’m Alan Jones, coach for accelerators, partner at M8 Ventures, angel investor. Earlier: founder, early Yahoo product manager, tech reporter.

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