It started with a gross message sent from a councillor to a journalist. And it hasn’t stopped since.
It’s now more than two weeks since Hamilton City Councillor Mark Bunting sent a deeply inappropriate message to journalist, Spinoff commentator and campaigner for Hamilton playgrounds Angela Cuming, and the unpleasantness continues unabated.
To briefly recap: Bunting, a former More FM radio jock, came across a video of a road sign doctored to read ,”Open your mouth… Jesus is cuming”. He decided to send it to Cuming as an alleged joke, along with the bleak message “Not sure WHAT this is about but thought you might giggle”. Cuming was furious at being sent an undeniably sexual communication by a councillor upon whom she reports, and told him so. He blustered implausibly about there being “absolutely no sexual innuendo intended” before lecturing her about what a standup guy he had been up until the message was sent. “I could practically see his finger wagging in my face”, says Cuming.
The exchange ended with his telling her to leave him alone as he’d suffered a “family tragedy”. One which clearly didn’t prevent him from sending a lewd message to a reporter, but apparently did absolve him from dealing with the consequences.
Or so he believed. “You know what, enough is enough,” Cuming thought. “I have been copping shit like this all my life, and so have women everywhere.” So she tweeted what he’d sent her privately.
It set off a chain of events which has taken two distinct strands. One is that of national media covering it as a clear cut case of sexual harassment, one which, as Cuming pointed out, has no place in a contemporary workplace. There were excellent columns by Michelle Duff, Melanie Bracewell and Alison Mau (a good sample question: “why are elected officials… operating like a frat house rather than a group of professionals?”). There was excellent reporting on the Herald, Stuff, RNZ and even Australia’s ABC, which provided accurate summaries of what occurred and the fallout.
The response of Hamilton’s institutions has been much less impressive. Bunting was found to have breached the council’s code of conduct and has stood down as deputy chair of some committee or other (being disciplined by having to do less work) and issued a regulation apology. But despite Cr O’Leary and others decrying the situation, Bunting’s colleague Garry Mallett decided he would go on RNZ and say that the issue was overblown.
“If there are jibes and sexist comment being carried around I haven’t noticed any. They are water off a duck’s back to me,” he said, helpfully. “I think there has been the odd tongue-in-cheek comment made but I think people need to be a little bit tougher. It’s disappointing people are becoming so limp-wristed to be honest.”
Next came House on Hood, one of the city’s biggest pubs, owned by the Lawrensons, Hamilton’s first family of hospitality and proprietors of a swathe of Hamilton establishments. “House has had a fair bit of success over the last five or six months making light of political issues,” John Lawrenson told Stuff. As such they used the incident as inspiration for a discount night, then took great offence when Cuming and her husband called to complain about it.
The Council. The pub. Then the local paper. The Waikato Times decided to publish a column about the incident by its regular opinion writer Richard Swainson under this headline:
Swainson basically spends 500 words or so saying that Cuming was only angry because Bunting had voted against playgrounds (an issue on which Cuming is a vocal campaigner) and that besides, far from being sexist and demeaning, the message was in fact a sign of “respect”. I mean there’s been some dipshit columns lately, but truly that “point” is right up there. The paper then let comments decrying Cuming pile up, while refusing to publish her own in response until much later. This sucked for more than the obvious reasons.
“On a personal level the column really hurt me,” says Cuming, “because up until 2014 I was a journalist and online editor at the Waikato Times. The same editors who published that column were my editors.” Not only that, but her father, grandfather, great grandfather and great uncle all worked as journalists at the Waikato Times.
It was all so unnecessary. Obviously Bunting absolutely should not have sent the message but, having done so, a halfway adequate apology, swift action from the council and either silence or condemnation from his colleagues and the city at large might have prevented the whole thing from metastasizing. Cuming says that a simple phone call – he had her number – would have sufficed.
That none of the above happened ensured Hamilton once again resumes its role as a national punchline, while also making Cuming subject of consistent online abuse. And while being applauded by national media for your bravery is something, home is where you live. It would suck for your feelings and actual literal name to be dragged anywhere, but in a small city being the talk of it holds a particular gravity. Cuming has found herself dressing differently when she goes out, and wondering what people think of her.
“I really don’t know,” she says, when asked whether she’d do it again. “The whole sorry episode has been pretty bloody miserable for me – but I was raised by my late father to always speak up when you see someone doing the wrong thing, so I have to have faith that in the long run some good will come of this, that behaviours and attitudes will change.”
The wider response says that might be the case. As for Hamilton, the episode suggests there is a ways to go yet.
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