Max Abbott and more - sexual harassment at a top university

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 25 June 2020
#MeToo poster in London. The movement to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment has gone worldwide.

#MeToo poster in London. The movement to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment has gone worldwide. Photo: duncan c/Flickr

When an Australian scholar went to Stuff's investigative journalist Ali Mau with her story of sexual stalking by a top New Zealand professor she had 137 pages of text messages among her piles of documents.

Auckland University of Technology's Professor Max Abbott has now apologised to the woman, and resigned, after allegations of prolonged and persistent stalking, and sexual harassment over two years.

Mau spent months poring over documents and text messages between Professor Abbott and Australian National University’s Dr Marisa Paterson to help back up the story that broke at the end of May.

Mau says it is one of the biggest stories Stuff's #MetooNZ unit has published in two and a half years.

Hundreds of other allegations sent to her have not been published – not only is the legal bar set high for such stories, but in many cases the survivors have not wanted to put themselves through the ordeal.  

Mau says the unit has never published a story against the survivor's wishes.

She says New Zealand's strict defamation laws make it difficult to publish these stories.

"The unique thing about this story is that we have an alleged perpetrator and we have an alleged survivor, both named and photographed, and that is quite rare for New Zealand," says Mau.

"If you think about the Me Too coverage here as opposed to certainly the United States and other parts of the world, even Australia, the coverage there has concentrated on those big gets, the big names that have been exposed for their alleged behaviour and that's ended up in court in a lot of places.

AUT Auckland University of Technology

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

"In New Zealand we have quite strict defamation laws and they work in the opposite way to the United States."

For example, she says, if Harvey Weinstein was going to sue for defamation the women who've come out with allegations about his behaviour, he would have to prove that what the journalists had written and what the women had said was not true.

"It works the opposite way here in New Zealand and in Australia. If someone brings a case against you for defamation, as the journalist you're the one that has to prove that what you wrote was true."

That makes it much more difficult to publish these kinds of stories which depend on one person’s word against another's, Mau says.

But she says this is not the end of this story.

Since the first story was published on May 24, many more people have come to her with allegations.

AUT has promised an external review of its policies and processes, but the terms of that investigation haven’t been released. And Mau says that is a vital part in making sure the complainant isn’t on the losing end.