As news broke that the former head of journalism at one of New Zealand’s largest universities had been sentenced for a horrific case of indecent assault on an 82-year-old stroke victim in a rest home, messages were flying between journalists who had been through his course.
Anna and I did Massey’s Postgraduate Diploma of Journalism with Grant in 2014, and were critical at the time of the way he treated students. These are our reactions — different but alike — to that sickening story.
The intention of sharing these is not to further shame Grant, rather to have conversations about reporting bad behavior in the hopes people can be prevented from causing permanent damage in others’ lives.
‘I SHOULD HAVE DONE MORE’: JESSY’S REACTION
How do I feel about Grant Hannis? I feel disgusted, I feel fucked off. I feel guilty.
I feel disgusted at myself because I found the easier way to deal with him was not to report him or go to another leader at the school and say, “Hey, this guy is not ok.” Instead I figured out how to work with him and live with it.
But this was pre-#MeToo of course, and we were all ingrained to know that if we raised allegation about a man’s inappropriate non-physical behavior, especially without proof, nothing good was going to come of it.
But that disgusts me as well — anyone who worked with this man could tell he was a bully, I felt. The way he treated students in class and in our beat meetings, humiliating young women. One night he stayed up late, berating me over email and phone about details in a story I’d written for a community newsletter until we’d gone back and forth so many times that it was past midnight and I was in tears.
I’m pretty tough. I cry but I’m tough, and maybe that’s not to my own benefit or society’s benefit. I reframed that experience as a good thing — Grant was tougher on me than any editor would ever be, he set me up to have resilience in a newsroom, he built me an armor that wouldn’t easily be dented. I think I even bragged about it when talking about the course.
Now I see it differently. I was bullied by a teacher and I used methods to cope with it. I doubt it taught me anything except that men in power positions were unpredictable and you had to be careful of them.
I’m fucked off, because I feel like if I had this feeling, the other people in his world should have known, surely someone said something at some point to them. But maybe not the right something, and everyone has their own pressures.
And then there’s the guilt — I should have done more. When I was asked to review the course to a Massey panel I complained about the way Grant Hannis interacts with students “sometimes” — that it wasn’t right — but I mostly defended the course. Maybe it was as though, because I had been on this rollercoaster, others should have to take it as well.
Institutions should read between the lines when a woman tells them a man in a position of power made her feel uncomfortable. In the article on his crime, a spokesperson for Massey University said there had only been one complaint about him, ever. That’s either bullshit or they’re taking such a narrow view of a ‘complaint’ they should be ashamed.
Since the news broke people have come to me expressing surprise: ‘But he seemed nice.’ So maybe it’s just me who saw it? I should have done more. Maybe I could have saved this poor woman the horrific trauma.
When I told my boyfriend at the time, Hamish, he said, “You should have let me smash him.” He was half joking but I was shocked that he was remembering my experience in such heated terms. He’s not a fighter. Scary — what he saw me go through I must have suppressed, explained away.
“You wanted to, right?” I said, probing for details I didn’t remember (he remembers everything). “For bullying me and making me cry all the time?”
“Yes one of the many fuckhead men that did,” he replied. “He was one of the worst.”
One of the worst? Who else am I protecting?
‘MASSEY NEEDS TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY’: ANNA’S REACTION
The course Grant Hannis taught was small, always handpicked by him, always requiring him to give favorable marks to enter an industry he constantly warned was cut-throat. He set himself up to be at the top of a room of twenty somethings, fresh faced and determined to make it, accruing fake power which he must have thought translated to real world infallibility.
To complain about him to the university in that setting meant that something was really wrong. We were being bred to be “tough”, he was grooming himself to feel powerful.
Massey University should take responsibility for the lack of action it took in the journalism department. It needed to take minor complaints about his mood and rudeness to students seriously, because getting away with treating those he saw as less “powerful” in a demeaning way could — in part — be what gave him the confidence to assault an elderly woman in her room at a rest home. To allow him to think her saying no didn’t deserve his attention or respect, and to later claim the assault was consensual.
I’m not saying Massey needed to take big actions, but if even a conversation caused him to question his approach and perhaps realize he wasn’t coping well that would be a good thing. He says he knows he was wrong, then maybe bringing up the way he treats those more vulnerable earlier would have helped him reflect.
He said he was affected by mental illness at the time and I don’t doubt that, with family and work stress affecting his judgment. I think he deserves a second chance and to show he made a terrible mistake, and I think it’s great he’s getting counseling to deal with everything. However the woman he assaulted will be affected by his crime for the rest of her life and he needs to take responsibility for that, and his actions need to make those who enabled his behavior reflect on their own.
We could have been more forceful in our reports, yes, but in a way I find that victim blaming. He was telling us to be tough, and we told the university something was off, they should have listened.