The circle of jerks

The sordid life of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was protected by intimidation, shadowy circles of lawyers and Israeli spies

01 December 2019 - 00:00 By Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times: 01/12/2019

If you thought Harvey Weinstein was repulsive before, wait until you read the evidence of two new books by a trio of top American investigative journalists.
If you thought Harvey Weinstein was repulsive before, wait until you read the evidence of two new books by a trio of top American investigative journalists.
Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On January 6 all eyes will be on the Supreme Court in Manhattan, where Harvey Weinstein goes on trial for violent sex crimes. And if you think the bloated, pockmarked ogre is repulsive now, wait till you hear the victims' testimony in the cold spring light of a courtroom. Watching the proceedings closely will be a trio of reporters. Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor broke the Weinstein story in the New York Times in 2017; Ronan Farrow followed shortly afterwards in The New Yorker with even more claims. Infuriatingly for him, Farrow had bagged the story before the NYT, but executives at his employer, NBC, prevented it from coming out. Just how sinister this is, Farrow reveals in his new book, Catch and Kill - Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators.

Ronan Farrow is a slight, beautiful man. With his fine flax hair he looks like his mother, the actress Mia Farrow, and his eyes are those of the man said to be his father, Frank Sinatra. He certainly bears no resemblance at all to his legal father, Woody Allen. When he was born they called him Satchel, not, as was thought, after the great trumpeter Satchmo, but after the baseball player Satchel Paige.

He later took his middle name, Ronan, around the time he became the youngest graduate of Bard College at 15. He followed that up with Yale Law School and a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. At an astonishingly young age he worked as a special adviser to Hillary Clinton. Not your average Hollywood brat, then.

Farrow proceeded not into law or politics but into journalism, and soon showed a talent for investigative journalism. Writing pieces for high-end publications, he segued into television, first with a daily news show on MSNBC and then an investigative segment on NBC's Today show.

He showed a sharp sympathy for the vulnerable and the underdogs of society, filing strong stories on such subjects as the opioid crisis and sexual abuse on college campuses. He once said: "I've always felt if I could use any ounce of privilege and platform that I had to shine a light on things that were in the dark, that I should try like hell to do it."

And then in 2017 he and his producer, Rich McHugh, started picking at the threads of a story about the powerful, infamous movie producer, Harvey Weinstein.

For years there had been talk of his monstrous behaviour but because of his connections right up to Washington and his influence in the industry, the sources and victims were too afraid to come forward, and no media outlet had been able to air the allegations.

Catch and Kill is the story of how they blew the lid off the septic tank that was Miramax and the Weinstein Company, and how shadowy circles of lawyers, editors, journalists and Israeli spies launched a campaign to shut them down.

It reads like a top-notch, page-flipping thriller - an X-rated Hollywood blockbuster, even - except that this is not fiction. It is all sickeningly true.

The allegations against Weinstein have been extensively covered. For more than three decades he preyed on women. The dressing gowns, the massages, the hotel rooms, the forced oral sex, grabbing and groping and masturbating have all been detailed, as have the rapes.

Strangled by non-disclosure agreements, shame and fear, Farrow was met by a wall of silence from the alleged victims. It was only after careful, empathetic groundwork he was able to finally get some of them to go on the record. Shockingly, his superiors at NBC shut down the investigation and have maintained to this day that he didn't have enough evidence to run it. "For the Today show, a movie producer grabbing a lady is not news," one executive sneered.

Instead, Farrow took it to The New Yorker. Because of NBC's delaying tactics, he was pipped by the two New York Times reporters, Twohey and Kantor, who have also released their own book, She Said - Breaking The Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. Together the writers unleashed hell in Hollywood and further afield. All three deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

She Said focuses more on the #MeToo Movement that Trump's "pussy grabbing" and the Weinstein revelations ignited, and on Christine Blasey Ford, who testified to a Congressional committee that supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her at a drunken college party.

In Catch and Kill Farrow reveals that then editor of the sleazy National Enquirer, Dylan Howard, had a safe packed with incriminating material on various public figures. He was said to buy exclusive information and then put it on ice or rather use it as leverage for something else. This strategy, known as "catch and kill", gives the book its title.

One of the most difficult parts to read are those regarding the NBC anchor, Matt Lauer. The enormously popular morning host was suddenly fired in 2017 for nebulous "sexual misconduct".

Farrow reveals the name of his victim, Brooke Nevils, who described her hideous ordeal to him: Lauer anally raped her repeatedly while they were covering the Sochi Olympics and her injuries were severe. And yes, you've guessed it, Weinstein was alleged to have evidence of Lauer's various crimes and was thus able to get Farrow's killed by the NBC hierarchy. NBC denies this.

One of the ways that Farrow was intimidated during his investigation was by the accusation that because of his family history, his views were skewed and unreliable. His sister Dylan maintains that their father, Allen, abused her when she was small. Farrow didn't believe her at first but now he does and on several occasions during the reporting of the story he reached out to her for advice.

"Don't let it go," she said, over and over again.

"My sister deserves a tremendous amount of credit for what she did for the wider culture and conversation about these kinds of allegations. And also in my personal story, a lot of credit for being a voice of conscience that was unflagging," Farrow says.

Weinstein himself threw the family history in his face when he heard Farrow was writing the story. "I know what you want," he said in a menacing call. "I know you're scared, and alone, and your bosses abandoned you, and your father. You couldn't save someone you love, and now you think you can save everyone."

Lawyers expect that the Weinstein trial will take two months. He is facing a number of charges of rape and sexual assault and could spend the rest of his life in prison. More than 150 women have come forward now.

One of his victims, Louise Godbold, who has gone on to become a trauma specialist, says: "Many of us are mourning the careers we could have had. There is a sense of loss over what might have been. Harvey Weinstein destroyed them."

By its very nature Hollywood is a machine of repellent vanity and hubris. For there to be meaningful change in this industry, or in any in which sexual power is wielded over women, there must be convictions in court. By sending the message that protecting predators costs money, maybe things will change.

As Rose McGowan, the actress who sparked the #MeToo movement says: "I know for a fact there are other Harvey Weinsteins in Hollywood right now. I can name 20 people." @michelemagwood

Catch and Kill - Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow (Little, Brown). She Said - Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (Bloomsbury)