Who is Annabel Ross, and what does her style of investigative journalism entail? Dave Clarke reports.
Whilst many within the dance music industry have had downtime inflicted upon them due to COVID-19, Annabel Ross has taken no such respite.
She has in fact used the clarity of zero event distractions to focus her journalistic attention on sexual abuse allegations, bringing them to the fore in a way seldom seen in this industry. Such accounts of sexual misconduct apparently have quite a long history of perpetration – and the music press, for whatever reason, did not pick up on many of them until relatively recently.
After Erick Morillo died in September 2020, Ross made herself an investigative conduit of the allegations against the DJ and producer. She published harrowing testimonies in a Mixmag exclusive supporting those original accusations which resulted in him being brought to court for sexual battery. Following on from this, Ross also published allegations of sexual harassment and assault involving the Detroit DJ Derrick May in two separate RA articles.
With many factors in the latter story still hazy, I felt it sensible to try and paint a clear portrait of a prominent protagonist for gender equality in dance music by interviewing Annabel directly at the beginning of February. Our conversation illuminates her career experiences and what hurdles she has faced, hopefully conveying that Annabel Ross is a balanced advocate for victims of abuse who takes confidentiality extremely seriously.
Dave Clarke: Annabel, how long have you been a journalist? Please explain the journey from the beginning to now.
Annabel Ross: I started my internship with The Age newspaper in Melbourne in 2008, and worked at The Age for ten years before leaving to freelance in 2017, first in Paris and then in New York, writing for various newspapers, magazines and websites. I’ve always written about music, the arts and culture, mostly, but once I moved to Paris I was able to do a lot more writing about electronic music.
The market is much smaller in Australia and there’s not really any local electronic music press that actually pays; in Europe and the U.S. there is so much going on and so many different events to travel to and cover. I started writing about sexual assault in dance music in September last year and that has been my main focus for the past five months.
You have written for many different style publications, from newspapers to fashion and of course music. Do you find that you need a different approach for music publications?
Every publication has a different style and tone of voice and you often find yourself having to adapt to each of them. RA is typically more serious in tone than Mixmag, but you might be able to show a bit more of your personality writing for the latter. When you’re writing for a newspaper or more mainstream music publication, you have to remember that the audience is probably new to or less familiar with the subject and to adjust your writing accordingly.
Is it perhaps a lighter touch than being a journalist for a newspaper?
It’s a lighter touch in that the deadlines are rarely as pressing (having to file festival reviews on the fly for newspapers is both stressful and great training), and traditionally, electronic music journalism has been taken a lot less seriously. I think there have always been great writers covering electronic music, but historically coverage has focused on the music and shied away from the politics for the most part. Now, I feel like that is changing.
Is there a difference between online and print other than that online can constantly be adapted and changed whereas print is generally static after commitment?
The only difference is the one that you mention above. I think that if any publication is going to make changes to an online story, typically to address errors, this should be noted at the bottom of the article. Obviously, if you print an error it’s a lot harder to change it, unless you publish a correction, which I don’t know if I’ve ever seen happen in a printed electronic music magazine? It definitely happens in newspapers. But I treat my online copy as if it’s print copy — we all make mistakes from time to time but I do my best to ensure that I get my facts right.
Is the business head of music journalism very male orientated?
Yes. The business head of all journalism (excepting fashion and “women’s” publications) is very male oriented.
Does that differ from writing for fashion or corporate clients?
I don’t typically think about clients in relation to their sex or gender. It’s more the style of their publication, their objectives and individual personalities that have to be managed.
Is it harder to give stories of alleged abuse air in the music industry press compared to newspapers?
It depends on who you’re working with. I wouldn’t say it’s harder but there are certain factors that play into it. How “big” is the alleged abuser? Will it interest a broader audience or not? Is this publication willing to publish this story about this person? What might get in the way of them reporting on these issues? Do they have the necessary legal support? Do they have a budget to support this reporting, which is a lot more time consuming and complicated than regular music features? These are all things to consider.
Is this down to a worry of legalities or, perhaps, a perceived lack of appeal to the readership of music publications where numbers and likes are king over serious content?
It can be due to legal concerns, yes, and the acknowledgement that they will need to hire a lawyer which of course isn’t cheap. I suppose that has been the opinion of some editors, yes — that this type of content might not go over well with readers. But most editors have been supportive; they recognise that there is actually a hunger for these types of stories.
Or worse still, is there the possibility of long-term business or personal relationships blurring journalistic objectivity?
Again, I’m sure this has been a factor and that some publications and editors have drawn deep breaths before publishing these kinds of stories. It hasn’t really been done before and most electronic music publications are not completely independent. But again, there seems to be the realisation that these are issues that need to be dealt with. Unless publications are happy to ignore them (and let’s face it, some readers would probably be okay with that), their integrity depends on addressing the core challenges facing the scene today.
Let’s get on to the developing story of our industry which is the alleged abuses by Derrick May, which you have shined a light on since November. How difficult is it for alleged victims to come forward and share their stories?
Extraordinarily difficult. We are talking about people who have gone through deeply traumatic experiences from which they are often not healed. It is already very, very difficult to talk about these things. Add to that the abuse that many survivors are subjected to on social media (even if they stay anonymous, they’re not blind and the comments are hurtful), the potential repercussions at the hands of the perpetrator and/or their supporters, and the hugely painful possibility of not being believed. The odds are stacked against them.
What are the embedded perceptions they have to overcome?
Perceptions that if a woman dresses or acts in a certain way that she is “asking for it.” The idea that they “should have come forward and reported it sooner” or that they’re “doing it for attention.” The idea that “people make mistakes” and “cancel culture is ruining lives,” or that a DJ’s career is worth more than a survivor’s story of abuse.
Are there any differences in handling sensitive abuse details from male or female alleged victims?
I would not treat survivors and/or witnesses any differently at all; abuse is abuse in my eyes. I have not heard from nearly as many male survivors, which is not to say that they don’t exist (though I believe the incidences of men abusing women, non-binary and trans people is far more common). I feel that for male survivors, the sense of shame attached to their experiences can be extremely deep and prevents them from coming forward. I really hope we can try and foster a community in which they feel safer to do so.
What can you do as a journalist to give them safety in discourse and ultimate choice of disclosure whether they’re anonymous or named?
It is up to the survivors whether or not they wish to stay anonymous. Anonymity can present legal issues, but I believe that if it’s something that helps survivors come forward, especially when we’re dealing with serial predators and multiple accounts of abuse, then it should be an option. All I can give them is my word, and I’m of course happy to sign a letter or contract if that’s something that would make them feel more comfortable. I have absolutely nothing to gain from disclosing their personal details and would never betray anyone’s trust as it compromises my integrity. It’s also a really shitty thing to do to someone.
Do you find it a bigger uphill struggle than you expected to get some pages for this within dance music?
Well there have been very few “pages” per se; print is really struggling right now! I think that the difficulties I’ve had in regards to coverage is indicative of how huge the problem is and the fact that we’re finally addressing it properly, or starting to, for the first time. It’s uncharted territory so it’s natural that it comes with challenges, but the lack of support that I’m facing as a journalist is the same lack of support that exists for survivors across the scene. I think we’ll have to build up both at the same time.
Is there any question that I have failed to ask that you wish I did?
I think “what can I do to help?” is a question that everyone needs to ask themselves right now in regards to exterminating racism as well as sexual assault and sexual harassment from the scene. If you see something, say something. Listen to survivors; where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. A lot of harassment and assault is tied to the much deeper and more insidious issue of sexism and misogyny, of which there are countless examples. When women are better represented and better respected in our industry, you can bet that incidences of abuse will plummet.
Anyone in dance music who wishes to disclose details of an abuse can contact Annabel Ross directly via Annabel_Ross@Protonmail.com. Victims of abuse can find additional support resources on Rebekah’s website, MeTooMusic.com/get-help.