For Anna Reed and Natalie Connolly
This week, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and IMPRESS published guidelines on the reporting of fatal domestic violence. The guidelines were written by campaign group Level Up “in consultation with a coalition of domestic violence experts and victims’ families… to help journalists report on domestic violence deaths in a dignified way.”
All too often, when the media reports on women murdered by men, it falls into the traps of subtle (or not so subtle) victim-blaming, with headlines that emphasise what she did to precipitate the murder: cheating, refusing advances, etc. Otherwise, they resort to fawning over the perpetrator as an “adoring husband” or “devoted dad”.
In fact, as Janey Starling pointed out on Victoria Derbyshire, there’s a formula to the headlines, which goes something along these lines: (flattering) description of killer + method of killing + “after/when” + action of victim. Ever noticed that?
How about now – do you see the pattern?
And do you see how headlines like these put the onus and responsibility on the victim? If only she had capitulated to his wishes, she wouldn’t be dead, they tell us.
Do you see how they glorify the killer? At the very least, by giving more (and more positive) details about him, they make the perpetrator more important, and reduce the victim to “wife” or “girlfriend”. There was more about her. She had a name, a face, a life. But we see none of that. All we know is her death, and that she “belonged” to someone.
Refusing to name the agent and the action clearly and unequivocally is irresponsible reporting, which can increase myths about violence against women in our society, and create barriers to victims/survivors and family/friends seeking help and support. Juries may see headlines prior to being involved in the trial and may be prejudiced towards the defendant. When used in court, this language of “doting”, “adoring” or “loving” father/husband can actually lead to lighter sentences. That’s why press guidelines are really important.
The five main points of guidance are:
- Accountability: Place responsibility solely on the killer, which means avoiding speculative “reasons” or “triggers”, or describing the murder as an uncharacteristic event. Homicides are usually underpinned by a longstanding sense of ownership, coercive control and possessive behaviours: they are not a random event.
- Accuracy: Name the crime as domestic violence, instead of “tragedy” or “horror”, and include the National Domestic Violence Helpline at the end of the article: 0808 2000 247.
- Dignity: Avoid sensationalising language, invasive or graphic details that compromise the dignity of the dead woman or her surviving family members.
- Equality: Avoid insensitive or trivialising language or images.
- Images: Avoid using stock images that reinforce the myth that it’s only a physical crime.
These guidelines should be fairly simple and easy to implement. While various media outlets look for colour and clicks, this shouldn’t come at the dignity of dead women.
And yet, we have the recent case of Anna Reed. She was a young British woman, who, according to media reports, was killed in a hotel in Switzerland in a “sex game gone wrong” (sometimes in quotes, sometimes reported simply as fact).
This phrase isn’t as obviously victim-blaming and damaging as some of those quoted above. However, when the media picks up this line of argument, they:
- Only portray the perpetrator’s point of view – by definition of course, the victim has no way to defend herself or state what actually happened. He said it was a sex game that went too far, so it must have been. She can’t deny it. Some particularly cunning perpetrators will even set up this excuse in advance, telling friends that she just really enjoys “rough sex”. If the worst happens, even those around her are predisposed to believe she was just into it, and the game went too far.
- Imply that she had a part to play in her own death and potentially prejudice the jury towards being less sympathetic to the victim and more sympathetic to the perpetrator. She enjoyed “risky behaviours” and probably should have known that death might occur.
- Suggest that it’s an easy line to cross between sexual enjoyment and death, and elide the pain and fear that the victim suffered. It cannot be stated enough that this is not a blurry line. In Anna Reed’s case, the post-mortem found that she had small cuts and fractures on her body. Stop and think about what that actually means. How many fractures tips over from rough sex into violence? And that’s if we even accept his narrative that this was a “sex game”.
- Normalise the idea that men are not able to understand ongoing consent or notice a woman’s pain. Even if they were playing any sort of game, I do not buy that a man is not able to see and understand pain in someone he is having sex with. Men are perfectly capable of empathy in other situations. They would understand if someone in car accident was hurt and needed help. We do no one any favours, particularly men, if we pursue a line which argues that they just “don’t understand consent” or “can’t help themselves”.
- Give visibility and credence to the “rough sex” defense – which does frequently work to lower the perpetrator’s sentence in court. And the more it works, the more men accused of murder will try it and succeed in having their sentence reduced. Why not? They have nothing to lose and quite a lot to gain. As Harriet Harman said after the Natalie Connolly case: “No man will ever be accused of murder again if he can say ‘yes she’s injured but she wanted it, she was asking for it’.”
Mostly it feels like we are moving forward in our understanding of violence against women. But whenever we take steps forward, there is pushback. Harriet Harman tweeted that the old “nagging and shagging” defense that men used to use has been replaced with this one, the “rough sex” or “50 shades of grey” defense. It might be different words, but it’s still an excuse and it’s still getting them lighter sentences.
We cannot allow headlines and reporting like the ones I’ve mentioned stand and remain commonplace. We as a society deserve and should demand better. Better reporting on violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence and absolutely necessary and will help our society respond better to these crimes, and make a world that is safer for women. For Anna Reed, where is the accountability, the accuracy, the dignity? How does this reporting measure up to the new guidelines?
It might be early days for these guidelines, but they will be implemented and upheld much quicker if we, the public, keep up the pressure on editors and publishers. When you see headlines like these, report them to the editor. Flag it on twitter with @we_Level_Up or #DignityForDeadWomen. Point it out to others. Boycott the media outlet. Whatever you do, do something. We can make a difference. For women like Anna and Natalie, for their names and their lives, which were so much more than someone’s girlfriend and a colourful news story.