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Time to end clumsy coverage of violence against women says Dani Garavelli

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Freelance journalist Dani Garavelli was invited by NUJ Scotland to write an article about women and the media as part of the Stronger Voice for Women in the Media project.  The aim of the project is to improve representation of women working in the media and how women are represented by the media.


THE CLUMSINESS the media often demonstrates in its coverage of violence against women was on display again last week in a tweet posted by Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey. Plugging a feature on that day’s show, she wrote: “Tom raped his girlfriend: he tells us why.” In those eight words, an act that drove Thordis Elva to the brink of despair was reduced to a piece of click-bait.

The tweet has since been deleted. But that such a misjudgement could be made by Woman’s Hour – a programme which has a well-earned reputation for campaigning on feminist issues – demonstrates how engrained the sensationalising of sexual offences has become.

It was a shame, because the interview itself was more nuanced. In the past couple of months, Elva and Tom Stranger have been appearing at events talking about the rape which took place when she was 16 and he was 18, after a school dance. Years later, she emailed him to tell him how his actions had affected her, and he was forced to confront the reality of what he had done. Although, there are arguments against giving Tom a platform – and, ultimately, his ‘insight’ into his offence doesn’t amount to much more than “yes, I did it, and yes, it was wrong” – this was at least an attempt to shift the focus from the survivor to the perpetrator.

There are, in truth, much worse examples every other week, with perpetrator-excusing and victim-blaming common-place. In January, Dr Catherine Hakim, social scientist with the think tank Civitas wrote a  Daily Mail column in which she suggested women who refused to have sex with their husbands were responsible for turning them into molesters.  And here is a shocking headline which ran in The Sun during the trial of the man accused of murdering India Chipchase in Northampton last year: “Doctor’s daughter necked six Jagerbombs in ten minutes on the night she was raped and murdered.”

With no apparent sense of irony, those same newspapers then go on to feign shock at polls, such as a recent one by ICM,  which suggested  more than a quarter of Britons believe a woman is at least partly responsible for being raped if she is drunk. So, where do they think such attitudes come from?  These prejudices – peddled by them and absorbed by the public – have consequences too: they discourage victims from coming forward and make juries less likely to convict.

Sometimes – as in the case of Oscar Pistorious and Reeva Steenkamp – victims are effectively erased from their own killings, their names and identities lost in the column inches devoted to their attackers. Clodagh Hawe, murdered along with her three sons, in August, became known as “the invisible woman” after reports focused on her husband Alan, who had killed her, and the children “missed by all who knew them.”

One of the most reductive forums on which to discuss rape is the radio phone-in, which thrives on courting extreme views and confrontation.  Take the edition of BBC Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye after footballer Ched Evans was cleared of rape at a retrial. The case was long and complicated; too complicated, really, to be given such a simplistic treatment. But the programme went ahead, with Adams, asking: “What kind of woman wants to be in a hotel room, blind drunk, making themselves vulnerable?” With the presenter having effectively licensed victim-blaming, the switchboard lit up with callers who compared rape to drink driving, suggested the woman at the centre of the case had “self-esteem issues”, and opined: “She was with footballers – what did she expect?” The programme also gave a platform to so-called Men’s Rights Activist Mike Buchanan, a misogynist who said Evans was “the only one to feel sorry for in the case.”

This fetishising of men who use hate speech about women is a phenomenon fuelled by social media, the alt-right, and the election of Trump. We’ve seen the rise of pick-up artist Roosh V, who admits he’s had sex with women who were “reluctant”, and Breitbart poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos, who has suggested women should log off the internet.

Admittedly, these people are difficult to ignore, particularly when one of them – Yiannopoulos – decided to stand, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for rector of Glasgow University. But every time a journalist gives them publicity, even under the guise of being outraged at what they stand for, their views are given oxygen, and someone else buys into them.

Outside the worst of the tabloids, things are improving. There are many reporters and columnists committed to writing on issues such as campus rape culture and inadequacies in the justice system. In Scotland, the Write to End Violence Awards, run by Zero Tolerance, acknowledge good journalism, while handing out a wooden spoon to the worst offenders.

There is also an army of online feminists who monitor headlines, stories and tweets and call out examples of victim-blaming. Whenever women are erased from coverage of their own deaths – as in the Oscar Pistorious case – there is a #hernamewasReevaSteenkamp-style Twitter campaign.

Just last week, campaigner Kirsty Strickland, picked up on a tweet by sports broadcaster Ian Payne. Referring to a proposed LBC phone-in, pegged on the attack on an Austrian woman in Warwick, he asked: “A female tourist is beaten up after rejecting a stranger’s chat-up. How should women reject unwanted advances?” Strickland immediately hit back: “Alternative question: How should men respond to their unwanted advances being rejected? Answer: NOT WITH VIOLENCE.”

The intervention had the desired effect. Payne deleted the tweet and the topic for the phone-in was changed. But, really; it’s the 21st century. We have been talking about the way we report such incidents for decades.  These things shouldn’t have to be pointed out again and again.



One thought on “Time to end clumsy coverage of violence against women says Dani Garavelli

  1. Pingback: Writing to end violence against women | NUJ Scotland

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