Why are we obsessed with teen girl killers?

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 19 October 2016

They are not glamorous bank robbers. They are not ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. They are a teenage girl and her boyfriend, who are awaiting sentence for a brutal double murder in an English market town.

The killers were 14-years-old at the time of the ‘cold and calculated’ attack, in April this year. The boy, we are told, was encouraged by his girlfriend to stab a 49-year-old woman, Elizabeth Edwards, and her daughter Katie, aged 13, to death as they slept in their beds. The girl was convicted of murder after pleading guilty to manslaughter, while the boy admitted murder earlier in the trial

That is horrific enough to contemplate, without trite comparisons that get in the way of understanding this highly unusual case. But the ‘guilty’ verdict on the girl had barely come back when the sensational response began.

Some called them ‘evil’. Others compared the pair to outlaws and made much of the fact that the girl and her boyfriend took a bath after the murders, had sex and watched the vampire film Twilight. One report, in the Mirror, managed to get both references into a headline: ‘Teen “Twilight” killers who murdered a mum and daughter compared to Bonnie and Clyde’.

In fact, there are very few similarities between the two 14-year-olds and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who died in a shoot-out with police in 1934. They were adults, members of a gang which committed crimes during the Great Depression, holding up shops and gas stations. There is little evidence that Parker killed anyone, but Barrow and other members of the gang shot police officers and members of the public who got in their way.

The comparison was made during the trial by an expert witness, forensic psychiatrist, Dr Philip Joseph, who mused: ‘Bonnie and Clyde…that sort of intense attraction, emotional closeness – them against the world. It’s that sort of thing that led on to this’.

He was right to highlight the toxic relationship between the teenagers but almost everything we ‘know’ about Bonnie and Clyde comes from a successful 1967 film, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, which presented a highly romanticised version of their desperate lives and sordid deaths. Such comparisons do nothing to help us understand why two British children, living in a Lincolnshire town, would plot and carry out the brutal murders of a mother and daughter. They only serve to fuel our enduring fascination with young female killers; indeed, so much attention has been paid to the girl’s part in this horrific crime that the boy’s role is in danger of being overlooked.

We are more accustomed to thinking about girls as victims of crime, rather than perpetrators. A recent series of harrowing trials, involving men accused of sexually abusing underage teenagers in towns such as Rotherham, has driven that message home. But while it’s true that teen girls are more likely to be victims of violence, there are cases (albeit a relatively small number) where they are actively involved in crime. In cities with a gang problem, for instance, teenage girls are sometimes horribly abused and then used to draw other young women into the gang’s clutches.

Perversely, the expectation that girls are usually victims means that the rare exceptions are guaranteed the kind of sensational coverage we have just seen in the Spalding case. Describing a teenage girl as ‘evil’ tells us nothing about her; it is a distancing mechanism, employed to reassure the public that no one needs to think too hard about what happened before she committed such a terrible crime.

Even the fact that the girl watched a vampire film – one which is also hugely popular with teenagers who have never so much as dropped a piece of litter – has been used to suggest that she’s not quite human.

Such incidents, we are being asked to believe, simply defy understanding. This is almost never the case and the mythologising that follows is very damaging – disastrously so in some instances. A recent Netflix documentary showed how the investigation into the savage murder of a British student in Italy, Meredith Kercher, was derailed by the demonising of her American flatmate, Amanda Knox, who fought for years to clear her name after being paraded in the press as ‘Foxy Knoxy’.

Both the teenagers in the Spalding case had displayed disturbed behaviour before the double murder. In diaries, the girl described herself as an ‘emotional train wreck’. They appear to have hated themselves and adults, had suicidal thoughts and had initially planned to kill themselves after the murders.

That they ever met was a disaster. But so too was the lack of stable emotional attachment in their lives – a common factor in the backgrounds of young people who take part in extreme violence. But it’s far easier to attach labels than look at why no one spotted their problems or intervened.

It doesn’t excuse their horrific crimes, for which they are now paying the price. But calling them ‘Twilight murderers’ – almost fictionalising their actions – does nothing to help us make sense of the tragic events that have shaken an English market town to its core.

Ched Evans verdict: why we should all feel anxious about high-profile rape cases

Daily Telegraph, 14 October 2016

The judge who presided over the second trial of the footballer Ched Evans got it right: ‘This case has been conducted out in the public gaze,’ Mrs Justice Nicola Davies said as she discharged the jury. They had just cleared Evans of rape after deliberating on their verdict at Cardiff crown court for three hours.

Few cases have attracted as much attention as that of Evans. His conviction for raping a 19-year-old woman in 2011 was quashed by the appeal court earlier this year, leading to a retrial. Applause was heard from the public gallery following the ‘not guilty’ verdict and Evans sobbed as he embraced his girlfriend, Natasha Massey, who was involved in a high-profile campaign to clear his name. The jury at the retrial was not told that Massey sent a Facebook message about a £50,000 reward to a key witness, signing it with a kiss.

Evans has always denied rape, saying that he walked into a hotel room in Rhyl where his friend, the footballer Clayton McDonald, was having sex with the complainant. He said that McDonald asked ‘Can my friend join in?’ The prosecution claimed that the woman was too drunk to consent but Evans insisted that she replied ‘yes’.

He admitted in court that he lied to get a key for the hotel room and did not speak to the woman before, during or after having sex with her. His lawyers argued that the prosecution case was ‘built around the myth’ that the woman was too drunk to agree to sex.

His legal team asked for and was given permission to question the complainant at his new trial about her sexual behaviour with two other men, arguing that it was ‘so similar’ as to be relevant. That is one of a number of respects in which the Evans case is unusual - not least the fact that it has been going on for more than five years.

It comes at a moment when the subject of rape and the criminal justice system is rarely out of the headlines. Less than two decades ago, it was routine for complainants in rape trials to be questioned about their sexual history. But it was widely accepted that fear of being cross-examined about other, consensual relationships deterred women from giving evidence.

The law has since been changed in several respects, based on a recognition that complainants in rape trials are often vulnerable witnesses. Many people believe that the 1999 Youth and Criminal Justice Act outlawed questioning on these lines, not realising that the act contains significant exceptions. Some campaigners are uneasy that such evidence is allowed in some cases but not others, which means that a woman who makes a complaint to the police has no idea whether her sexual history will become an issue.

We already know that some of the protection put in place for complainants has not proved as effective as it should. They are entitled to lifetime anonymity but social networking platforms have been used to reveal their identity in some cases and even where they live, in defiance of the law. The abuse they have received, regardless of the verdict in an individual case, is an issue that the criminal justice system urgently needs to address.

No doubt the Evans case will also prompt renewed calls for anonymity for defendants in rape trials as well as complainants. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of rape, which is almost always a serial offence. Conviction rates in rape cases are low and falling, but what makes a difference is when more than one woman gives evidence. Often other women only come forward when a man is arrested and charged - and they realise it has happened to someone else. Granting anonymity to defendants would actively obstruct the process of getting justice for victims.

Critics of the present system also argue that cases take too long to get to court and complainants don’t get sufficient support. They say that the focus should be whether the complainant consented to sex with the defendant, not how she behaved in sexual encounters with someone else in different circumstances.

They also worry about opinion polls showing that sizeable numbers of people have harsh attitudes to women, blaming them if they danced with a defendant before the alleged rape or had been drinking, for instance.

The balance between the rights of defendants and complainants has been the subject of fierce debate for many years, and no doubt will continue to be so. But there is a legitimate anxiety about the effect of lurid publicity around high-profile cases. Justice will not be served if future victims fear the trial process so much that they are deterred from going to the police.


What if there’s more sexual violence now, not just reports of it?

We can’t go on explaining the entire rise in rape reports by saying victims are more likely to speak up. I fear the reality is grimmer than that

The Guardian, Friday 14 October 2016

We’ve been saying it for years: the huge increase in recorded rapes in this country is because victims are more confident about reporting it. Women have read about Jimmy Savile, they’ve heard about well-known men going to prison and they trust the police more than they used to. But the trend is so relentless that I think we now have to consider a much more alarming possibility – that more rapes are being committed.

First, the figures. The number of rape claims – from both adults and children – recorded annually by the police has more than doubled in the past four years, from just over 16,000 to almost 36,000, according to figures just published by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. I’ve got used to arguing that these increases are a good thing because we need victims to go to the police, to get justice for themselves and to protect other women.

All of that is true, but it doesn’t look to me as though it’s happening. There is a long-running argument about how to calculate the percentage of rape reports that end in convictions but the actual figure – only 2,689 this year – tells its own story. While that number is slightly up on the 2,414 convictions four years ago, over the same period the proportion of reported cases that led to conviction – already stubbornly low – has dropped by half, from 15% to 7.5%.

I’m not dismissing the idea that some victims have more confidence in the criminal justice system, post-Savile. But I’m worried that the assumption may hide an actual increase in the number of rapes and serious sexual assaults. If the conviction rate had kept pace with the increase in reported cases, there would have been 5,400 convictions this year – more than 2,700 higher than the actual figure.

I’m not alone in being concerned. Women read the news, they watch TV and they know that men who commit rape are unlikely to be convicted and sent to prison. Even if senior police officers and prosecutors have dramatically changed their approach to women who allege rape, there is still a wider culture of disbelief that is evident during high-profile trials.

If you think victims are treated more sympathetically by the media these days, I suggest you read reports of rape trials in the Daily Mail. The paper regularly splashes on stories about men who have been found not guilty, going into prurient detail about the accuser’s “past” – it recently described one young woman as having “an extraordinary sexual appetite” – and failing to acknowledge that false accusations are rare.

Then there are inexcusable delays in the criminal justice system. Long waits to get to court mean that victims have to live with anxiety about giving evidence and fear of intimidation, especially if they knew their alleged attacker. I would never argue that women shouldn’t go to the police but it’s the beginning of a lengthy process, and there isn’t anything like enough support for women who are going through it.

I’m just not convinced that we can go on explaining the entire rise in rape reports by saying that victims are more likely to make a complaint. The possibility of an actual increase is starting to be discussed among senior police officers, prosecutors and organisations that work with victims, and there are a number of factors that might explain it. After all, it isn’t just victims who read angry articles by campaigners about how easy it is to get away with rape.

It is a fact that most men who commit violent sexual attacks on women (and other men, in a small number of cases) will never be brought to justice. When I think about how long sexual predators like Savile got away with their crimes, it is inconceivable to me that there aren’t serial rapists walking round free today, entirely unperturbed by the (distant) prospect of ever being arrested.

If anything, technology has made the whole thing easier. Earlier this year, a man called Jason Lawrance was jailed for life for raping five women and attacking two others he met on the dating site Match.com. Lawrance, who was 50 and married, was a serial rapist who preyed on women who were divorced or widowed.

His is an extreme case, but the internet makes it easy for rapists to invent attractive biographies for themselves and gain the trust of potential victims. Earlier this year, the National Crime Agency revealed that the number of people reporting a rape with someone they met via a dating website had risen six-fold in five years, albeit from a low base.

We also know that the internet has created opportunities for paedophiles to contact underage children, concealing their real age and persuading victims to meet them without parental knowledge. Most people, I suspect, have yet to realise quite how extensively the internet is being used to plan and commit sexual offences, including rape and serious sexual assaults on children.

I hate the idea that more individuals may be undergoing the horror of a sexual attack. The implications are alarming for everyone who wants to live in a country where such violence is beyond the pale. But I don’t think we can go on taking comfort in assumptions, however reassuring, that may turn out to conceal a much grimmer reality.

A classic murder mystery with a cunning twist

Sunday Times, 9 October 2016
The classic murder mystery has plenty of suspects, all with plausible motives, and a detective who spots clues nobody else has seen. Anthony Horowitz supplies these elements twice over in Magpie Murders (Orion £18.99), an ingenious novel-within-a-novel about the death of a bestselling crime writer. Alan Conway falls from a tower shortly after completing his latest book, in which Atticus Pünd, his eccentric German-Greek detective, is summoned to investigate a sudden death in an English village in the 1950s. Conway’s editor, Susan Ryeland, has just spent the weekend reading the typescript when she discovers that the final chapters are missing.
When she receives the shocking news that Conway has killed himself, she is far from convinced, and can’t help seeing sinister parallels between the novel and the death of her least-favourite author. Part crime novel, part pastiche, this magnificent piece of crime fiction plays with the genre (Horowitz includes “reviews” of Conway’s books) while also taking it seriously.
The Danish author Thomas Rydahl won two of the most prestigious prizes in Nordic crime fiction for his first novel, The Hermit, translated by KE Semmel (Oneworld £16.99). The book is set on Fuerteventura, the second-largest of the Canary Islands, where a Dane called Erhard has been existing quietly for two decades. He lives in a remote spot with a couple of wild goats for company and earns his living as a taxi driver. No one knows why he left Denmark or how he lost one of his fingers.
When a car is found on a beach, with a dead baby in a cardboard box on the back seat, Erhard is asked for help because the box also contains cuttings from Danish newspapers. The police soon lose interest, but something about the child’s death troubles Erhard. He is neither a natural investigator nor an attractive human
being, which means the novel is not an easy read. But it is original and compelling, and it is not difficult to see why the book has become a bestseller in Denmark.
Anita Nair is one of India’s most successful poets and novelists. Chain of Custody (Bitter Lemon £8.99) is the second in a vivid series of crime novels set in her home city, Bangalore, where prostitution exists side-by-side with extraordinary wealth. Her irascible detective, Inspector Gowda, is investigating the murder of a lawyer inside a gated community when his cleaner’s 12-year-old daughter Nandita goes missing.
Nandita is a clever girl, with no reason to disappear, and it soon becomes apparent that other children have vanished in similar circumstances. Nair is an accomplished writer,
and she uses this searing novel to expose the hideous and all-too-real world of
When PD James died in November 2014, she left behind a number of short stories that hadn’t been published in a single volume. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Faber £10) brings together four of them, written over more than three decades and linked by the theme of Christmas. It offers a lovely coda to James’s career, and the first story, which is set in a country house in the bitter winter of 1940, shows her writing at her sly and brilliant best.

The Fale Sheikh is overthrown, but the matter can’t rest there

Big questions remain for prosecutors who relied on Mazher Mahmood’s testimony – and for all who allowed him to act without oversight

The Guardian, Thursday 6 October 2016

In the course of his long career, the undercover journalist known as the Fake Sheikh bragged about the number of people he’d sent to prison. Back in 2012, during a melodramatic appearance at the Leveson inquiry, Mazher Mahmood declared that he was “proud to have jailed paedophiles and drug dealers”. Now, in a stunning reversal of fortune, the famously camera-shy Fake Sheikh may be facing a prison sentence himself.

Mahmood has been convicted, along with his driver Alan Smith, of tampering with evidence in the drugs trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos. That trial was the result of a “sting” operation reported in the Sun on Sunday. Both men have now been found guilty of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, an offence which carries a jail sentence of up to two years.

It is all a far cry from the days when drug dealers, sports stars and celebrities who had fallen on hard times allegedly quaked at the mention of the Fake Sheikh. His scalps included members of the Pakistan cricket team, three of whom were jailed for match-fixing during a tour of England in 2010. Mahmood, by contrast, was celebrated. He won a series of press awards for the story.

The reporter boasted to the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press that he had been responsible for more than 250 successful criminal prosecutions, although critics say the figure is closer to 70. He claimed that he lived under “a constant death threat”, persuading the inquiry that he could give evidence only in a courtroom cleared of everyone except lawyers. Reporters had to listen to the audio feed of his evidence from another room, allowing him to protect his identity – and increasing his mystique.

But there was always a darker side to Mazher Mahmood’s self-mythologising, with some of his best-known stories falling apart long before the Contostavlos debacle. Stings are part of newspaper life, the most recent being the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about Sam Allardyce, which prompted his resignation as England manager. But there is a difference between investigating pre-existing allegations of corruption in sport – or, indeed, a prominent MP’s willingness to pay for sex while chairing an inquiry into prostitution law, as the Sunday Mirror did recently – and persuading people such as Contostavlos to act entirely out of character, which is what, we must now conclude, Mahmood did.

What next? Mahmood and Smith are due in court for sentencing later this month. But even then, it doesn’t end. Big questions remain for police and prosecutors who relied heavily on Mahmood’s investigations and testimony in a number of contested cases. The lawyer Ben Rose, who defended Contostavlos at her drugs trial, went to the heart of the matter: “The real scandal in this case is that Mahmood was allowed to operate as a wholly unregulated police force, ‘investigating’ crimes without the safeguards which apply to the police,” he said.

Following the collapse of the Contostavlos trial, the crown prosecution service dropped a number of criminal cases in which Mahmood was due to be a witness, and announced a review of 25 past convictions. The criminal cases review commission is currently reappraising six cases involving celebrities who were convicted after being targeted by Mahmood.

But the questions go further than that. Consider that some police officers have privately complained that all weekend leave was cancelled when their superiors got wind that Mahmood was about to publish a big exposé in the News of the World. If true, is that level of complicity at all appropriate?

Surely such allegations, indeed all issues raised by the case, demonstrate the urgent need for ministers to set up the second part of the Leveson inquiry, specifically to examine relationships between the police and the press and whether they work towards the public good. It appears to have been parked. The very public fall of Mazher Mahmood tells us it must now be set up without delay.


Literary Review, October 2016

Transit, by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape £16.99)

Rachel Cusk’s narrator is a writer who is in the process of reorganising her life after the break-up of a long relationship. She moves back to London with her two sons and decides, on the advice of a friend, to buy a bad house in a good street rather than the other way round. It needs a massive amount of building work but that isn’t the half of it; the basement consists of a council flat occupied by a hellish couple who harass her at every turn.

To an outsider, this purchase seems ill-judged from the outset, and the state of the house quickly comes to seem like a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Faye’s current circumstances. She is self-deprecating and uncomplaining – we don’t even learn her name until a long way into the novel – and these characteristics are reflected in the manner of her narration.

Whenever a new character is introduced, she begins to tell his or her story, often employing reported speech as if she’s little more than a mouthpiece. Here she is, for instance, summarising a conversation with an ex-boyfriend who went to live in Canada when she left him years ago: ‘They had stayed on in Toronto for another eighteen months, Gerard went on, during which time Clara was born.’ The problem isn’t so much that these stories are hard to believe – Faye is a passive narrator, not an unreliable one – as her unemotional reaction to them. It is mystifying, given that some of them lead lives of spectacular misery.

There is a clue to Faye’s detachment in the opening chapter, in a rather laboured anecdote about an unsolicited email from an astrologer. Faye knows that the woman has been generated by an algorithm but in the end she pays up for the reading she’s been offered. She seems to be suggesting that the world is so cruel and confusing, and genuine communication so difficult, that computer-generated sympathy is as reliable as the real thing. She has a friend who feels the same following his divorce, feeling ‘moved to tears by the concern for his health and wellbeing expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging’.

Of course this man is depressed and far from alone among the melancholic characters who take their turns in Cusk’s pages. As in her critically-acclaimed earlier novel, Outline, other people move in and out focus, not seeming to relish their moment in the spotlight. Faye’s life exists in the intervals between these stories, as if she’s not even assertive enough to claim back her own narrative. In the course of the book, she moves into the house, sends her sons to stay with her ex-partner when the building work becomes too disruptive, speaks at a literary festival and becomes embroiled (possibly too strong a word) in a feud with her downstairs neighbours.

The malice of this working-class couple – she is obese, he claims to be suffering from cancer, even their dog is ‘shrivelled’ and ‘hobbling’ – is one of the strongest feelings in the novel, rising through the floor like the smell of boiled cabbage. Their mere presence creates a sense of menace which is hard to interpret – do they pose a genuine threat to Faye? – and would send a less passive protagonist straight to the police.

Clearly Cusk shares a great deal with her narrator, having written about the break-up of her own marriage in an angry, self-exposing piece of non-fiction entitled Aftermath. She is no stranger to blurred boundaries in her fiction and non-fiction, inevitably raising questions about what this series of novels represents. The titles – Outline, now followed by Transit – suggest some kind of movement, but whose progression is it?

Cusk’s themes – failures of communication between men and women, the distance between even well-intentioned adults, the damage sustained in childhood – are clear enough. Transit is an unusual entity, a novel almost without minor characters as though her protagonist is involved in a deliberate exercise in literary democracy, insisting that everyone’s inner world has the same value.

Once this becomes evident, any expectation that the novel will arrive somewhere, rather than repeating its themes, quickly evaporates. If Faye is going to emerge from her passivity and depression, it doesn’t seem likely that it will happen in this book: ‘I said that perhaps none of us could ever know what was true and what wasn’t,’ she suggests to a friend as they sit in a café, batting ideas about love backwards and forwards.

A question remains at the end of this ambitious but contradictory novel. Is it a reflection of modern life, accurately capturing the loneliness felt by many adults in a sensitive piece of fiction? Or is it a series of apparently disparate characters who share Cusk’s low expectations and distrust of the world? The book’s flat narration and affectless style seem to suggest the latter.

Trump supporters are terrifying women into buying guns – and making them easy prey

Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2016

Few women in this country own a gun. No matter how worried we are by rising levels of violence against women, most of us don’t think buying a firearm is the answer. Not so in America, where gun ownership among women is increasing and clubs are springing up where they can learn how to shoot, many with their young daughters (and often with pink guns). Women who join say they’re doing it for self-defence – yet the evidence suggests that owning a gun actually increases the risk of being murdered.

The statistics are sobering. According to ‘When Men Murder Women’, a new report from the Violence Policy Centre, more than 1,600 women were killed by men in 2014, and the most commonly used weapon was a gun. In the same year, there were only 15 recorded incidents in which a woman shot a man in self-defence. Obviously no one wants that figure to be higher – women killing their attackers is not the answer to America’s huge domestic violence problem. But it does expose the myth that acquiring a firearm makes women safer.

Yet that’s precisely the message from groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most influential lobbying organisations in the US and a fervent supporter of the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Earlier this week the NRA launched a $5m television advertising campaign in support of Trump, exploiting women’s fears of being attacked while alone at home.

The ad shows a frightened woman calling the nationwide emergency number, 911, while a voiceover tells viewers that the average response time is 11 minutes. As an intruder’s footsteps get closer, the woman runs to a safe, unlocks it and goes to grab her gun. But it suddenly disappears. ‘Don’t let Hillary leave you protected with nothing but a phone’, the ad warns, reminding voters that the Democrats’ presidential candidate supports gun control.

Another recent report suggests that some women are listening to the NRA’s claims. According to research published by Northeastern University and the Harvard School of Public Health, the proportion of American women who own guns is rising, although the overall picture is complicated. It’s a little-known fact that gun ownership is actually falling in the US and is increasingly concentrated within a small section of the population who own, on average, 17 weapons each.

Women who possess guns are more likely than men to say they do it for self-defence. They are also are more likely to purchase a single handgun than the terrifying machine guns so often used in mass shootings. ‘Women are the prey and women are generally weaker and there has to be a way to equalise the battlefield,’ Carrie Lightfoot told the Guardian earlier this week. Lightfoot is the founder of Well Armed Women, a business she set up to teach female Americans more about guns. Its not-for-profit branch now has 280 groups in 49 states.

Tempting though some women find this message, it could not be more wrong. Why? Because the scenario that persuades a small number of women to acquire guns – a stranger breaking into their house or apartment, intent on rape, robbery or both – is far less likely than an assault by someone they already know.

‘The picture that emerges from ‘When Men Murder Women’ is that women face the greatest threat from someone they know, most often a spouse or intimate acquaintance, who is armed with a gun’, the report concludes. ‘For women in America, guns are not used to save lives, but to take them’.

In other words, women acquire guns to protect themselves against intruders, not realising that they are handing a weapon to a man who is far more likely to wound or kill them – an angry boyfriend or husband. An incident that might involve an assault with fists can turn into a murder if there is a gun on the premises. Victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a firearm.

It has been known for almost 20 years that women who keep guns at home are three times more likely to be murdered than their unarmed peers. Ready access to firearms is one of the reasons why family annihilation – where a man kills his wife, children and possibly himself – are far more common in the US than the UK, even allowing for the difference in population size.

Violence is never the answer to violence, no matter what the gender of those involved. In this country, the number of women convicted of domestic violence has tripled in a decade, although the overall figures remain low: 5,641 last year, out of a total of 92,779. It isn’t clear what’s behind the increase but some recent high-profile cases have involved a woman striking back against an abusive partner. That scenario has just played out in Radio 4’s long-running series The Archers, where Helen Titchener stabbed her husband Rob after years of abuse.

Our understanding of violence against women often lags behind the facts. In this country, the picture of the stranger-rapist, lurking in a dark alley, persists in the public imagination even though a high proportion of victims know their attackers. This lack of knowledge about patterns of violence leads some women to worry about the wrong thing – and that’s never been more evident than in relation to American women and guns.

Joining a gun club might make them feel safer – but the sense of security it offers couldn’t be further from reality.

I’m sick of living in a culture that tolerates violence against women

The Guardian, Wednesday 7 September 2016

The level of denial about this epidemic is staggering. A society that genuinely valued female equality would acknowledge the hateful truth

It’s always there, isn’t it? Most of us don’t like it, but what can we actually do about gender-based violence? Sure, the figures are terrible – violent crimes against women in England and Wales reached record levels last year – but they’ve been going up for ages. Rape and domestic violence are the new poor, always with us no matter how much we wish it were otherwise.

If that sounds cynical, it’s because I’m sick of a glaring disconnect at the heart of our culture. The criminal justice system is struggling to cope with the number of women coming forward with terrible stories of rape, beatings and – a relatively new one, this – online forms of abuse such as revenge porn.

The annual report of the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, told exactly this story when it was published earlier this week. Offences against women, including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, rose by almost 10% in 2015-16. Stalking prosecutions were up by 7.1%, child sex prosecutions by 15.4% and there were a record number (4,643) of rape prosecutions.

Cue a great deal of hand-wringing and a weary sense that perhaps violence against women, while regrettable, is inevitable. Just think of all the training, initiatives and public awareness work that’s been done in recent years, yet the picture just keeps on getting worse. Is there really anything that someone – police, prosecutors, legislators – hasn’t already thought of and tried?

There is, but it requires a dramatic shift in public attitudes. How many times have you heard people express sympathy with a man on trial for rape, asking why the victim had had so much to drink or agreed to go back to his hotel room? Public understanding of the law relating to consent is woefully lacking, and there is a persistent tendency to view women’s behaviour much more critically than that of the men who commit even violent assaults.

The same unthinking callousness is shown to victims of domestic abuse, who are often criticised for staying with violent partners even when they have nowhere else to live. There are nothing like enough safe places for victims, a situation that’s going to get even worse when a housing benefit cap hits refuges in 2018.

If we are to change the dire situation revealed in annual crime statistics, there has to be an end to a culture of suspicion, denial and victim-blaming. Sometimes I think we’re making progress but every apparent advance is quickly followed by a return to the status quo. Three months ago, after the horrific killing of the Labour MP Jo Cox, there was an outpouring of shock and sympathy. That consensus didn’t last long. When other female Labour MPs talked publicly about receiving rape and death threats, some people went on social networking sites to mock them. They even laughed at Jess Phillips when she posted photographs of a locksmith fixing stronger locks at the home she shares with her children.

The attitude that being threatened with sexual violence is just another hazard of the job seems to be widely held, with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, telling his female colleagues to ignore it. When even the leader of the opposition cannot correctly identify a gender-specific form of abuse, we have reached a startling level of denial.

But that is exactly where we are, as I was reminded on the Sunday morning after Cox’s killing. I was taking part in a BBC TV programme that began by discussing the attack on Cox and then moved on to a call by several public figures, including Sir Cliff Richard, for anonymity for men accused of serious sexual offences. Another of the guests immediately began to talk about false rape accusations, as though the biggest problem we face is the number of men being wrongly accused.

This claim was debunked by research published by Keir Starmer, Saunders’s predecessor as DPP. Yet in no time at all we had moved from talking about women as victims of horrendous violence to the idea that they make untrustworthy witnesses. There is nothing unusual about that, sadly, but such assumptions cannot be ignored when we look at the shockingly low rate of convictions in rape cases.

According to the DPP’s latest report, just over half of rape prosecutions ended in a conviction last year. That means that fewer than 3,000 men were found guilty in the whole of England and Wales, yet almost 6,000 women reported rapes to the police in London alone. The vast majority are telling the truth but few will ever see their attacker in a courtroom.

Violence against women is at epidemic proportions. Some of it is driven by technology but the biggest problem by far is tolerance. A society genuinely committed to gender equality wouldn’t put up with this situation for a moment.

Should Keith Vaz step down as chair of the home affairs committee?

The Guardian, Monday 5 September 2016

Joan Smith: ‘It’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest’

Public attitudes to prostitution are changing. In Sweden, where what’s known as the Nordic model of prostitution policy was first introduced, a majority of the public now regards paying for sex as a form of abuse. Women and men who sell sex no longer face criminal sanctions but, crucially, people who buy it do.

In this country, we still have out-of-date laws that criminalise vulnerable individuals who are in reality victims of a vast commercial sex industry. That’s one of the reasons why many of us would like to see a sex buyers’ law introduced in the UK, forcing men who drive this trade (and it is mostly men) to face up to their responsibilities.

The Labour MP Keith Vaz chairs a powerful House of Commons committee that has been holding an inquiry into this key area of public policy. It has heard evidence from a number of organisations that support the Nordic model, yet no one knew that a change in the law may – if the allegations in the Sunday Mirror are true – affect the committee’s chair directly.

That’s why these claims, no matter how luridly they have been presented, are in a different category from other stories exposing the private activities of well-known people. To take a recent example, the argument for publishing details of the sexual relationships of the former culture secretary, John Whittingdale, was undermined by the fact that there was no clear evidence they had affected the way he did his job.

Vaz’s situation is very different from Whittingdale’s. To put it bluntly, he appears to have chaired hearings where campaigners proposed a change in the law that could, in theory, turn his own private behaviour into a criminal offence. This is jaw-dropping stuff, and it’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest.

Real-life Helen Archers aren’t getting the protection they need. It’s shameful

Daily Telegraph, 4 September 2016

It’s fictional, of course, but the trial of the year is about to begin. Millions of Radio 4 listeners will be glued to this week’s episodes of The Archers when Helen Titchener appears in court, charged with the attempted murder of her abusive husband, Rob. Helen’s liberty – and the future welfare of her two sons – depends on the verdict in the trial, which has created a lively national conversation about domestic abuse.

Back in April, fans of the series heard Rob taunt Helen as she tried to leave him. He was so confident he had destroyed every vestige of his wife’s independence and self-respect that he even put a knife in her hand, never believing she would use it. Helen’s barrister, Anna Tregorren, will argue that she stabbed Rob to defend herself and her young son, Henry, but the case hinges on the jury’s understanding of a specific and poorly-understood form of domestic abuse.

Coercive control became a criminal offence at the end of last year. Helen Titchener has shown the classic symptoms of a woman who’s been subjected to it, even while she’s been awaiting trial in a mother-and-baby unit. She has given every appearance of still being under her husband’s control, blaming herself for the breakdown of her marriage and displaying rock-bottom self-esteem. Listeners and members of The Archers cast have felt growing frustration as she refused to reveal the extent of what she suffered at Rob’s hands – including being raped – to her lawyer.

This is far from unusual in this form of abuse, which leaves few physical marks but has devastating effects on victims. It involves a sustained campaign to take away a woman’s autonomy, isolating her from friends and family; perpetrators control access to money, humiliate their victims with callous remarks, and may even go as far as putting tracking devices on mobile phones or cars. Sometimes, as in Helen’s case, it’s the prelude to actual violence, laying the ground so the victim is too cowed to seek help from outsiders.

The new law is based on a realisation that domestic abuse is usually a long series of incidents, not a single outburst of violence. It’s a belated recognition that police officers need to look at a pattern of behaviour if they’re going to identify and charge perpetrators.

Yet figures which have just been published suggest that real-life Helens are not getting the protection they need – or seeing their abusers taken to court. The law on coercive control was used only 62 times in the six months after it came into operation, with some police forces failing to charge a single individual with the offence.

Twenty-two forces in England and Wales responded to a Freedom of Information request from a law firm, and eight admitted that they had not brought a single prosecution. Nine, including Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire, had used the law twice or less. A spokeswoman for Northamptonshire police, which has not prosecuted anyone, said its officers had undergone ‘comprehensive training’ in coercive control but “it will obviously take time to see successful prosecutions move through the system.”

Experts in the field say that coercive control is one of the most common forms of abuse. “Sadly, Helen’s experiences mirror what so many abused women feel and experience every day”, says Sandra Horley, chief executive of charity Refuge. “She has been manipulated and controlled by a violent perpetrator”.

The widespread failure to use the new law is all the more disappointing because we are in the midst of an epidemic of domestic abuse, with the Office for National Statistics estimating that 1.4m women became victims in the year 2013-14. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents in London alone last year, including 28 domestic murders.

In recent years, while Theresa May was Home Secretary, the police have been given significant new powers to deal with this shameful situation. In March 2014, domestic violence protection orders and notices were introduced, allowing senior police officers and magistrates to put in place measures (including evictions) to protect women in cases where there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Home Office data suggests they are not being used anything like often enough, with only 71 being authorised in the whole of London in the final two months of 2014.

In May this year, when she was still at the Home Office, May lambasted the police for continuing to fail victims of domestic violence. She said some things had improved since she ordered a review in 2013 but victims of abuse ‘are still being let down and reports are not being taken seriously enough’.

Clearly she’s right. In fact, it seems as though the producers of a BBC radio soap – and the thousands of people who have raised more than £150,000 for the charity Refuge in response to The Archers storyline – have a more sophisticated grasp of domestic abuse than some police forces.

Whatever happens next in Helen’s no doubt memorable fictional trial, we still have a very real problem on our hands. We can’t afford to forget it.

Joan Smith is Co-Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board