Joanna Yeates, the tabloid press, and the grim truth about sexual violence

Saturday 29 October 2011

The Joanna Yeates trial has ended with her killer, Vincent Tabak, in prison for murder. But it leaves a dreadful reckoning: a vital young woman has lost her life, the people who were close to her will go on mourning for years, and her image will forever be associated in the public mind with the grim circumstances of her death. Women in Bristol were advised by the police not to walk home alone, even though it transpired that
the fatal assault on Ms Yeates happened in her own flat. Her landlord, Chris
Jefferies, endured the torment of being wrongly accused of involvement in Ms
Yeates’s death, and had his private life written about in the most lurid terms.

Only a small proportion of the murders committed in the UK each year attract publicity on this scale. Those that do are often atypical, involving young, attractive, middle-class women even though the majority of homicide victims – around 70 per cent – are male. Among the remaining 30 per cent, only one woman in eight is killed by a stranger; women have more reason to fear assailants who are known to them than a random
encounter in the street.

In that sense, Ms Yeates was doubly a victim: first of a composed, calculating killer who collected pornographic images of men having sex with bound and gagged women, and then of a media obsession with certain categories of victims. There is no question that
prosecutors need to be able to set out the medical evidence during a trial but
the press reported it in excruciating detail, dwelling on her suffering in a
manner that verged on pornographic. ‘She fought to her last breath’ said the Daily
Mirror, while the Daily Mail was even more graphic: ‘He squeezed the life out of
her: Jo Yeates suffered slow and painful death as she fought desperately for her
life’.

An obsession with violent crimes has produced a style of reporting that is frantic, prurient and detached from normal human emotions. Friends and family can decide whether to listen when distressing evidence is being given in court, but they can hardly avoid headlines spelling out the victim’s suffering. There has seldom been a stronger case for the popular press to examine its behaviour, and recognise the damage done by
its relentless appetite for stories – and its chronic lack of empathy.

But there is another point that needs to be made here. Even though the prosecution was not allowed to tell the jury about Tabak’s obsession with bondage porn or evidence suggesting he paid for sex with women working as prostitutes, they didn’t believe his version of events and he was convicted of murder. If this had been a rape trial,
however, things might have been very different. In court, Tabak used a classic
rape defence: that the victim invited him into her flat where he misunderstood
her behaviour and tried to kiss her.

Tabak used this defence, I suspect, because in rape trials it is often successful. There is a widely-held belief that the ‘problem’ of rape is one of false accusation, in which innocent men misconstrue situations and find themselves facing trumped-up charges. In
case after case, juries are willing to believe that women invite men they don’t
know into their homes and have sex with them, only to change their minds
afterwards and claim to have been raped.

It now looks likely that, far from inviting Tabak into her flat, Ms Yeates was the victim of a ruse which he used to gain entry with the purpose of strangling her. This is what the judge, Mr Justice Field, told Tabak after his conviction at Bristol Crown Court: ‘When
you entered her flat…you did not even know her name and had had virtually
nothing to do with each other. You proceeded to strangle her intending, in my
judgement, to kill her, a dreadful evil act committed against a vulnerable, unsuspecting
young woman’.

Tabak is a pitiless sexual predator, who thoroughly deserves the life sentence he is now serving. But as well as the tragedy of a young woman losing her life, this dreadful case is a warning about the cold cunning of such men – and the continuing danger they pose to women.

 

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