Caroline Flack’s death has rightly put the tabloids back in the dock

It was right to send the TV presenter’s domestic abuse case to trial, but the press was eager to hound a vulnerable woman

Guardian, Tuesday 18 February 2010

Sudden death causes intense grief and shock. Someone taking their own life is especially hard to cope with – and the suicide of the TV presenter Caroline Flack, which was announced at the weekend, has unleashed a storm of anguished comment and bitter recriminations.

It isn’t easy to pick a way through this maelstrom of emotion. But it needs to be done because what happened to Flack has happened to other people, and it will happen again if all that follows is a few days’ handwringing headlines. That means being absolutely clear about where blame lies – and where it doesn’t.

Flack was arrested in December for an alleged assault on her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, and was due to appear in court again next month. The day after her death, her management company put out an angry statement, accusing the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) of pressing ahead with what it called “a show trial” after Burton had said he didn’t want the prosecution to continue.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding here of how the criminal justice system works. It isn’t up to victims to “press charges” in this country – and shouldn’t be. Charging decisions are made by the CPS, and prosecutions for domestic violence sometimes go ahead even when an alleged victim withdraws cooperation.

We don’t know what evidence prosecutors would have relied on in this case. But defendants are entitled to be treated as innocent until found guilty, and it’s perfectly possible that Flack would eventually have been cleared.

At the same time, there is widespread agreement that too few cases of alleged domestic violence end in prosecutions. The police recorded almost 750,000 such crimes in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019 but only 98,470 were referred to the CPS for a charging decision. The proportion that don’t reach court because the victim doesn’t support a prosecution is higher than in non-domestic violence cases – and increasing.

Domestic violence is a scourge, damaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (most of them women) each year. Are prosecutors supposed to drop a case because sections of the press have decided to torment the defendant? Do we want the tabloids to have, in effect, a veto on justice? The fact that the accused is famous should have no bearing on whether to continue with a prosecution, and we don’t know what considerations influenced the CPS decision to pursue the case against Flack.

Paradoxically, the popular press might have been more cautious if the charge had been serious enough to be heard in a crown court. She faced a single count of assault with beating, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison and is usually heard in a magistrates’ court, where contempt rules are applied less stringently, because there is no jury.

It’s unlikely that a first-time offender would receive a custodial sentence, even if convicted. Flack was clearly very upset about being forbidden by the court to contact Burton while the case was pending, but it’s also obvious that few defendants would have been subjected to the onslaught of heartless publicity she had to endure.

It was open season on Flack – an attractive 40-year-old woman with a boyfriend 13 years her junior – from the moment news of her arrest became public. Of course it always has been, particularly since she opened up about her depression after winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2014 – such exposure only whets tabloid and public appetite for further revelations.

“Bedroom bloodbath” was the headline in the Sun, accompanied by a picture of blood-spattered sheets, which raises questions about how images from the alleged crime scene got into the public domain. The Mirror went for “Caroline Flack’s fall from grace”, making the melodramatic claim that her life was “shrouded with heartache” despite her “stunning body”. Remind me, what’s the tabloid for Schadenfreude?

Flack could barely leave her home without having to face photographers. She was mobbed when she arrived at the magistrates’ court in north London shortly before Christmas and made no secret of her fragile emotional state, posting a series of worrying messages on social media. It has emerged that an ambulance was called to her address on Friday, the day before her suicide.

Flack’s obvious vulnerability didn’t call off the dogs. Also on Friday, the Sun published an article about a Valentine’s Day card that mocked her, referring to the allegation that she had hit Burton over the head with a lamp. It mysteriously disappeared from the paper’s website when her death was announced.

There is a haunting sketch of the former TV presenter at Highbury Corner magistrates’ court in December, shoulders slumped and her face half-hidden by a gloved hand. She looks nothing like the glamorous contestant who appeared on Strictly Come Dancing just over five years ago. And that, of course, is the point: when the popular press scents an opportunity to shame a famous woman, compassion and decorum go out of the window.

Flack’s tragic death has rightly put the tabloids back in the dock, with some MPs accusing the popular press of hounding her. Labour leadership contender Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, has said some stories “amplified” damaging posts that appeared on social media. It’s almost as if the Leveson inquiry into press intrusion never happened.

Once again, a female celebrity is dead in ghastly circumstances and the same questions arise. Was she treated differently from a man in the same situation? Do we trust our institutions, including the criminal justice system and the media, to behave fairly to women and recognise their vulnerabilities? I think it’s pretty obvious that we don’t. Misogyny is still the lens through which well-known women are viewed and Caroline Flack, tragically, is the latest in a long line of victims

Ladies Who Punch

Literary Review, February 2020

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights

Helen Lewis (Jonathan Cape£16.99)

Helen Lewis doesn’t come across as a ‘difficult’ woman. She is thoughtful and hard-working, describing here how she sifted through many biographies, letters and archives to write this history of feminist pioneers. Some of this material, such as the memoirs of working-class suffragettes, proved immensely rewarding. Some of it didn’t: Married Love, the magnum opus of the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes, is written in a style that Lewis dismisses as ‘bonkers’. It’s a surprise to discover that Stopes was an enthusiastic playwright and even had a play, bizarrely entitled Our Ostriches, performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1923. Lewis admits that she tried to read it but couldn’t get to the end. Another Stopes script drew a sharp rejoinder from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Short of rewriting this play, I can do no more with it than cut 20 pages just to shew you how you should cut the rest,’ he told her.

 

There are many such anecdotes in the book, providing a chatty introduction to the likes of Stopes, Sophia Jex-Blake and Erin Pizzey for readers unfamiliar with their names. I would have thought that the last two were both relatively well known: Jex-Blake took on the universities that refused to admit women as medical students, arguing in 1869 that women were naturally suited to a career in medicine because of their experience of looking after the sick, while Pizzey founded the first refuge for victims of domestic violence in the UK in 1971. But I didn’t know about Lily Parr, who was born in 1905 and became a football star at the age of fourteen, benefiting from the phenomenal growth of women’s soccer during the First World War. It didn’t last: in 1921, the Football Association banned women from playing football on the pitches of professional clubs, arguing that the game ‘is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. It was half a century before this ban was rescinded, marking a grudging concession to players of what has now become one of the most popular women’s sports. Women like Parr are definitely worth rescuing from obscurity, even if some supporters of women’s football will have already read about her in Barbara Jacobs’s book (published in 2004) about the team Parr played for.

 

Feminists have been caricatured so often that it’s worth recalling the many obstacles placed in the path of women campaigning for equal rights. Lewis’s premise is that it’s not at all surprising that some of them were ‘difficult’, whether by temperament or as a result of harsh personal experience, or that some of them became embroiled in bitter quarrels with other feminists. I can’t help thinking that it attracts more attention when women fall out with each other than when others do, even though every movement for sweeping social change has suffered from internal conflicts and schisms; the French Revolution, after all, ended up with former comrades trying to send each other to the guillotine. It is undeniably true that some feminists have embraced strange ideas (Stopes famously became enamoured of eugenics) that arouse discomfort in the 21st century. But Lewis wisely counsels against consigning all their ideas to the scrapheap, arguing against the modern tendency to condemn writers and thinkers on the basis of one regrettable or poorly expressed opinion.

 

Divided into chapters with mostly one-word titles – ‘Work’, ‘Safety’, ‘Play’, ‘Sex’ – the book will be a useful primer for readers who don’t know much about the history of feminism and want to learn more. The book’s subtitle describes these struggles for equality as ‘fights’ – an eye-catching term but one that plays, unintentionally I think, into the idea of women being constantly at loggerheads with each other. Lewis eschews the fierce intellectualism of such feminist texts as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch or Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics in favour of something much more conversational; at one point she directly addresses the late Margaret Thatcher, rehearsing arguments that have been made many times before (‘you had a husband who supported your career’). It’s a strange addition to the text and perhaps a sign that the audience Lewis has in mind is used to getting information from social media rather than newspapers or books. Indeed her footnotes, while often amusing, sound like the knowingly clever one-liners people post on Twitter: ‘The current generation of women, with access to period trackers, is probably the first since Marie Stopes to have such a keen understanding of why their tits hurt and they just cried over a video of a Labrador making friends with a budgie.’

 

The effect of social media on this book can be felt in another way. In the past, feminists had to contend with scorn and hostility, even imprisonment and force-feeding in the case of the suffragettes. Personal attacks on women via the internet may seem small beer in comparison, but the volume, intensity and visceral loathing directed at individuals – female MPs and journalists like Lewis – are recent and sinister phenomena. Although she is at pains to be reasonable throughout her book, it is apparent that she has endured a large amount of abuse for things she has written. Her description of one particular ‘trashing’ she experienced on social media (including a preposterous accusation that her rhetoric was ‘so hate-filled that people reading it would surely kill themselves’) is painful to read. No wonder she felt ‘wrung out’ by the time she started writing, and preternaturally sensitive to the barbs aimed at well-known women in the past. But Lewis is right to insist that feminism and feminists will always be difficult – and that’s something to celebrate.

 

We can no longer put up with women being unsafe in their own homes

Daily Telegraph, Friday 14 February 2020

There are few subjects where your sex matters more. New figures show that while fewer men are becoming homicide victims in England and Wales, the number of female victims has increased for the second year in a row. It is now back at a level last recorded in March 2006, confirming widespread fears that the criminal justice system is failing women.

First, the statistics: there were 241 female homicide victims in the year to March 2019, a ten per cent increase on the previous year. The number of male victims fell by 11 per cent, but there are even more sex-related disparities in the figures published by the Office for National Statistics.

While it’s true that men are more likely to be murdered than women, the kind of violence faced by the two sexes is very different. The ONS figures paint a stark picture of the impact of domestic violence, showing that almost half of adult female victims were killed in a domestic homicide. The comparable figure for male victims was just four per cent.

We’ve known this for ages but it needs spelling out again: women are most at risk from husbands, boyfriends and family members – brothers, fathers and so on. Many of us live in fear of assault by men we don’t know as we’re walking home on a dark night, yet strangers accounted for only six per cent of fatal attacks on women and girls.

Of the 99 women who died in a domestic homicide last year, 80 were killed by a current or ex-partner. It’s worth saying that even these numbers may be under-estimates, because there were 76 homicides with a female victim (37 per cent of the overall total) where no suspect was identified.

The most common method of killing, for both male and female victims, was by a knife or other sharp instrument. But in a statistic that raises more questions about the so-called ‘rough sex’ defence in murder trials, women are far more likely to be strangled – 17 per cent of all female victims died in this way, compared to only three per cent of men.

Why isn’t the government reeling under the impact of these dreadful figures? It’s almost a decade since a senior Conservative minister, Theresa May, unveiled a national violence against women and girls strategy, with a promise to tackle domestic violence supposedly at its heart.

Back in 2011, when she was Home Secretary, May declared that she wanted to see an end to all forms of violence against women and girls. Later, as prime minister, she described domestic violence as a ‘life-shattering and absolutely abhorrent crime’ – and promised to introduce a new law to help victims.

Yet there’s been no appreciable effect on the number of women killed by a current or ex-partner. It’s remained steady, at an average of 82 per year over the last decade, although the overall number of female homicide victims is rising.

So what’s gone wrong? Well, we’re still waiting for that new law, with a new domestic violence bill repeatedly delayed in Parliament. It’s still not clear when it will be reintroduced , an omission that speaks volumes about the priorities of ministers.

It’s not as if they’re unaware of the dangers women face – and where they face them. Half of the female victims of lethal violence in this country die at the hands of a husband, ex-boyfriend or male relative – and many of the attacks take place in the home. For too many women, closing the front door means stepping into danger in the very place they should feel safe. Why do we tolerate the home being such a dangerous place for women?

It’s undeniable that some of these victims have been let down by the police or other agencies, who sometimes show poor judgement when it comes to assessing risk. Four years ago, Katrina O’ Hara, 44, was stabbed to death in Dorset by an ex-boyfriend just days after she reported him to the police for harassing her. Stuart Thomas had already broken into Ms O’ Hara’s house on a couple of occasions before he attacked her outside the hairdressing salon where she worked.

Organisations that work with victims of domestic violence know perfectly well that the that the home is the very opposite of a safe place for a significant number of women. Whether they live in a council flat or a five-bedroom house, they may not have the resources to go elsewhere – and cuts to refuge places means even desperate women are being turned away.

If ministers really wanted to reduce the scandalous number of female homicide victims, they would reverse those cuts – and place a statutory duty on local authorities to provide housing for women leaving violent relationships. Protecting vulnerable women costs money but lives won’t be saved by promises, which is all we’ve had for the last ten years.

The best new crime fiction for February

Sunday Times, 9 February

A murder at a wedding kicks off our roundup of new crime novels

It’s an outstanding month for crime fiction, offering an intriguing combination of well-known names and promising newcomers. Lucy Foley is up first with The Guest List (HarperCollins £12.99), a hard-to-put-down novel set at a glitzy wedding. The bride and groom are minor celebrities, and they don’t think twice about putting their guests through a stormy sea crossing to a castle off the coast of Ireland. Foley’s follow-up to The Hunting Party has a positively gothic setting, in a wedding marquee pitched close to a crumbling graveyard, and the reception is in full swing when a waitress claims to have stumbled over a bloodstained corpse; panic breaks out as friends and family are plunged into a nightmare world where a storm rages and the lights keep going out.

The story is told through different voices, some more reliable than others, while the characters — a self-harming bridesmaid, a guilt-ridden best man, the increasingly worried bride — are vividly rendered. Desperate to get off the island, few of the guests suspect what’s really going on, but the outcome of this thrilling novel is worth waiting for.

Lina Bengtsdotter’s first novel, For the Missing, was an international bestseller. Her second, For the Dead (Orion £8.99), translated by Agnes Broome, sends her troubled female detective Charlie Lager back to a small town in Sweden. This time, her visit is unofficial, prompted by curiosity about the unsolved disappearance of a teenage girl 30 years earlier. Francesca was a pupil at a posh boarding school and she vanished shortly after the apparent suicide of her best friend, whom she insisted had been murdered. Charlie soon finds reasons to think both cases should be reopened, unaware that there is a link to her own family history. The novel flows more smoothly than Bengtsdotter’s debut, avoids the drunken-female-cop cliché she previously indulged in, and ends on a cliffhanger.

A new read from Eva Dolan is always a pleasure and her latest, Between Two Evils (Raven Books £12.99), is as dark and gritty as ever. After her superb stand-alone novel This Is How It Ends, which was a Sunday Times crime book of the month, it marks a return for her detectives based in a hate-crimes unit in Peterborough — but now the unit has been disbanded.

In what might easily be a commentary on budget problems in modern policing, DI Zigic and DS Ferreira are back on general sleuthing duties. Sent to investigate the murder of a doctor who worked at a controversial all-female detention centre, they come up against a new director who’s protective of his staff after previous allegations of abuse. At the same time, Zigic and Ferreira are being taunted by a killer — put away while the hate-crimes unit was still active — who’s just been released from prison owing to a scandal at a forensic laboratory. Dolan puts troubling contemporary themes at the heart of her fiction, creating a compelling mystery about the treatment of vulnerable immigrants in a secretive establishment.

Will Shindler is a new name in crime writing and his first novel, The Burning Men (Hodder £16.99), has an arresting opening. A close-knit team of firefighters has been called to a huge blaze at a development in south London; they risk their livesby rushing inside after spotting a man waving frantically from a third-floor window. They’re hailed as heroes even though they emerge without him, but over the next few months, each of them resigns from the fire service. They go their separate ways, but five years later, someone starts killing members of the team in what appear to be revenge attcks. Shindler is good on male camaraderie, and the way it begins to fall apart under pressure, creating an unusual novel with a rising sense of menace.

Gytha Lodge’s second novel, Watching from the Dark (Michael Joseph £12.99), has a similarly creepy feel to her bestselling debut, She Lies in Wait. Her cops, DCI Jonah Sheens and his team, take on a case involving a young woman who has been savagely murdered in her flat in Southampton. When they discover that her boyfriend was Skyping her at the time, they’re astonished to learn that he made a 999 call but rang off without giving any details of the attack.

It turns out that he isn’t the only character with something to hide: Lodge writes perceptively about rivalries between young women, showing how even the best-intended relationships can become toxic. Like some of the other authors in this month’s roundup, she also catches the jittery atmosphere of an era in which cameras are everywhere, helping the police but posing questions about the narrow line between passion and stalking.