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