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Daily Telegraph, Monday 30 March 2020
Staying at home for days on end is a new experience for many people. Some of us are getting to know neighbours for the first time, discovering a community spirit we’ve heard about from older generations – and now it appears we’re expected to police them as well. We’re being asked to look out for signs of domestic abuse, listen out for arguments and check for bruises when we glimpse neighbours over the garden all.
The call comes from a leading light in the Local Government Association, the organisation that represents councils in England, and is a response to fears that the coronavirus lockdown has already prompted an increase in incidents. It’s a well-known fact that reports of abuse shoot up over Christmas and the summer holidays when angry, impulsive men find themselves at home with their families. MPs and campaigners fear it will be much worse if women are shut up with abusive men for weeks because of COVID-19 but government ministers, who ordered the lockdown, has taken no steps to protect them.
Enter Cllr Simon Blackburn, who chairs the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board. ‘Tackling domestic abuse is an issue that councils take extremely seriously and we are all too aware that vulnerable people may be affected due to the impact of the coronavirus response,’ he says. He is asking neighbours to watch out for rows, shouting and signs of controlling behaviour, always assuming they know what to look for.
No doubt his intervention is well-meant, but it’s fraught with problems. How many ordinary people could describe coercive control or know how to spot it, especially at a time when we’re supposed to be limiting contact with people outside our own households? Most police officers certainly don’t, judging by the low number of prosecutions that have been brought since it became a criminal offence in 2015.
Of course neighbours should call the police if they hear screams or sounds of violence from next door. But many people will already be consumed by their own problems, whether it’s how to pay the rent or having to isolate because someone in the family has symptoms of COVID-19. And if they do spot abuse and report it, no extra resources have been given either to the police or women’s refuges to deal with the expected surge in domestic violence.
Make no mistake about it, this is a growing scandal. A number of police forces are already reporting an increase in reported incidents, including in Somerset and Avon where there was a 20.9 per cent increase over the last couple of weeks. In South Wales, a man has been charged with murder after Ruth Williams, 67, was found unresponsive at her home in Cwmbran on Saturday morning. She later died in hospital.
It isn’t as though Boris Johnson’s all-male ‘war cabinet’ of ministers hasn’t been warned. A former home secretary, Amber Rudd, rightly complained about the exclusion of women from the inner circle of decision-makers, to no effect. Ministers know perfectly well what the risks are, admitting as much in a mealy-mouthed message at the weekend.
‘The government acknowledges that the order to stay at home can cause anxiety for those who are experiencing or feel at risk of domestic abuse,’ it says, before going on to direct victims to existing services, such as women’s refuges, which were unable to cope with demand before the pandemic. Advice that victims should dial 999 also raises questions about whether the police, whose numbers are rapidly being depleted by sickness and the need to self-isolate, have anything like the numbers needed to respond to a sharp increase in what is already an incredibly common crime.
Common but by no means universally condemned, as we were reminded at the weekend. What on earth possessed a boxer and self-professed Christian, Billy Joe Saunders, to make a video of himself showing men how to beat up female relatives during lockdown? The advice was to be used ‘if your old woman is giving you mouth’, Saunders said, invoking a deservedly forgotten era of Andy Capp cartoon strips. The WBO Super Middleweight Champion, who is clearly not so super after all, has now been suspended by the Boxing Board of Control until a future hearing.
The harsh truth is that women are paying the price for years of neglect of a serious and pervasive offence. It is frankly astonishing that a crime that affects 1.6m women each year, according to the Office of National Statistics, is so far back in the queue when it comes to attention, public outrage and resources.
Pleas to neighbours and people who work in shops like pharmacies to look out for signs of domestic abuse are little more than a sticking-plaster. They speak volumes about the government’s priorities – and what happens when women are excluded from life-or-death decisions during a national emergency.
UnHerd.com, Friday 27 March 2020
Go home! Stay home! Don’t go out unless you have to! It is sound and welcome advice most people in a global pandemic. But there’s one group in whom it will have inspired nothing but despair — all those at risk of domestic violence.
Why do 999 calls shoot up at Christmas and in the summer holidays? Because abusive partners find themselves at home with their families for a few days. Imagine, then, what’s going to happen when these angry, frustrated and violent men are shut up inside for weeks on end because of the coronavirus. The nation’s pubs are closed and there isn’t even any live sport to distract them.
According to the ONS, an estimated 1.6 million women suffer domestic abuse in England and Wales in a normal year. (Men are at risk, too, but the statistics show that women suffer more repeat incidents and more severe injuries.) With the lockdown, all those women will have even fewer opportunities to ring for help or go online for advice. In some places, they can’t even escape to the park to make a discreet phone call for help or support, because they have been shut. Thanks Hammersmith and Fulham. But this council isn’t alone in its short-sightedness. Very little has been done to address the problem. In fact, it has barely even been acknowledged by Government.
It’s as though ministers live in a rose-tinted world where home is the safest place to be, oblivious to the mass of statistics that tell a different story. We know that domestic abuse — the type that gets reported to the police, at any rate — is linked to deprivation, insecure employment and over-crowded housing. And those in the least secure jobs, the cab drivers and construction workers who are mostly self-employed, are the immediate losers amid the pandemic. They’ve had to wait 10 days longer than employees to find out what the Chancellor proposes to do for them. Frustrations and tensions will have been ratcheting up.
We also know that anxious, depressed men are likely to turn to drink, with a quarter of victims of domestic violence reporting that their abusers were using drugs or alcohol at the time of an attack. During lockdown, a spike in alcohol abuse is inevitable — and people are already drinking more. Off-licences are being allowed to remain open, following reports that some supermarkets can’t cope with increased demand for beer, wine and spirits.
It’s not as though we don’t know what to expect. In China, a police station in the worst-affected province received three times as many reports of domestic abuse in February, compared with the same period last year. Some governments, notably those of Germany and Spain, have acknowledged the probable impact of coronavirus lockdowns. The German family ministry has posted emergency phone numbers for anyone experiencing ‘conflicts arising at home’, offering counselling to teenagers, pregnant women and victims of domestic abuse. In Spain, the government has set up an instant messaging service and an online chatroom to provide immediate support to victims. Such measures are welcome, even if they fall short of providing desperately-needed emergency accommodation.
When Boris Johnson was asked about the risk of a surge in domestic violence a couple of weeks ago, he replied with his usual combination of bluster and bragging, insisting that he had just put “record funding” back into councils even though the money wasn’t earmarked for — and is unlikely to be allocated to — services for victims of abuse. But the truth is that organisations trying to help women escape violent relationships were in dire straits before the coronavirus sent the country into quarantine. It was already the case that two-thirds of women in need of a refuge place were being turned away, forcing them to move in with relatives, risk becoming homeless or stay with a man who had beaten and raped them.
Some of these women may now end up being killed in their own homes. Domestic homicides were already at a five-year high before the epidemic broke out. The latest Femicide Census makes sombre reading, listing 149 killings and demonstrating once again that that women are most likely to be killed by a current or ex-partner; in cases where perpetrator and victim were known to each other, more than half of the deaths occurred in households with a history of domestic abuse.
Perhaps Boris Johnson’s masculine War Cabinet should flick through it. The statistic that should really worry them is the fact that 68% of such killings took place in or immediately around the family home – the very place where they’ve told women to isolate.
In Greater Manchester, there have already been reports of abuse linked to the lockdown, according to Beverley Hughes, deputy mayor for policing and crime. Avon and Somerset police, too, reported a 20.9% increase in domestic abuse incidents in the last two weeks, from 718 to 868. And police in Cumbria have asked postal workers and delivery drivers to look out for signs of abuse.
But thus far, despite an array of individuals and organisations — including Women’s Aid and the recently-appointed Domestic Violence Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs —pleading for some sort of Government provision, little seems to have been done. The only concession the Government has openly made is to exempt those fleeing a violent relationship from lockdown enforcement fines.
But there’s absolutely no mystery about what the ministers could and should do. They urgently need to provide extra financial support for victims’ organisations to help cope with increased demand; they should instruct the police to check on households with a known history of domestic abuse; they should use domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) to get the worst abusers out of their homes; and they should use empty hotels to provide emergency accommodations for women and children. They should also do everything within their power to promote the services that are already available for these vulnerable women.
As the scale of the pandemic was starting to become apparent, the Prime Minister boasted in the House of Commons that his Government has an “outstanding record in tackling violence against women and girls”. It was a dubious claim before coronavirus changed the landscape of the UK, emptying the streets and sequestering the population behind closed doors. It looks even more suspect now as thousands of vulnerable women look forward to the next few weeks not just with the anxiety we all feel during a global pandemic, but outright terror.
Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 17 March 2020
How many times do we have to say it? Home is not a safe place for thousands of women who live with abusive men. Yet the government’s latest response to the coronavirus epidemic – advising whole swathes of the population to isolate themselves at home – appears to have been drawn up without considering the potentially devastating consequences for vulnerable women.
According to its own figures, an estimated 1.6 m women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse in the year to March 2019. We already know that reports of domestic violence shoot up in the summer and over the Christmas period, when men have time off work and spend longer with their families. In Northern Ireland, police recorded ‘a significant increase in reporting’ over the Christmas and new year holidays in 2018.
Now, though, individuals at higher risk of contracting Corvid-19, including those aged 70 and over, are being told to stay at home for up to 12 weeks. Younger people with underlying health conditions have received similar advice, while families where a member displays symptoms of the virus are expected to isolate themselves for two weeks.
This is no doubt sound medical advice, judging by the alarming rise in infections (and fatalities) in Italy. But ministers seems to have given no thought to the impact on women and children of being forced to stay at home for lengthy periods with angry, impulsive men. In London alone, the police recorded just over 145,000 incidents of domestic abuse last year, with spikes in June and December.
Most victims were aged between 25 and 34 but four per cent were aged 65 and above, and most experts think that domestic violence against older women is under-reported. According to the latest Femicide Census, 23 of the female fatalities recorded in 2018 were aged 66 or older – the very age group that’s been asked to bear the heaviest restrictions over the next three months. They aren’t just at risk from husbands or partners, either; seven women in this age group were killed by a son, son-in-law or grandson
Also according to the report, domestic homicides had reached a five-year high before the coronavirus epidemic broke out. Women are most likely to be killed by a current or ex-partner and 68 per cent of such killings took place in or immediately around the family home, in places such as a garage or garden. Overall, more than half of the killings in 2018 occurred in households which already had a history of domestic abuse.
If abusive men can’t even cope with the summer holidays without turning on their female relatives, how are they likely to react to the added pressure of financial insecurities – being laid off or losing a job altogether? With sports fixtures being cancelled left, right and centre, they won’t even be able to distract themselves by watching football or rugby, and some will be unable to resist the temptation of drinking heavily.
In China, there have already been anecdotal reports of an increase in domestic abuse in areas worst affected by Corvid-19. ‘The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence’, according to Wan Fei, the founder of a domestic abuse charity in Hubei province. Incidents reported to a local police station are said to have tripled in February, compared to the same month in 2019.
In this country, organisations that offer support to victims of abuse are braced for a big increase in the volume of calls at a time when resources are already stretched to breaking point. Providing emergency accommodation and making sure women know how to access it could literally save lives over the next few months, yet the government has put nothing in place.
On the contrary, Boris Johnson reacted with astonishing complacency when he was challenged to increase funding for victims of domestic violence at prime minister’s questions last week. ‘We’ve just put record funding back into councils to support them in all their responsibilities’, he boasted.
There’s no extra money to deal with fallout from the coronavirus epidemic, in other words – and local authorities faced with a raft of competing demands might not use the cash that’s already been allocated to provide more refuge places.
Instead, Johnson seized the opportunity to highlight the government’s domestic violence bill, a piece of legislation that’s already been criticised for its failure to provide desperately-needed resources. And it may well be delayed if Parliamentary business is interrupted by the epidemic.
In the midst of a national emergency, it is vital that the most vulnerable members of society are not left to fend for themselves. Helplines and refuges urgently need extra resources to cope with higher demand, and the police could be asked to check on households with a known history of domestic abuse. Friends and relatives need to be on the lookout for signs of distress that might be evidence of abuse, especially among the over-70s.
This is the worst crisis the UK has faced since the Second World War. Many families are going to be forced into exactly the kind of conditions in which frustrated, angry men lash out. Let’s not make it worse by leaving thousands of women to cope with a silent second epidemic of abuse on their own.
Sunday Times, 8 March 2020
An island in thrall to a local gangster is the highlight of our round-up
Islands are an attractive setting for crime writers. They offer a bigger canvas than a locked-room mystery while sharing some of its features, including a limited list of suspects. In Black Rain Falling (Sphere £14.99), Jacob Ross’s outstanding novel set on the small Caribbean island of Camaho, family connections and ancient hatreds complicate just about every criminal investigation.
Ross is a British Grenadian whose previous publications include two widely praised collections of short stories, and his latest work sits somewhere between literary and crime fiction. He uses the genre to address tough subjects, not least the casually brutal treatment of women in the island’s culture, while never forgetting the demands of a complex plot.
Ross’s characters are exceptionally vivid, their relationships established through dialogue written with the lightest possible touch. His detective, Michael “Digger” Digson, is protective of a female colleague, Miss Stanislaus, who was raped and made pregnant years ago by a local gangster, Juba Hurst. The rapist has now appropriated land owned by Miss Stanislaus’s great-uncle on a neighbouring island, where the local cops are terrified of him. When the two detectives run into Juba by accident, the confrontation ends in his death, Miss Stanislaus is accused of murder — and Digger is given just six weeks to prove she was acting in self-defence.
Black Rain Falling is the second volume in a quartet and its predecessor, The Bone Readers, won the Jhalak prize for BAME writers three years ago. The new novel is a fine literary achievement and a treat for fans of crime fiction.
Violence against women is at the heart of Jessica Moor’s disturbing first novel, Keeper (Viking £14.99). When the body of a young woman who works in a refuge is pulled from a river, the police conduct a half-hearted investigation, inclined to write it off as suicide. Inside the refuge, the residents are reluctant to talk to the cops, distracted by fear of being found by abusive former partners and custody battles over their children. Their stories emerge in the course of the investigation, revealing the myriad forms of domestic abuse that force women to flee their families. However, the best thing about the book is its absolutely chilling portrayal of a relationship based on coercive control.
Burnt Island (Simon & Schuster £8.99) is the third in Kate Rhodes’s engaging series of detective novels set in the Scilly Isles. Ben Kitto, a former Met police detective, grew up on the islands and has returned as deputy chief of police. Kitto is an appealing character, introspective and conscious of experiencing divided loyalties when individuals he has known for decades come under suspicion.
The new novel opens on Bonfire Night as families gather for a fireworks display, but the event is ruined when smoke is spotted rising from nearby Burnt Island; when Kitto discovers the charred body of a man, he puts the entire island of St Agnes in lockdown. Rhodes writes beautifully about small island communities, and her plots are always gripping.
Emily Koch’s first novel, If I Die Before I Wake, was shortlisted for several prizes. Her second, Keep Him Close (Harvill Secker £12.99), has a similarly claustrophobic atmosphere. It alternates between the stories of two women affected by the same sudden death: Alice’s younger son, Lou, has died after falling or being pushed from a multistorey car park, while Indigo’s student son, Kane, is suspected of Lou’s murder.
Both women are single mothers and their objectives could hardly be more different: Alice wants to see Kane convicted, while Indigo is determined to get him out of the grim prison where he has been sent to await trial. However, they have more in common than they realise, and Koch gradually brings them together in a tense drama that strives to be fair to both women.
The Man on the Street (Quercus £14.99) is a haunting first novel by a former naval officer, Trevor Wood. The book is set in Newcastle, and well-known landmarks such as the Tyne Bridge and the Swirle Pavilion flash by as a homeless Falklands veteran, Jimmy, roams the city in search of a night’s shelter. One evening he has just bedded down on the Quayside when he’s woken by the sound of two men having a noisy argument in the distance, near the Millennium Bridge. Like most homeless people, Jimmy is desperate not to draw attention to himself and he does nothing, even when the commotion ends with a splash.
Our House is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis
by Malena Ernman, Beata Ernman, Svante Thunberg & Greta Thunberg (translated from Swedish by Paul Norlen & Saskia Vogel)
Allen Lane 288pp £16.99
Literary Review, March 2020
Last December, Donald Trump reacted furiously when the climate activist Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. He was still griping about it in January, when he complained to reporters at a press conference in Davos that ‘she beat me out on Time magazine’. Trump’s bitterness about being ‘beaten’ by a seventeen-year-old girl says more about his narcissism than anything else, and his attacks haven’t done her any harm. Thunberg embodies everything the president hates, being the antithesis of the image of young women favoured by the former promoter of the Miss Teen USA ‘beauty’ contest.
Much of the hostile commentary around Thunberg has focused on her appearance. In a culture where teenage girls are under pressure to wear make-up and overtly sexy clothes, she challenges a great deal more than the complacency of climate change deniers. Among her critics there’s an undertone of disbelief that a young woman who so resolutely fails to play the game of sexual attraction is taken seriously, invited to speak at international gatherings and listened to by world leaders. Trump’s sarcastic tweet after her speech at the UN General Assembly last autumn – ‘she seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future’ – backfired when Thunberg promptly added it to her Twitter bio.
Thunberg’s back story is fascinating. Before she changed it in response to Trump’s tweet, her Twitter profile read ‘16-year-old climate activist with Asperger’s’. Her condition has elicited mockery in some quarters. Her father, Svante Thunberg, has spoken about her anorexia, recalling a period when she didn’t eat for three months. At one point, Greta accused both parents of being hypocrites for campaigning for human rights while ignoring climate change, prompting Svante to become vegan and dramatically change his lifestyle. ‘I did all these things … but I didn’t do it to save the climate, I did it to save my child,’ he said in a revealing interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
There is plenty of material here for a biography, so much so that it isn’t hard to see why the idea of a book about Thunberg and her family would be attractive to publishers. Who is best placed to write it is another matter, not least because climate change is such an emotive subject, frequently discussed in apocalyptic terms. A degree of authorial distance might actually help the cause of environmentalism, allowing readers to think for themselves as they follow Thunberg’s path out of depression and anorexia to climate activism. Our House is on Fire is emphatically not that kind of book, with whole pages of it reading like a flyer handed out at a climate change rally. Even worse is the sense of having plunged into someone’s teenage diary, where feelings spill onto the page in a howl of rage:
INDENT I should not have written a book about how I felt. I should not have written a book about how my family has felt for long periods during the past few years. But I had to. We had to. Because we felt like shit. I felt like shit. Svante felt like shit. The children felt like shit. The planet felt like shit. Even the dog felt like shit. And we had to write about it. Together. INDENT
By this point in the book I wasn’t feeling great either, not least because I had another two hundred pages to get through. I simply can’t imagine writing in such childish terms for public consumption – whatever happened to editing, I wonder?
The very personal nature of the text raises the question of who the author actually is. The book is credited to Thunberg’s parents and both their daughters, but it seems to have been written principally by Greta’s mother, an opera singer called Malena Ernman, who insists on the first page that she isn’t interested in autobiography. So what is the book about and why are we supposed to read it? Ernman says it’s about ‘the crisis that struck our family’ when both her daughters began to display behaviours that eventually led to diagnoses of Asperger’s, anorexia and selective mutism in the case of Greta and Asperger’s and ADHD in Beata’s. Four years ago, Ernman was herself diagnosed with ADHD, depression and chronic fatigue, adding to the extraordinary pressure her family has been under.
The book is also about the climate crisis, however, and Ernman gives the impression of believing that the two things are linked. In Sweden, she writes, mental health issues in children aged ten to seventeen have more than doubled in a decade, while the number of unreported cases is ‘huge’. Elsewhere she asserts that a great many people are feeling ‘worse and worse’, adding that ‘burn-out and mental illness are no longer a global ticking health bomb – the bomb has already exploded’. It’s certainly possible that aspects of modern life are affecting people’s mental health, but it’s also hard to resist the sense that there’s quite a bit of projection going on here. Are the problems within Ernman’s family related to the state of the planet? I don’t know, but there’s an awful lot of this stuff to wade through before we reach her account of Thunberg’s school strike and her protest outside the Swedish Parliament House, which is a riveting story.
At an age when many other young people don’t know what they want to do with their lives, Thunberg has undeniably become a force in the world. Her public persona is unusual and inspiring, and it offers an alternative to the pornified images of teenage girls that dominate popular culture. She also, I’m afraid, deserves a better book than this messy melange of painful self-exposure and naive exhortation. ‘Perhaps some of the things that Svante and I, along with the children, decided to share here, after considerable deliberation, should have been saved for later,’ Ernman admits. It’s a sentiment that this battered, exhausted reader can’t help agreeing with.
Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 4 March 2020Victims of violent crime and sex offences often feel left neglected by the criminal justice system. Some women have discovered by chance that their attacker is going to be released from prison, leaving them fearful and unsure how to protect themselves. So the news that victims are to getmore rights in future, including a legal right to be told about perpetrators’ release dates, is being welcomed by campaigners – but it leaves too many questions unanswered.What is a woman to do when she’s told that the man who raped her will be free in a matter of weeks? Two years ago, that was the dilemma that faced victims of the black cab rapist, John Worboys, when they found out he’d been cleared for release by the parole board. The women hadn’t been consulted, even though Worboys recorded his victims’ addresses in a notebook and knew where they lived.The then Justice Secretary, David Gauke, refused to seek a judicial review of the decision and two of Worboys’ victims crowdfunded a legal challenge. They won at the High Court, which sent the case back to the parole board. Worboys has since been tried and convicted on a new set of charges, but the case highlighted the failure of the criminal justice system to consult victims of serious sexual violence.Now another Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, has announced a new victims’ code which will set out 12 rights and be included in a bill planned for later this year. As well as an automatic right to be informed about release dates, victims will be able to challenge parole board decisions, request restrictions following release and ask that perpetrators be barred from contact.The aim to put victims at the centre of the parole system is laudable. ‘Falling victim to crime can be a distressing and life-changing experience, so it is vital people get the support they need,’ says Buckland. He’s absolutely right – but what support will there be, in reality, for a woman who’s been raped by a prolific serial offender?Women who’ve seen stalkers and domestic abusers repeatedly breach restraining orders know how little protection they offer. And police and probation officers don’t have the resources to track the day-to-day movements of dangerous offenders who’ve been released from custody.In April last year Joseph McCann, a burglar with a history of knife crime who had mistakenly been released from prison a few weeks earlier, carried out a string of sex attacks on eleven women and children. McCann had had ten meetings with probation officers following his release, the last one only three days before he went on his cocaine and alcohol-fuelled spree. He had also received a warning letter after he breached his licence conditions. Last December, he was given 33 life sentences with a minimum term of 30 years.The question of how likely someone is to re-offend isn’t addressed in the announcement about a new victims’ code. But the government’s own figures show that the overall adult re-offending rate is 28 per cent, rising to 36.7 per cent of adults released from custody. These figures are alarming but not surprising, given how many convicted criminals are serial offenders. There are scarce resources for rehabilitation in our over-stretched prison service, and the main sex offender treatment programme was scrapped three years ago after a report found it actually led to more reoffending.Victims who feel at risk from violent men will welcome the opportunity to challenge parole board decisions, but some of them will feel unable to do it without help from lawyers. Will legal aid be available for such cases of will they be forced, like Worboys’ victims, to launch a crowd-funding campaign? And while the right to be informed of an attacker’s release date is a step forward, there needs to be an urgent review of how to protect victims in the high-risk category. Inevitably, many will be rape survivors and victims of extreme domestic violence.Only last month, the latest Femicide Census showed that over half of women killed by men in 2018 were killed by a current or ex-partner. Three of the men included in the report had previously killed another women, showing that some offenders who have been convicted and served sentences continue to pose a significant threat following their release.Of course it’s right that the criminal justice system should take more account of victims, especially when an offender’s imminent release may have a huge impact on someone’s life. But there is a whole raft of other measures, such as installing panic buttons and safe rooms, that aren’t addressed by the latest announcement.The truth is that many victims of crime continue to feel unsafe. Codes are all very well, but there are too many unanswered questions about whether these measures will protect women who rightly fear further serious violence.
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
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.