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Liz Moseley: The media are complicit in domestic abuse

Friday 6 November 2020

We’re quick to disbelieve and ignore allegations of violence

It will take more than just Joe Biden shunting Donald Trump out of the White House to rid the world of powerful misogynists – as this week showed.

In case you missed it amid the election madness, this was the week when Johnny Depp lost his libel case against News Group Newspapers. Judge Andrew Nicol concluded that The Sun was justified in calling Depp a “wife-beater”. It is hardly cause for celebration to discover that one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors is indeed a violent and abusive man. Neither was the fact that #JusticeforJohnnyDepp started trending on Twitter within hours of the verdict.

Though it is important to note that this was “only” a libel case and Depp was not on trial himself, the whole thing was again pegged by the media as a test of the MeToo movement. I rather think it was more of a test of Amber Heard, the actor who used to be married to Depp, whose harrowing, detailed and embarrassing testimony about her experiences formed the basis of the judge’s verdict. And this is what has got the #JusticeforJohnny campaign particularly exercised. Why believe her?

Victims of abuse – the vast majority of whom of course are women – face barrier after barrier to both protection and justice. To take just one example, access to refuges is sorely inadequate: 64 per cent of refuge referrals were declined in 2019 according to Women’s Aid. The same could be said of police protection, evidence gathering techniques and, by extension, conviction rates. The system in this country makes escaping an abusive relationship rather like fleeing a wolf by climbing a mountain with your legs tied together. The chances of making it are vanishingly small, and even trying might seem more dangerous than staying put.

The case of Ryan Giggs reveals more about how women are treated when allegations of violence surface. The former Manchester United footballer and current Wales manager was arrested this week for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, Kate Greville. The BBC headline read: “Ryan Giggs denies assault allegations after arrest.” The syntax, typical in stories like this, foregrounds his denial instead of the arrest. In the article itself, once the important business of how Welsh football will cope without him has been fulsomely examined, there are nine words on the assault in the very last line. Of those nine words, six are: “…but did not require any treatment.” So that’s OK, then.

The BBC has recent form in this regard – it was forced to withdraw a trailer for a documentary about Oscar Pistorious, the former sprinter who murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013 by shooting her four times through a locked toilet door. The documentary, which is called The Trials of Oscar Pistorious, is all about her killer’s story. The trailer failed to mention his victim’s name.

The rise in domestic abuse that happened during the first lockdown was a grim inevitability and, though it’s cold comfort for the women in immediate danger as we enter a second lockdown, there has been some progress towards systematic improvement since March. The Domestic Abuse Bill quietly completed its journey through the Commons on 6 July this year. It’s not perfect – key omissions include provisions for migrant women, legislation about revenge porn, and protections for women who commit crimes in order to escape their abuser – but it’s a good start.

What the DA Bill can’t handle, and what the Depp case highlighted, is another, subtler but just as damaging barrier to scaling that mountain. It evades neat capture by statistics or policy, but it pervades our culture and our relationships – and it is deadly. It is deadly because it doesn’t just keep women from reporting their abuse, it stops them from recognising it.

Unhealthy power dynamics in heterosexual relationships aren’t just normalised but romanticised right across the media and popular culture. Think: Phantom of the OperaBeauty and the BeastTwilightLove ActuallyThe Notebook and hit Netflix TV drama You. I could go on. Every one features a creepy man spying on, trapping or otherwise damaging a woman either emotionally, physically, or both, and all in the name of love.

It’s no wonder that Women’s Aid found in 2018 that a third of women have been in an abusive relationship; while those who said they hadn’t did agree that they had experienced at least one form of abusive behaviour by a partner – they just didn’t realise it was abusive. So if my maths is correct, that’s basically everyone.

Feminist linguists, activists and campaigners against VAWG (violence against women and girls) have said all of this before, time and time and time again. There are direct lines between the inexplicable popularity of the misogynist president, the rolling back of abortion rights, the dogged persistence of the gender pay gap, and the global epidemic of male violence on women.

But as long as the headline writers appear to care more about the stain on the male celebrity’s reputation than the name of the woman he’s alleged to have assaulted or killed, and as long as our starting point when we hear women’s stories of abuse is still disbelief in spite of mounting evidence that it happens to most of us, countless women are going to be left stranded at the bottom of the mountain with the wolf.

Photographs Getty Images