And that means all of us – from institutions to individuals. For its part, the media has to end decades of complacency and start reporting furiously
Caitlin Moran is the feminist Clifton suspension bridge. Magnificent and sturdy in her wit and intellect, she spans the perilous chasm that has opened up between younger and older feminists. In the Tortoise newsroom last week, she led us down safe, well-lit routes through the ever-evolving feminist conversation. We could keep our eyes trained clearly on the real issues, secure in the knowledge that, for once, the true enemy was not in the room.
Because so often, he is right there. He is on the streets of Ipswich and in online incel forums. He is in the parks of south London. Just 24 hours after that lovely ThinkIn, he was a few hundred metres away, on Regent Street, with a hammer.
We know that he thunders behind the doors of rundown flats in undeveloped parts of Manor House and Chapeltown and Moss Side. Of course he does. He is raised in a society that laughs off little boys’ aggression as boisterousness, that mislabels men’s anger as passion, and mistakes their professional cruelty for steely determination. Maybe he is rejected by his father, excluded from school, and paid too little if he is paid at all. Surely he is the product of social deprivation and porn proliferation. He has succumbed to a sad, 21st-century sleeping sickness called “toxic masculinity”, which numbs his emotions and stunts his empathy. Poor man.
Always too late, these are the enemies that we, the media, recognise. The bad apples, the extreme cases. With intellectual dexterity and sincere regret, we analyse how this could have happened. What made him do it?
We are less able to explain away the ones who are not like that. The smartly dressed man who undid his trousers before pushing me against the door of a crowded commuter train, his arm over my neck. The hipster dude in my dear friend’s kitchen, pulling her to the ground by her hair. My neighbour’s Tinder date, my ex-flatmate’s zoologist boyfriend, my former colleague’s husband.
He’s on the bus. He’s in your Whatsapp group. He is in uniform. He is in office.
I am not saying that all men are violent men, and not all police officers are on the wrong side. But far, far too many men (and some women, unbearably) are complicit by way of apathy. The bitter irony of the fact that the Met Police and the Home Office are both currently led by women is not lost on any of us. None of this excuses either Cressida Dick or Priti Patel. But institutions including police forces, local councils, universities – the vast majority of which are led by men – have fallen short. The media has too.
On the first day of his sentencing, the Telegraph quoted former acquaintances and relatives of Sarah Everard’s murderer describing him as “kind, thoughtful and charming,” and wondering, “what could have triggered him”? Carefully, these are not the words of the newspaper itself and yet… there they are. Everything that appears in print and online is deliberate. I cannot fathom the devotion to the theory of the “bad apple” when the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming.
Another case concluded on that day. Three judges published an 158-page ruling in a landmark case against the police over their treatment of women. Kate Wilson had been deceived by a police officer into having a sexual relationship in the course of his undercover investigation into left-wing groups. She is the first woman to bring her case to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), but not the only one to have been abused in this way. It is a staggering example of deliberate, prolonged institutional disregard for women.
I do not, I cannot, accept that the epidemic of violence against women that we are experiencing is an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of an unfortunate cocktail of online porn and hardship. We have been led here. We have been led here by the cruel apathy of the very institutions – which are, it shouldn’t be forgotten, just groups of people – that purport to protect us.
The thing I can’t come to terms with is that we knew this. Newsrooms talk about finding stories that are hiding in plain sight, and this is one of them. We all knew it.
We knew it as far back as 1991, when Vandana Patel was stabbed to death by her abusive husband in Stoke Newington Police Station during an unsupervised meeting facilitated by the police. They explained helpfully, after her murder, that they believed it was “legitimate for a couple to talk through their difficulties”.
We knew it in 2011, when The Stern Review told us that two prolific serial rapists “managed to rape and assault many women before they were stopped, because the police in London did not take the victims seriously enough when they came to report what had happened to them”.
We knew it in 2014, when ProPublica/Marshall Project published a story about a serial rapist in the US, which inspired the extraordinary Netflix drama Unbelievable. In building a case against police forces who often misbelieve and mistreat women who have been victims of sexual assault, it highlights the fact – and it is a fact – that male police officers’ families in the US experience domestic abuse at a far higher rate than the rest of the population. One key study quotes the rate as four times higher.
We knew it in 2018, when The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, working with the Times, published a story revealing the huge disparities between the way police forces were applying Clare’s Law – the scheme designed to make women aware of whether their partner has a history of domestic violence.
And in 2019, when the Bureau published the findings of its FoI request covering the three year period to April 2018 for police forces to reveal the rates of domestic abuse reported by women with police officer partners, and what happens to those reports. As an example, Greater Manchester Police convicted one officer out of 79 accused in that period. The conviction rate for police officers accused of domestic violence in England and Wales as a whole is 3.9 per cent, compared with 6.2 per cent in the general population.
We knew it in August this year when a major report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that prosecutions for domestic abuse had fallen by 50 per cent in three years. The report was based on the outcome of a “super complaint” into police handling of domestic violence filed by The Centre for Women’s Justice two and a half years ago.
Just after Sarah Everard was murdered – by a serving police officer whose nickname was “the rapist” – Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, wrote in Tortoise that violence against women and girls was a more dangerous threat than terrorism. The idea has gained traction across the women’s sector; it was notably used by Dame Vera Baird, Victim’s Commissioner for England and Wales, late last month in response to that HMICFRS report, and in some parts of the media. But only some.
Right now, journalism is battling for its dignity as well as for its survival. The public – that’s all of us – seem to be impervious to these deadly statistics. Making people understand is not the battle. Nor, even, is making them care. The battle for journalists, as we have seen over decades, is to make men believe that this is happening everywhere, that the police are enabling it, and, crucially, that it is not inevitable.
Reporting on specific cases that prove police culture is institutionally, dangerously misogynistic is, apart from anything else, a legal minefield. But we must do it. Because in the time we spend searching for “the story” and finding an angle on the system and the culture that enables it, women die.
The media are complicit in domestic abuse
How to build cities safe for women
How many women are killed, but not counted?
The fight for feminism
At a time when women’s rights across the world are increasingly under threat, why is feminism eating itself alive? What can be done to bring everyone together?
Has the UK government’s Covid-19 response discriminated against women?
A ThinkIn for International Women’s Day.