from Jean Calder
At For Our Daughters we spend a lot of time reading newspapers. We trawl them for accounts of homicides as well as other articles about violence against women and girls.
Everything we put in our homicide reports is already in the public domain, usually drawn from newspapers. It might seem that, though harrowing, it would be a straightforward job to prepare the reports. In fact, it’s not. Our aim is to write accounts which recognise the dignity and humanity of the victims, but unfortunately, this approach doesn’t fit with many published reports.
In the immediate aftermath of a violent death the focus of newspaper articles is usually the manner of the victim’s death and speculation about the killer, rarely about the woman or girl herself. There are cases where the victim does become the focus of intense media attention – however this is usually in situations where the victim is an attractive and often middle class young woman, such as Joanna Yeates, or an appealing and very young girl like Sarah Payne, murdered by Roy Whiting, or Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, killed by Ian Huntley. In all cases there is more likely to be a positive focus upon a female victim if she is young, an attractive photograph is available and the victim possesses articulate parents or friends. In cases of sadistic and sexual violence, coverage is often intrusive and pruriently focussed upon injuries and how they were sustained.
In domestic killings, where a woman has been killed by her husband or partner, she will often not be referred to more than once by name, but as one part of “the couple”, the killer’s “wife” or as a “mother of two”. Women who have, in almost all cases been subject to violence and humiliation during their lives, in death have their dignity and individual humanity further stripped from them.
It’s understandable that in the first hours after a violent death, before there has been an arrest, police communications departments need to call for witnesses to come forward, focussing on potential suspects and descriptions of the site at which the victim died. There may be very good reason to offer descriptions of suspect individuals and vehicles involved and even injuries sustained. However, this does not explain the salacious descriptions of women’s injuries found in some newspapers along with an often stark absence of information about the woman herself. In some cases, as any trial approaches, it remains easier to discover the make, colour and registration of an alleged perpetrator’s car, than any personal details about their victim.
Once cases come to trial, the focus is on the perpetrator, whose defence usually rests upon destroying the reputation of the woman he killed. Newspapers uncritically headline allegations of infidelity and unreasonable behaviour which the victim cannot refute and which are often repeated on social media by the perpetrator’s family and friends.
In cases where a killer commits suicide and therefore never comes to trial, the focus continues to be upon the killer rather than his female victim or victims. All too often, police and media present such incidents, not as brutal murder followed by suicide, but as “tragic incidents” in which all are victims. Men who kill their wives and then themselves frequently become subject of particularly sympathetic police and media comment, often characterised by references to “stress” experienced by the killer and sometimes speculation blaming the female victim. In such cases, especially where the victim has been married for some while, it can be particularly difficult to find any information at all about the woman concerned.
Reports of Jennifer Phelps’ death, who was strangled by her husband in March 2011, were unique in our experience in containing absolutely no information about her at all. At the inquest, Sussex Police’s D.I. Carwyn Hughes said “This was a tragic situation in which a very proud man, who hitherto had dearly loved his wife, killed her through his perceived despair of the financial situation he found themselves in. Instead of seeking help or letting others know the extent of the the problems, he took the terrible decision to murder her and kill himself.” This statement, which was quoted in a local newspaper The Argus, gave rise to vicious online comments on the newspaper’s website suggesting extravagant women bring such deaths on themselves. Jennifer Phelps reportedly had no knowledge of their financial difficulties.
Last night I watched an ITV news broadcast which gave notice of the funeral the next day of little Ben and Freya Pedersen, two children stabbed to death by their father, who subsequently killed himself. At the time of their deaths, newspapers and television broadcasters showed greater interest in the fact that their father’s horse had survived an IRA bomb three decades ago, than that he was a violent man who had butchered his children, almost certainly in revenge for their mother’s decision to leave him. The ITV news report on 18th named the killer and his horse, but neither the children nor their mother.
19th October 2012