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Help us change the way we talk about domestic violence

A man who kills his partner is not a “perfect husband” – so why do the media insist on saying so? Join The Pool as we collaborate with Level Up to campaign for Dignity For Dead Women and responsible, respectful reporting

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By Emily Baker on

Amazing. A spurned lover. Well respected. These are all phrases used to describe men who have attacked or murdered their partners, when the descriptors “killer”, “murderer” or “abuser” would have been a more accurate descriptor.

Two women are killed by their partner every week in the UK, but we’re rarely told their names – unless there are salacious details or particularly gory factors. Otherwise we hear about the man, their killer, often from their best friend or colleague. He was a “nice guy”, they say, shocked at the whole event. “I still regard Steve as fundamentally a decent man who has found himself in circumstances beyond his control,” said Bill Mountford, a former UKIP councillor and colleague of Stephen Searle, who was jailed for killing his wife. "I'm not condoning it in any way but I was very, very sad to hear of Steve's conviction. I'm well aware domestic disputes can get out of hand but I feel equally sorry for both Steve and his now deceased wife.”

This language is representative of a myth that men murder their partners by accident or in a rare fit of rage, and that, when they do, they must have been provoked. It is echoed time and time again in the media and, as calls to domestic-violence helplines are at an all-time high, it’s imperative that these dangerous stereotypes are stopped.

The Pool is proud to back Dignity For Dead Women, a new campaign from feminist organisation Level Up, who are lobbying the press watchdog to change its guidelines on the way journalists and editors cover stories of domestic violence. Currently, there is no guidance on the subject from the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), so journalists are not trained or advised to report such violence in a sensitive, responsible or respectful way.

Level Up has written a set of guidelines to present to IPSO, centred around five key issues in domestic violence reporting, which you can read here. There is also a petition asking IPSO to accepts the guidelines into their rulings, which you can sign here.

The first is accountability, meaning all accountability for the murder must be placed on the perpetrator. Far too often in reports, a “reason” is given as to why someone has murdered their partner, bordering on an excuse. No woman deserves to die and, when they do so at the hands of a husband or a boyfriend, their dignity must be preserved.

Then there’s accuracy – murders should be labelled as domestic violence, not a “tragedy” or a “horror”. The guidelines encourage journalists to include the National Domestic Violence Helpline at the end of every report of a death caused by domestic violence. Dignity is at the heart of the campaign. That means avoiding sensationalist language and not providing details that might embarrass the victim or unnecessarily graphic information that would cause further distress for her family.

Every bad article on a domestic violence death is a missed opportunity to help prevent further deaths

The campaign is also calling for equality in the reporting of domestic-violence deaths, ensuring that regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, class, ability and occupation, all victims receive the same respect from journalists and their publications. Image choices are also included in the guidelines, which say pictures shouldn’t encourage the false idea that domestic violence is only a physical crime.

“Every bad article on a domestic violence death is a missed opportunity to help prevent further deaths,” head of the campaign Janey Starling said. “It is vital that domestic violence deaths are treated with the same sensitivity and consideration as other deaths like suicide, which is now reported on carefully due to comprehensive guidance and resources provided by Samaritans.”

So, why are these proposed changes important to you? Well, the papers and wider media shape the way we frame important stories, they tell us what to think and how to react in the future. Plus, sensational reporting has real-world effects. “Research shows that reports of domestic homicides that reinforce a narrative of romantic ‘love’ can lead to lighter sentencing in court,” says Starling. “In reality, homicides are driven by control and possession, and this must be accurately reflected in reporting.”

The Dignity For Dead Women campaign is backed by some of the most prominent voices in the area of domestic violence: Luke and Ryan Hart, whose mother and sister were murdered by their father; co-chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition Professor Liz Kelly CBE; chief executive of AVA (Against Violence and Abuse) Donna Covey CBE; and the policy and communications coordinator at black feminist organisation Imkaan, Leah Cowan.

Men don’t murder their partners “out of the blue,” as Frank Mullane, director of AAFDA (Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse) and supporter of the campaign, says. Often, it’s the culmination of a long campaign of physical, emotional or psychological abuse. By reporting responsibly and meaningfully, the media can stop legitimising and perpetuating lazy stereotypes – and show the women at the heart of this campaign the respect that they were denied in life.

@emilyrbakes

For confidential support, call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit womansaid.co.uk

If you or your family have lost a friend or family member through fatal domestic abuse, AAFDA (Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse) can offer specialist and expert support and advocacy, for more info visit www.aafda.org.uk

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Photo: Laura Dodsworth
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