Yesterday, a 28-year-old man called Christopher Boon pleaded guilty to the murder of his wife and her daughter. Boon had stabbed Laura Mortimer and 11-year-old Ella Dalby in the kitchen of their home and it’s thought that Ella was attacked after she tried to stop Boon stabbing her mother. He was given a life sentence and will serve a minimum term of 29 years, after being denied a claim of diminished responsibility due to lack of medical evidence. Boon had a history of domestic violence, having been previously convicted, in 2010, of assault, battery and criminal damage against an ex. That is all you need to know about this upsetting and disturbing case.
But, today, the papers have insisted on providing us with much more irrelevant and damaging information.
According to The Times, Boon murdered his wife and her daughter in a “fit of rage”, while the paper report in today’s issue of The Sun described him as having an “evil temper” who killed in a “frenzy”. These descriptions act as a way to diminish Boon’s autonomy and, thereby, his responsibility, by offering an excuse or a reason for the murders. He didn’t know what he was doing, we’re encouraged to think; he probably didn’t mean to. Unsurprisingly, this is the exact defence used by Boon himself, who claimed he blacked out and had no recollection of the murders – he used the same reasoning in his 2010 assault and battery case. As Boon has been found guilty of the double murder, and sentenced, it’s disturbing to think that the press are still willing to repeat his line of defence.
Accountability in reports of domestic violence is a main priority for feminist campaign group Level Up, whose Dignity For Dead Women campaign aims to reform guidelines for journalists. Far too often, the onus for the attack is placed on the victim herself, and this is no different in today’s stories of Mortimer and Dalby’s murders. According to the reports, Mortimer had found out Boon had cheated on her, so asked for a divorce. She also told her friends she had asked her husband to move out of their house within the next two weeks. The Sun has gone one step further, quoting an unnamed source claiming that Boon had been found using the dating app Tinder – adding an extra level of salacious detail. Again, the responsibility for the murders is lightened from the shoulders of Boon.
These are embarrassing and disruptive jigsaw pieces the victim’s family and friends have to spend their lives piecing together. They should not be for public consumption and they compromise the dignity of those who no longer have a voice
The proposed guidelines for reporting on domestic violence recommend journalists avoid extraneous details that may distress the victim’s families or readers affected by domestic violence themselves. Surely, counting the number of times Mortimer and Dalby were stabbed is an example of such details? It’s a number mentioned not once, not twice, but three times throughout the short story in The Sun.
Through the language employed by the press, the story of Mortimer and Dalby’s murders is turned into sensationalist fodder, designed to shock and fascinate. Why else would The Times report on how, when Boon previously attacked Mortimer in 2014, she ran over to a neighbour’s house “wearing only her underwear”? Why else would The Sun report that Boon’s hatred for 11-year-old Dalby was known, and that he had been heard calling her "a c*nt"? These are embarrassing and disruptive jigsaw pieces that the victim’s family and friends have to spend their lives piecing together. They should not be for public consumption and they compromise the dignity of those who no longer have a voice.
Of course, there are parts of these reports that come directly from the courtroom – the sentencing judge herself used sensationalist language like “wanton savagery” to describe Boon’s violence. And, while this shows how much work there is to be done about how we talk about domestic violence in the wider world, journalists have a choice on what they report. Articles like these diminish the importance and prevalence of domestic violence in the eyes of the public, and, most importantly, deter women who may be experiencing violence to report to the police – why would she, if the papers will say it is her fault?
You can help change the way we talk about domestic violence by signing the Dignity For Dead Women petition, asking press watchdog IPSO to introduce reporting guidelines for journalists. Find out more about the campaign here.
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