The details of Anne Searle’s death are horrifying. And the reports from the trial of her husband – who, this week, was found guilty of her murder – are lurid.
Two women from England and Wales die at the hands of their current or former partners each week. It is so devastatingly commonplace that we don’t even learn most of these women’s names; their deaths do not become national news. There are initiatives – such as Karen Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women – that highlight the number of women killed by violent men who are known to them, but generally these types of murders only make front pages when there is an unusual or gossipy nature to the case.
Stephen Searle, who murdered Anne Searle, had been a UKIP councillor – he was once pictured with Nigel Farage. He killed his wife after she discovered that he had been having a relationship with his son’s partner, the mother of his grandchild. Stephen Searle called 999 after he strangled Anne Searle to death, and told police, "I've just killed my wife." As he was arrested, he was recorded saying, “I've been a very naughty boy." These are the details that mean this case garnered media attention. These are the details that mean I know Anne Searle’s name.
The sex scandal. The heartlessness of the confession. The political connection. That’s why this story is featured in the press. It’s not necessarily front-page news when a man kills his wife – and acknowledging the misogynistic violence that drives such a crime is, seemingly, not newsworthy. It’s far better, far newsier if the crime can be tied to money worries, infidelity, child-custody arrangements, even a vague “he just snapped”. A horrifying reasoning then occurs, with the media rounding up stories of the good nature of the perpetrator. The victim is quickly forgotten amid tales of “he always seemed like a lovely bloke”.
A horrifying reasoning occurs, with the media rounding up stories of the good nature of the perpetrator. The victim is quickly forgotten amid tales of ‘he always seemed like a lovely bloke
The Anne Searle case has proved no different, with numerous outlets, including the BBC, publishing sympathetic comments by another former UKIP politician, Bill Mountford.
"I still regard Steve as fundamentally a decent man who has found himself in circumstances beyond his control,” Mountford told BBC Suffolk. "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 defence of Stephen Searle is astounding, the “now-deceased wife” so easily dismissed amid the outpouring of sympathy for a convicted murderer. And the decision to publish these words without including context or criticism – as occurred on the BBC News website – is surely irresponsible. Luke and Ryan Hart, whose father killed their mother and sister before killing himself in 2016, have criticised the BBC for the piece. Writing on Twitter, they said: “Two years ago, our father was googling about other men who murdered their wives – he was influenced by what he read; stories which relinquished responsibility from the murderers and blamed the victims. Still the BBC thinks it is appropriate to publish this article?!?!”
The Harts have been vocal about the media coverage of domestic violence since they lost their mother, Claire, and sister, Charlotte. They have railed against the newspapers that quoted people as saying their abusive father was a “nice guy”. They have been shocked by media outlets attempts to “understand” their father’s actions.
Reflecting on the media impulse to “justify” the violence perpetrated by men against women, Ryan Hart told The Guardian: “You’re reading it and thinking, ‘This is bollocks.’ But you know people around the country are also reading it, and those ideas are being driven into their minds. It reinforces in the abuser’s mind that what they’re doing is OK.”
These gossipy reports that seek to somehow absolve abusive men are dangerous. They diminish women – and they perpetuate deadly notions of male entitlement.
I remember as a teenager flicking through a newspaper and saying to my friend, in a sort of offhand way, “I wish all these men would stop killing their wives.” She admonished me for being flippant. It’s a moment I’ve thought about often ever since. Why was I so flippant?
I think, on one level, I was scared. I was a girl but I could see – I could read in the newspaper – that, up ahead, there was danger; I could sense that womanhood attracted violence. I was flippant because I was covering up how terrified I was.
I also think, however, that I was flippant because that’s how the adults acted. They wrote about the murders of women as though it was gossip. So I thought that maybe that’s how you were supposed to respond to the slaying of women. That was the grown-up way to react to the horror. To shrug it off, to say it’s something that “got out of hand”.
Now, I’m a grown-up myself and all around me, other grown-ups are still packaging up the deaths of women in the same offhand way. And, as the Hart brothers know, that has real ramifications.
We cannot be flippant. There should be no easy way out of the horror. The fact that domestic violence kills must be recognised. Women like Anne Searle and Claire and Charlotte Hart must be remembered.