Thursday, 13 March 2014

Violence and the media call to action

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The media can and does play a large role in pressuring governments to change or create laws in response to community outrage. So they have role to play in shaping the public response to intimate partner violence.

There is nothing new about the News Media playing politics.

The editors at major newspapers have been picking sides, pushing barrows and running campaigns since before Australia was even a country. Political partisanship is not really anything new, although the hypocrisy and mock outrage at those inclined in the opposite direction may be slightly more feverish in the face of desperate competition for clicks.

Other media campaigns have flaws that are not politically partisan, but rather are aggressively and notoriously populist. And, most commonly, focussed on criminal law.

The criminal law is, in many ways, the most fraught area of governance, particularly when the media gets involved. It is easy for newspapers to conjure up a “problem” you can “solve”, and there are few more effective ways to stoke fear in the reader and thereby increase clicks and sales. The price we as a community pay for this is that unwarranted fear of violent crime destroys one's quality of life, and governments, deeply aware of the need to be perceived to be “doing something”, will spend public money on unnecessary protections and constrain public freedom with needlessly restrictive laws.

The “Coward Punch” kerfuffle this year in NSW was a good example.

The Daily Telegraph led the charge, although the Sydney Morning Herald scurried to join in once they realised they had missed the boat.

Despite the fact that crime states clearly show the incidence of violent crime in the Sydney CBD to be falling, the story took on a life of its own and the politicians were “forced to act”.

The Telegraph's campaign was carefully planned, well thought out, and was targeted to hit readers at their emotional core. One could easily see the story that the editors had decided they wanted to tell, and they unfurled the campaign with militaristic precision.

A number of commentators, me included, were critical of the media's actions, and scathing at the government's response.

The point made by some commentators (most notably by Bernard Keane at Crikey) was this: street assaults have been falling for years. This is manufactured outrage.

street assault rates

The Telegraph was predictably immune to the shame that their detractors tried to heap upon it. The Sydney Morning Herald, however, took a tack.

To the surprise of almost everyone, the Herald responded to the criticism with this: Revealed: The women we failed

Whilst this and the other pieces written by the Herald about intimate partner violence lacked the venom and drama of their coward punch series, one cannot fault them for finally bringing attention to what should be a far more pressing problem for the community than drunken violence on the streets.

The stats tell us that NSW Police deal with 370 instances of family violence every day. That's over 130 000 a year.

That statistic is all the more shocking once you realise that only around half of family violence incidents are reported to police.

Most tragically, approximately 2 women per month die at the hands of their partners.

The Herald should be commended for shining light onto this issue, but the difficulty they will have in turning it into the sort of ongoing public campaign that worked so well for the Tele and the “coward punch” series is that intimate partner violence has no emotionally satisfying outcome they can demand of government or police.

The real kicker is not the absence of easy solutions. Coward punches and street violence don't have any easy solutions either, and yet we were treated to days and days of headlines on the topic.

The problem with the media and intimate partner violence is that there are no intuitive solutions. There’s no unmet demands they can use to stir up outrage and clicks.

The Women We Failed article spoke of a concerning fall in the proportion of people who said slapping or pushing was very serious. It quoted Family Violence NSW project manager Moo Baulch, who was pushing for an increase in the funding to “services”, without being clear about what those services would be. NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione urged people to “break the silence” and contact police, without explaining what police can do or how they will respond. The problem was fairly clearly outlined, but solutions were much less clear.

You don't need to have experience in criminal justice to know that intimate partner violence is an incredibly complicated.

First and foremost, there is shockingly large number of men who see fit to use violence against women. Some do it deliberately, to control and subdue their partners. Others have terrible tempers they cannot or will not learn to control. Others are violent drunks – kind, loving and attentive when sober, and dangerously violent when drunk.

None of those causes lend themselves to easy solutions. Some find their root in many generations of family history, whilst others are a manifestation of human frailty that the perpetrators never learn to control.

Another complex problem is that many women are often not able to safely remove themselves from abusive relationship.

Along with sexual violence, intimate partner violence is shrouded in secrecy. Victims are terrified of retribution from perpetrators if they involve the police. They are often ashamed, wrongly believing that the violence meted out to them was somehow justified by a perceived slight or infraction.

Moreover, the statistics tell us that the days and weeks after a woman ends a relationship with a violent man is the most dangerous period, as men dish violence as revenge or an outlet for their anger or even grief at the ending of the relationship. There are many dedicated and effective services available, but the resources are limited and may appear too alien, too overwhelming for women already overwhelmed by fear.

Surprising as it may be to many of us, distressingly large numbers of people still see violence between partners as being acceptable, or even necessary. This attitude is not confined to particular ethnic, social or socio-economic groups. Across the board, men (and women) can be found who think there are excuses or even good reasons for someone to use violence to control their. This attitude, as subtly expressed as it often is, adds to the complexities of persuading perpetrators that violence is wrong and victims that they are not to blame.

From a criminal law point of view, the problem that causes police the most difficulties in removing, charging and prosecuting the perpetrators is the number of victims who withdraw complaints or refuse to cooperate with prosecutions.

Obviously this is almost always caused by fear of the perpetrator, or sometimes an attitude that intimate partner violence is on some level necessary or appropriate in some circumstances. But there can be no doubt that, every day, across the state, women forgive and indeed seek to protect the men who have assaulted them.

That may seem incomprehensible. But it occurs every day.

Women do not report assaults because they fear what the consequences might be for their partner. They don't turn up to court to give evidence because they have accepted tearful apologies. They justify and excuse the inexcusable because they have been conditioned to accept it.

These women are not stupid, or incapable, or in any way to blame for what happened to them. But they have been conditioned, frightened or even threatened into accepting the status quo. Horrifyingly, as Leslie Morgan Steiner said, many women in these situations may not even recognise that what is happening to them is abuse. There is no legislation that can overcome this kind of manipulation.

That is the problem those opposing intimate partner violence face - there are no easy solutions.

Yes, we need to ensure women who want to leave their partners have somewhere to go, and can easily access emergency support for them and their kids. This is probably the simplest solution we can offer.

The far more complex problems, where we need to change the ideas and feelings about intimate partner violence, cannot be undertaken by criminal law.

We need to change the idea that intimate partner violence is sometimes ok, or at least excusable; or if not excusable then a private matter, not something we should interfere in. We need everyone (men and women) to know that any relationship where violence occurs is abusive and that violence is never the fault of the victim. We need the wider community to understand that many victims of violence protect their attackers from the consequences of their actions

That may not be your view, but you know someone who thinks that. Maybe they don't express it, and they may not even realise that is their attitude. But there can be no doubt that until we all agree that intimate partner violence is not acceptable, that cycle is going to continue down the generations.

It is going to take more than a few headlines to change that attitude - but the Herald broke some new ground with their pieces on intimate partner violence. Public debate, cultural depictions and media representation can do a surprising amount to influence social attitudes. Sometimes this needs to be a deliberate long term choice, not just a momentary flash in the pan.

The true test will be whether the news media now begins to cover this issue and start the process of convincing all of us as a community that intimate partner violence is unambiguously wrong and will never be tolerated.

Andrew Tiedt

Andrew is a criminal defence lawyer from Sydney. 

Follow him on twitter @mrtiedt