Invisible Women: The Wooden Spoon Award
This speech was given by Kirsty Strickland for the presentation of the Wooden Spoon Award.
The Write to End Violence Awards is an important event, where we celebrate the journalists and writers who report violence against women in a responsible way. Tonight, we have recognised those who write about these issues with due care and consideration, acknowledging that the media can have a positive impact on how society views and responds to the scale of violence against women.
We have with us tonight writers who give us much to celebrate. We know, however, that this standard often isn’t replicated throughout the broader media and press.
Which brings us to the point in the evening where we focus on areas of press coverage where there is still much room for improvement.
The wooden spoon award.
Last year, the wooden spoon was given to sexist headlines. This year, Zero Tolerance have opted again to award the wooden spoon to a theme, rather than an individual article. This recognises the shortcomings of representation as a whole, rather than singling out one individual journalist.
This year, the theme we are focusing on is that of the so called ‘invisible woman’ – namely, the media’s tendency to neglect to mention the woman in cases of a family killing and instead focus the majority of coverage on the perpetrator. This coverage is often centred on speculation about his imagined motivation:
Was he under stress at work?
Was she leaving him?
Did he ‘snap’?
In these cases a man – a husband, partner, or ex-partner – kills his family and himself, and reports all but erase the murdered woman.
We’ve seen many stark examples of this coverage over the course of the year, but tonight I will take you through just a couple of them.
Back in July, 57-year-old Lance Hart killed his wife Claire and 19-year-old daughter Charlotte in a leisure centre car park in Spalding. After lying in wait, he shot them both in the stomach before turning the gun on himself.
Not long after the murder, it was reported that Claire had recently separated from Lance who she had described to friends as ‘controlling’. But rather than situate this fact in the broader context of the heightened risk we know some women are at when they decide to leave a partner, some newspapers wrote as if Claire separating from Lance somehow made his violence more understandable.
Indeed, one psychologist in an article for the Daily Mail said just that. Writing about Claire’s murder he said:
“But while killing their partner as an act of revenge may be understandable, for a man to kill his children (who are innocent bystanders in a marital breakdown) is a very different matter.”
In one newspaper a source was quoted who said “Claire had left him. I don’t know what the issues were in their marriage, but I can’t understand why he had to kill his daughter as well.”
There were numerous quotes praising Lance Hart’s character, at a level which was striking in its contrast to the little being written about Claire. One described him as “the nicest guy you could ever meet”; “he would do anything for anyone”; “he helped me with the DIY in my house”.
There were plenty seeking to justify his actions. The murder was described by one as a ‘twisted act of love’. Had reporters spoken to experts such as Women’s Aid, they would have been able to include a quote which explained that these acts are never rooted in love.
Much in the same way that street harassment isn’t a compliment. Rape isn’t about sexual attraction. Controlling behaviour isn’t infatuation. Murder is never an ‘act of love’, twisted or otherwise.
While the publications in question can’t be blamed for the words of contributors, their decision to include statements which justify and minimize the murder of women is one for which they must bear responsibility.
The erasure of the murdered woman and the focus on her murderer and his apparent motivations were present in another sad case this year, which generated widespread attention and controversy.
In County Cavan in Ireland, Alan Hawe killed his wife Clodagh, his three sons Liam, Niall, and Ryan, and then himself.
Clodagh Hawe was the 87th Irish woman to be killed by a current of former partner since 1966. Since 2004, there have been at least 24 similar cases of familial murder-suicide in Ireland. From the coverage however, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a rare occurrence.
Our theme for the wooden spoon this year is the ‘invisible woman’ and the reporting of the death of Clodagh sadly embodies this.
In this case, the framing of the narrative was that Alan Hawe, as a school vice-principal, was an upstanding and valuable member of the community. It is striking just how little Clodagh is mentioned throughout the coverage and the extent to which Alan Hawe was initially eulogised by some newspapers. We learned about his work, his childhood, the sports he excelled at, the things he did for neighbours, and even what a good father he was. No such mention was made of Clodagh – how she will be missed or the value her life had.
She too was a teacher, no doubt had many talents, contributed to society – yet was brutally murdered alongside her children and all but erased from the reporting that followed.
While photos were splashed across newspapers of the children smiling alongside the father who would later stab them to death, Clodagh’s photo was often absent entirely. Clodagh’s mother – who found a note that Alan Hawe had left – was described as Alan Hawe’s mother-in-law. Not Clodagh’s mother. Not the children’s grandmother. The murderer’s mother in law.
The fact that Alan Hawe was a respected school vice-principal brought to the surface many harmful misconceptions we still hear about violence against women – namely, that violent men are either ‘monsters’ or otherwise good men whose actions can be justified if you look hard enough. The excuses afforded to them range from mental health problems, the fact that their wife was leaving them, stress, alcohol, or even something as trivial as a football score.
Good reporting should put into context the broader scale of violence against women and explain that it is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality. It should seek to highlight that normal men – men who maintain friendships, have good careers, and are well-liked by their neighbours – can also be violent to their partners.
The erasure of murdered women in media coverage of their deaths perpetuates the culture that says that women’s lives are dispensable and unimportant.
Throughout the coverage of the deaths of Claire and Clodagh, we read a lot about their killers. Their likes and dislikes, their talents, personalities, childhoods, and praise for their character. In short, we learned what made them human. Contrast that with the murdered women. We know of them only in relation to the men that killed them, and the gruesome nature of their deaths.
While the men’s motivations, mental health, and hardships were widely discussed, this humanity is noticeably absent in the coverage of the women.
The stark erasure of Clodagh in the reporting of her death was eventually noticed and commented on, sparking the hashtag #HerNameWasClodagh . However, if we are going to make real progress, then responsible coverage shouldn’t be in reaction to awful coverage – it should be the expected standard.
Journalism doesn’t exist in a void – it shapes society as well as reacting to it.
When we lose a woman to male violence, it is important to name it as that. To name the problem.
To name – but never eulogise – the perpetrator.
To name the woman.
This year’s wooden spoon goes to the media outlets who allowed murdered women to become almost invisible in death. In future, let us hope that journalists will recognise their collective responsibility to always make sure these women are seen.