Category Archives: Wooden Spoon

The balance fallacy: Wooden Spoon Award

This presentation was given by Zero Tolerance’s 2016 Bursary Winner, Annie McLaughlin as part of the 2017 awards ceremony. 

Tonight, we celebrate journalists and writers who play a vital role in furthering public understanding of violence against women. Their work confronts the myths that perpetuate abuse and shines a light on the systemic gender inequality that underpins it.

The Write to End Violence Against Women awards are a welcome opportunity to highlight what can be achieved when journalists give due care and attention to the complexity and continuum of gender based violence.

Over the past few months, the wide media coverage of sexual harassment, assault and abuse and resulting ‘#metoo’ campaign on social media have had a huge impact in illuminating the scale and spectrum of violence against women.

The sheer volume and weight of women’s experiences of abuse has been overwhelming. Good journalism of the kind we recognise tonight has done much to highlight the abuse of male power that lies at the heart of those experiences.

But, we know that there are still too many corners of the media where misrepresentation of the issues leads to irresponsible reporting that reinforces the attitudes that enable gender based violence.

And so, we reach the point in the evening where we shine a light on those corners in the hope that we can highlight areas for improvement, drive up standards and drive out myths.

The Wooden Spoon Award.

For the past few years, Zero Tolerance have elected to award the Wooden Spoon to a theme, rather than to an individual journalist or article. This recognises and highlights the collective responsibility of writers to represent the issues responsibly.

Read Kirsty Strickland’s Wooden Spoon presentation for the 2016 Write Awards

This year, the award highlights a particularly pervasive and insidious tendency in some media reporting on violence against women. The tendency to give the impression that there is an equal balance, or moral equivalence, between the narratives and experiences of women and those of their abusers.

A tendency we can call ‘the balance fallacy’.

Regardless of the current ‘hot topic’ in media reporting on gender based violence, the balance fallacy raises its ugly head repeatedly.

Time and again, writers and broadcasters will choose to amplify the voices of those who seek to blame women for the violence committed against them or to diminish their experiences by claiming that there are ‘two sides to every story’.

It’s an approach that ignores the reality of violence against women and girls in favour of straw man arguments, that seek to lay the blame for the abuse of women anywhere other than at the feet of abusers.

Inevitably, violence against women campaigners are forced to waste precious column inches and air time knocking down those arguments, time that could be so much better spent educating the public on how we can work together to put an end to gender based violence.

The assumption that all journalism requires opposing views to be treated as equally valid simply does not hold when the overwhelming weight of evidence and experience points firmly in one direction.

Let’s be clear: there are no two sides when it comes to revealing the scale and spectrum of violence committed against women simply because they are women.

If recent revelations have reminded us of anything, it’s that ‘official’ statistics on the prevalence of abuse only tell part of the story. The ‘#metoo’ campaign has been so powerful and affecting partly because we know that for every woman who does speak out, so many more do not or cannot.

It is completely misguided to attempt to create ‘balance’ or a debate where there should be no room for doubt. Reporting which reinforces the myth that violence against women is a ‘grey area’ reduces the rape, murder and abuse of women to a game of ‘he said, she said’.

There are, unfortunately, many examples of the balance fallacy to choose from this year, but I’d like to highlight just a few.

A common trope is that women should in some way share the blame for violence perpetrated against them. That we have to somehow balance the abusive acts of men against the behaviour of the women they attack.

In March this year, rape survivor Megan Clark waived her right to remain anonymous, in a televised interview with the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire. Her testimony was an important insight into the attitudes that prevent women survivors from seeking justice and support.

Derbyshire asked Megan to respond to comments made by the judge who presided over the trial of her rapist. Lindsey Kushner QC was accused of victim blaming by violence against women organisations, after she suggested that women should protect themselves against rape by not getting drunk.

Megan’s response was a qualified one. She said that she understood why the judge said what she did and that she did not necessarily think it was victim blaming.

Heartbreakingly, though, she admitted that she did not think she would feel able to report a rape again, because she was made to feel partly responsible for her attack when she shared her story with others.

There was the story, waiting to be told. A sobering insight into the real-life impact of victim blaming on survivors’ access to support and justice.

When the interview hit the headlines, however, it’s fair to say that the slant was rather different.

Wooden Spoon presentation

Overwhelmingly, the reports completely ignored the bulk of the interview and jumped on Clark’s comments as some sort of vindication of victim blaming, the ‘last word’ in a debate on women’s culpability for rape that should not even exist.

The Daily Mail’s headline announced, with an almost palpable sense of glee: “Manchester rape victim said drinking warning was right.”

The Guardian went with: “Woman who was raped backs judge over alcohol warning”, The Independent: “Rape victim says judge was right to say she put herself in danger by being drunk”.

Such coverage perpetuates harmful attitudes about sexual violence that are consistently brought into courts and jury rooms and form an obstacle to obtaining convictions.

Wooden Spoon presentation 2

Another all too common myth perpetuated by the balance fallacy is the idea that violence against women is some sort of ‘grey area’.

This typically presents itself in opinion pieces that label serious allegations of abuse as ‘moral panic’. Columns that warn we are hurtling towards a dystopian future in which men will be afraid to speak to a woman lest they be accused of harassment.

In the Telegraph last month, at least two columnists claimed that allegations of sexual harassment and assault in Westminster amount to a ‘witch hunt’, against men who have simply ‘pushed the envelope’ that little bit too far in their natural pursuit of the opposite sex.

witch hunt

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the irony of using the term ‘witch hunt’ to drum up sympathy for male perpetrators of sexual assault. A term which largely refers to the systematic and prolonged torture and murder of women.

The dangerous message here is that if a woman is assaulted or harassed, she should first stop and consider the impact on her abuser should she report.  It ignores the truth that the lines between ‘flirting’ and abuse have never been blurred except in the minds of men who want them to be, and who are angry that the spotlight is now shining in their direction.

The concept of “balance” has long been a key foundation of journalism and, in many cases, it is a vital and necessary consideration. But attempts to engineer false balance by creating moral equivalency between abusers and abused serves no one, least of all survivors already facing multiple barriers to achieving justice and support.

When we frame violence against women as some kind of murky moral maze, in which women must share responsibility with their attackers, we allow abuse to continue unchecked.

This year’s Wooden Spoon goes to ‘the balance fallacy’, and those who perpetuate it.

Because the prevalence of gender based violence is not up for ‘debate’. Because we do not need ‘devil’s advocates’ to defend abusers and their right to abuse. We need advocates like those we recognise tonight, who use their voices and talents in the fight to stamp out violence against women.

Annie McLaughlin was the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards busary winner. You can read her excellent writing for the Sunday Herald here

For more excellent writing on the ‘false balance fallacy’, writing which inspired this topic, read below:

Kirsty Strickland, The National: Repetition of dangerous rape myths has no place in a responsible debate

Alys Mumford, Engender: Why There Aren’t Always Two Sides to Every Story

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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.

claire-charlotte

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.

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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.”

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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”.

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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.

clodagh2

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.

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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.

cavan2

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.

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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.