December 10, 2020 (Updated )
We’ve heard a lot about domestic abuse during the past two lockdowns. Early on, a number of women’s charities warned that cases would skyrocket – something that was predictably proven right by a BBC Panorama investigation. As a freelance writer with personal experience of domestic abuse and having worked professionally within the sector, I thought this would be the perfect time to share – instead, I became became inundated with rejection emails.
Normally, it isn’t something I’d give a second thought to – rejection emails come with the territory as a freelance journalist. However, this time, the sheer quantity of ‘nos’ was alarming. When I started querying and asking for feedback, the responses all came back the same. While they thanked me for my pitch, the fact my abuser wasn’t convicted presented an opportunity for a “legal minefield”.
While there are plenty of guidelines for editors on how to cover domestic abuse when there has been a conviction (good resources include Level Up, Zero Tolerance, and Women’s Aid), there’s very little in the way of guidance to help editors tell the stories of women who haven’t secured convictions. As someone who actively advocates to become more visible it was an intense emotional fatigue. So, just how can we make sure all survivor’s stories are told?
A Complicated Mix Of Legal Considerations
A huge part of the problem, according to litigator Mark Lewis is that for domestic violence “so many different areas of the law are brought into play.” “Defamation, privacy, criminal law, and often the right of victims of sexual crimes to anonymity” can all come into play.
However, for journalist and editor of The Overtake Robyn Vinter, it’s defamation law that can be the biggest barrier to telling stories that haven’t been heard and convicted in court. “I often think the general public don’t always understand that as a journalist you can’t legally call someone an abuser unless they’ve been convicted or use that term to describe themselves.”
“Domestic abuse is often a hidden crime that is not reported to the police. Therefore, data held by the police can only provide a partial picture.”
“To put it simply, you could [even] have concrete evidence or have seen a video of an attack, but it’s still likely to be libel unless proven by a court,” she continues. The problem here is that this also makes it difficult for survivors to tell their stories. “It’s about any details that might lead to them being identified, or someone else being falsely identified. So using the names of a domestic violence survivor may identify any of their ex-partners as an abuser.”
However, the fact remains that the majority of domestic abuse cases do not come to the attention of the police in the first place. Even for those that do, they often don’t result in a conviction for the perpetrator of the abuse, with the Office of National Statistics calling it a “hidden crime”. While one in three women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, just 1,288,018 domestic abuse-related incidents were recorded in England and Wales in the year up to March 2020. Of these, just 758,941 were recorded as crimes.
Not An Uncommon Story
The numbers alone show that my story isn’t an uncommon one, but I’ve also spoken to other journalists who’ve faced the same issues. “[While] the pieces I’ve written around my experience have always been edited respectfully and with my consent, I have lost out on a byline [when I wrote a piece on recovery,” recalls Bethany, a fellow freelancer.
“Initially the editor and I tried to tweak the piece so it would be acceptable, but the legal team weren’t happy with it without there being a conviction. In the end I had to choose between reframing it as my opinion of what happened or losing the byline. There was no way I was about to suggest that any of what I experienced wasn’t abuse, so I chose to drop the byline. It was disheartening to say the least.”
“In the end, I had to choose between reframing it as my opinion of what happened or losing the byline. It was disheartening to say the least.”
Bethany, Freelance Journalist
In my own experience, I lost faith in the systems that were supposed to protect me and stopped reporting abuse. Instead of pursuing legal justice, I protected my own safety and began channelling my recovery through the medium of journalism. However, even before this it’s been an uphill struggle to be published – yet with so many women either unable to report abuse or get justice, it’s vital we find ways to tell their stories within the law as it stands.
Make Sure Empathy Always Guides Your Coverage
“For me, the most important thing that journalists and reporters need to be aware of is the fragile mental state of the victims they will be interviewing,” say Paula Rhone-Adrien, the UK’s leading Black female barrister in family law, who stresses that this ethos should always guide any coverage and editorial process in the first instance.
“[You] also need to be aware that the victim may be sharing things that they have never expressed before and so they may need time to reflect – all the victim wants to know is that their story will be sensitively told, and, where necessary, their anonymity protected.”
“The victim may be sharing things that they have never expressed before. All the victim wants to know is that their story will be sensitively told.”
Speaking specifically about cases where there isn’t yet a conviction, Paula says that often anonymising people can be the best option. “Unless found guilty, any perpetrator must be referenced as an “alleged perpetrator” [by law], and it’s important not to identify the alleged perpetrator or any children, particularly if a case is either being investigated or currently in court. Essentially, unless the victim says yes, and unless there has been a judgement of the court, don’t identify anyone.”
“It’s very, very easy to accidentally identify someone these days because they may have posted something on social media that you’re not aware of,” adds Robyn. In short, this is the area where editors need to be most thorough in checking for identifiers. It’s something that might feel overwhelming – but don’t feel you have to tackle the legal knowhow alone. “I did two modules of media law at university and have been a journalist for 10 years and still often have to get a second opinion,” says Robyn.
It’s crucial to note here though, that while the law says they must be an alleged perpetrator, this doesn’t mean you should ever refer to survivors as “alleged survivors” and it’s crucial that you treat them and their stories with the empathy and respect they deserve.
Working Proactively With Your Legal Team To Tell Stories
Often, the key is to take a proactive approach with any legal teams you’re working with. As an editor, try to take a constructive mindset – you’re working with legal experts with a joint goal of finding a way to tell important stories, not looking for ways to shut them down. “If you’re lucky, you’ll have an in-house legal team you can consult with,” says Holly Powell-Jones, founder of Online Media Law UK.
However, if you don’t have the luxury of an in-house team she points to “media law specialists who will offer consultancy services on a freelance basis too”. While this comes with costs, it’s vital for editors to advocate the value of this and include it in their budgets so these stories can be told. Holly also recommends investing in a copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and Online and Social Media Law: For content writers, web editors, journalists, bloggers, PRs and anyone who publishes on the Internet to help give you the confidence you need.
For independent publication with limited budget, it’s also worth thinking of collaborative ways to get the story out. “When it comes to getting legally sensitive stories off the ground at gal-dem we have to be very careful as we don’t have the same access to resources as large publications,” says Editor-in-Chief Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff. “[Sometimes} we’ll partner with a larger organisation when we know that we absolutely must get a story out.”
Ensuring These Stories Get Told Is Vital
While covering cases which haven’t resulted in a conviction does mean there’s more to think about, it doesn’t mean these stories should just be written off. The vast majority of domestic abuse survivors will never see their cases reported to the police, let alone in court, and it’s still vital that these stories and experiences are heard.
Despite no longer having contact with my abuser, systems like ours bring it all back, making me feel like they are in control once more. It feels like they continue to win. As the rejection emails kept coming in, I felt like they were in the room with me, confident they can maintain complete power without consequence. It makes me question how worthwhile sharing my narrative is, if my attempts to do so are never seen as “worth the risk”. I’m not the only one – and we need to make sure our voices are heard.
If you’ve been affective by any of the issues mentioned in this piece, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. The line is open 24 hours a day and they also have an online web chat.