Thursday 29 November 2012

Stalking isn't romance. It's violence.

In the Daily Mail today, the day that Leveson reports after hearing evidence from women’s groups about the terrible reporting of violence against women and girls in the mainstream media, there’s an article about a stalker who died whilst harassing his ex. 

Although, if you read the Daily Mail report, that might not be the story you hear.

Just to start – of course it is sad when anyone dies and I am not in any way saying otherwise. I am sorry for his family, who are obviously devastated. It’s for that reason that I won’t link to the article or name names here. 

But I have to take issue with the way the Mail approaches a story of harassment, intimidation and stalking, and turns it into a tragic tale of thwarted love. Particularly when this is the week stalking was finally made an actual criminal offence, and nearly a quarter of women experience stalking from the age of 16. 

Let’s start with the headline. 

‘”Gentle giant” who camped outside ex-girlfriend’s home in bid to win her back died following a heavy drinking session.’

Camping outside a woman’s house is not the action of a gentle man who wants to win back his lost love. It is the action of a stalker who wants to frighten and intimidate a woman. By calling him a ‘gentle giant’, even as a quote, the Mail is setting this guy up as someone we should feel sympathy for, someone who was just in love, and heartbroken. There is no mention of how scary it might have been for his ex, to wake up to find him outside her house, all the time, demanding her attention when she just wants to be left alone to live her life. 


[He] had inundated former partner [name redacted by me] with poems, letters, phone calls and text messages…When she refused to give in to his attempts to win her back, he began following her around and took to sleeping outside Ms Buchanans [sic] flat.’

This is stalking. This is harassment. Being inundated, bombarded with unwanted contact, being followed around – this is not romance. It’s a crime. And check out the victim blaming language too – the Mail says ‘she refused to give in’. As if somehow she should have just shrugged, and let him back in her life, that she was somehow selfish to not acquiesce to this harassment. After all, it’s just love, right? He’s just showing how much he loved her. 

The article goes on:

‘[he] was described as a “gentle giant” who was simply “trying to rekindle a lost love”’

‘One response sent by [his ex] a month before his death read: “I’m sorry but it’s over. Please let me get on with my life.”’

Stalkers, like all perpetrators, give themselves all sorts of excuse for their behaviour. They might be convinced that the victim of their crime loves them, and that they’re in a relationship. They may believe that she deserves it, or they may have the conviction that they are behaving romantically to bring a relationship back together. None of these reasons are true. There is nothing romantic, or mutual, or deserving about a campaign of harassment. It’s frightening and upsetting and it all too often leads to violence.

When I was a teenager I had some experience of harassment or stalking. It wasn’t a really serious case, but it happened. The victim was someone in my family and it involved phone calls at all hours. Nothing else, it wasn’t on the same scale as many cases. It was just phone calls, breathing down the phone, night and day. I remember how frightened I was. That someone had this power to scare us. I know what his so-called justification was, I won’t share it here. It was no justification at all. Not for the fear, and for the fact I have never, ever forgotten it. No justification for that whenever a story like this comes up, or a documentary about stalking is screened, or even, once, when some colleagues were cracking loads of jokes about stalking, I remember that fear. That fear comes back.

The Mail reports a statement made by the man’s family:

[he] never mean any harm to anyone.

I’m sorry, but he did. Harassment is harm. I understand the family wants to believe otherwise. But following someone around, phoning and texting incessantly, camping outside someone’s house – this is harmful. It’s threatening. It’s a crime. 

The rest of the article is made up of quotes from his family. They talk about how he was devastated by the break-up, how he felt betrayed and ‘spiralled downhill to the point where he just sat outside her flat.’

No-where in the article, particularly in the sections written by the journalist, is there any sense that his behaviour was against the law. No-where in the article does the Mail give the reader a chance to see this isn’t a tragic romance, a gentle knight nobly trying to win the heart of a fair maiden. No-where do we hear a sympathetic voice for the woman victim who was harassed and intimidated. In Mail world, stalking isn’t a crime. It’s a campaign, a bid to win a woman back. No-where do we get a sense that the woman has autonomy, the right not to have to be with a man who she doesn’t want to be with, to accept the attentions of a man she no longer loves. 

In Mail world, harassment is a sign of love, and women who don’t accept it are selfish. 

One positive thing is that at least the commenters under the article recognised his actions as stalking. 

As I say, this week Leveson will report back on his inquiry. He was presented with evidence from women’s groups about media sexism, and how reporting of violence against women and girls is minimised. They talk about victim blaming, sympathy with the perpetrator and not acknowledging the crime. All of this is present in this article. We have a man who stalked and harassed his ex girlfriend. We have that man presented as a kind, gentle person who was in a bid to win back that ex. And we have a woman who is portrayed as someone who didn’t ‘give in to his attempts’, a refusal which, we are led to believe, resulted in his death. I say ‘led to believe’ because it is not her fault that he acted in this way, it is not her fault he camped out and harassed her and drank. It is not her fault, no matter how the journalist frames it. 

I hope that, amongst no doubt all the furore about regulation, there is something in Leveson that recognises the damaging sexism in media reporting of violence against women, and a plan is created to tackle it. 

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