13th May 2020
By Hannah Storm

Domestic abuse during lockdown: it’s all about control, not Covid

By Janey Starling

“Stay home, stay safe” doesn’t work if your home has never been safe. For women trapped at home with violent partners, lockdown is proving to be incredibly dangerous.

In the first month of lockdown in the UK, the number of domestic abuse killings almost tripled. Calls to domestic abuse helplines have increased by 120% and demand on refuge space has skyrocketed.

Now is a vital time for journalists to remember to uphold homicide victims’ dignity by following Level Up’s press guidelines on reporting fatal domestic abuse. Whilst reporting such traumatic events, accuracy and dignity should be at the centre.

When someone kills their partner, whether in a global pandemic or not, it is usually the endpoint to a sustained period of coercive control. Intimate partner homicides are never an isolated, out-of-the-blue incident. Extensive research has shown that fatal domestic abuse is underpinned by a longstanding pattern of controlling and possessive behaviours.

When journalists report fatal domestic abuse, they should avoid including speculative or sensationalised “reasons” or “triggers” for a man killing a woman that over-simplify the case. Where possible, journalists should seek to understand the character of the relationship. If no information is available, as with breaking news stories, keep to the very basic facts rather than seeking explanations.

Forensic criminologist Jane Monckton-Smith has dedicated her career to understanding why people kill their partners. She has spent years studying hundreds of fatal domestic abuses cases, and recently published the 8-stage homicide timeline. She explains the spike in fatalities:

“Lockdown means that people who were already controlling and abusing their partners are now even more controlling and volatile. The lockdown has not created abuse, it has just made it more visible and dangerous”.

After all, pandemic or not, what could be more controlling or possessive than the act of taking someone’s life?

Coronavirus does not create men who kill. It just gives them an excuse. Sadly, the press reporting on fatal domestic abuse has frequently reinforced this excuse. From reports citing “serious financial difficulties” to “late-night argument in coronavirus lockdown” to “worries about coping with coronavirus lockdown”, the press are failing to report on fatal domestic abuse accurately.

With headlines like this, journalists are showing more sympathy to killers than victims. Monckton-Smith says, “If journalists are peddling myths like this, they put people in more danger and people can’t spot the warning signs and do what they need to do to protect themselves”.

She continues: “Failing to report from the perspective of the victim actually just empowers killers and those who are going to be the next killers.”

Often, fatal domestic abuse headlines follow a lazy template of “Man kills wife after [her actions]”. Journalists must refrain from seeking an explanation, trigger or excuse for the homicide. Monckton-Smith describes how this inaccuracy can be incredibly upsetting for victims’ families:

“We have to recognise that a homicide is one of the most traumatic events that anyone can ever experience. It is incredibly traumatic for families, and adds an extra layer of grief to the life that’s been lost. Journalists must remember not to talk about it as an episode in a detective series: you’re reporting on someone’s life.”

The Level Up guidelines on reporting domestic abuse, ‘Dignity for Dead Women’, were developed by domestic violence experts and bereaved families who were retraumatised by the press coverage of their loved-ones’ deaths. The intention behind them is to report fatal domestic abuse with dignity and accuracy, in order to spread awareness of domestic homicide risk factors.

In an online world, today’s news is no longer tomorrow’s chip paper: it’s a lasting public record of someone’s life. And for families who have lost loved ones to domestic homicide, that public record is incredibly important.

If someone has been killed by their partner or ex-partner, it’s essential to name this for what it is: domestic abuse. It’s vital for journalists to signpost to resources (included at the bottom of this article), for any readers who may have received death threats from their partner, or are in fear of their life or worry about threats to family members or friends.

With more frequent domestic abuse fatalities, and therefore more frequent news reports, it’s vital for the press to report on these killings with accuracy and dignity. If the trend continues at the rate it has since the start of the Covid pandemic, 40 more women will be murdered by their partners before the end of June.

As a society, we should be doing all we can to reduce this number, and the press have a huge role to play. Maybe, if the press start reporting on fatal domestic abuse more accurately, we can stop more women dying.

Read the Level Up ‘Dignity for Dead Women’ guidelines here.

If you are in the UK and your partner makes you feel unsafe, call the free National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger please call 999 and ask for the police. Silent calls will work if you are not safe to speak – use the Silent Solution system and call 999 and then press 55 when prompted.

Author photo

Janey Starling is Campaign Director at Level Up. Janey is a domestic abuse expert and wrote ‘Dignity for Dead Women’, the UK’s first guidelines for reporting fatal domestic abuse.

Main image from One Thousand Words Project by Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance in collaboration with survivors of domestic abuse; copyright Laura Dodsworth 2017