20th March 2023

Why can’t the media call domestic violence as it is?

Fiona Bruce’s comments regarding domestic violence on the BBC’s Question Time demonstrate just how much the media has to learn.
Why can’t the media call domestic violence as it is?
Photo: Andrew Campbell @ Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, Fiona Bruce, host of BBC’s Question Time, announced her withdrawal as an ambassador for Refuge. This was amid controversy after she was accused of trivialising domestic violence after last Thursday’s show.

Trigger warning: Discusses domestic violence

In the show, she called an incident where Stanley Johnson (Boris Johnson’s father) had punched and broken his wife’s nose a “one-off”. For context, she was responding to a guest, who had called Stanley Johnson a “wife-beater”. Bruce had stated she was legally obliged to add context wherein Johnson had not publicly responded to the incident.

The BBC has since responded to the controversy, stating that what Bruce did was correct as “She was not expressing any personal opinion about the situation,” and just “[ensuring] that the context of those allegations – and any right of reply from the person or organisation – is given to the audience.”

In recent months, British media has been under severe scrutiny for how it depicts violence towards women and female victims. It seems nuance surrounding sensitive topics like domestic violence is still greatly lacking. This is despite a 2015 report, stating that the media sensationalises domestic violence against women wherein blame is often shifted toward the female victims. The report also found that cases of domestic violence being reported in the media were oversaturated with male victims, further demonising women.

Since the start of 2023, there have been multiple examples where the press offers insultingly minuscule amounts of dignity and sensitivity toward female victims. Recent reporting has been more focused on finding a reason why female victims allow themselves to experience violence, rather than blaming the perpetrators.

When Epsom College headteacher Emma Pattison and her daughter were murdered by her husband back in February, the Mail Online insinuated that her work ethic played a role in bringing about the tragedy. When Nicola Bulley went missing in January, alcoholism and menopause were blamed.

Female victims are continually scapegoated to protect the actions of men by the media. It seems as if they are allergic to even accepting when a man has simply been violent – it’s always something a woman has done to trigger the violence.

This circles back to Fiona Bruce’s current controversy. What prompted the discussion surrounding Johnson’s past history with domestic violence is that he is being considered for a knighthood. Off the top of my head, I cannot tell you any of Stanley Johnson’s notable achievements to warrant a knighthood. Being responsible for the existence of Boris Johnson cannot even be considered an achievement, yet it is certainly notable.

It is not new news that the Government and British media are becoming heavily interlinked. The attitudes of our leading politicians are increasingly echoed by our columnists and presenters. The distinction between journalist and politician is increasingly difficult.

Therefore, the lack of scrutiny from presenters such as Fiona Bruce surrounding Stanley Johnson’s questionable past is not only expected, but routine. Our current parliament has been riddled with alleged misogyny and accusations of sexual misconduct by MPs.  Unfortunately, due to the help of the media, these issues surrounding the mistreatment of women are often under-reported, ignored, or simply dismissed as hysteria and gossip.

This issue, whereby violence against women is underreported, was clearly demonstrated during the coverage of the recent Chester by-election.  The media were more focused on the ‘Tory vs Labour’ of the matter and less on the discussion as to why it was triggered in the first place – Chester’s MP was accused of sexual misconduct.

What Fiona Bruce had said about Stanley Johnson’s violence being a “one-off” was definitely inappropriate and does indeed trivialise the matter of domestic violence. Domestic violence is never a simple “one-off”. Johnson’s violence only went on the record once – how many incidents does the public not know about?

However, this issue is much larger than Fiona Bruce. It is a symptom of our media’s systemic disregard for the struggles of women at the hands of gender-based violence.

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