The Role of the Media in the Tackling Men’s Violence against Women
By Rachael Alexander, University of Strathclyde
GEMS recently joined with Engender, Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance to welcome Luke Hart to the Central Hall in Edinburgh for a conversation with journalist Dani Garavelli. Luke, along with his brother Ryan, is a leading voice in the fight for an end to men’s violence against women, following the devastating murder of his mother Claire and sister Charlotte in 2016 by his father. Luke shared his insight into domestic abuse, the subtlety of coercive control and the crucial role of the media in challenging men’s violence against women.
The murders of Claire and Charlotte Hart in July 2016, according to media reports at the time, were shocking on a number of counts. That the mother and daughter were murdered was shocking. That they were shot in Spalding, an area with no recent gun crime, was shocking. And that the shooter had been Lance Hart, Claire’s husband and Charlotte’s father, was shocking. Everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to the owner of the local Post Office was quoted as being ‘shocked’, the implication being that this was a tragedy which emerged from nowhere and couldn’t possibly have been anticipated.
Speaking candidly at the Central Hall in Edinburgh, however, Luke Hart powerfully challenged this view: in fact the murders were the culmination of years of domestic abuse and coercive control. Luke and Ryan Hart are now leading voices in the fight against men’s violence against women, committed to raising awareness of the insidious and often subtle nature of coercive control and domestic abuse.
When Luke joined Dani Garavelli for a conversation on the role of the media in relation to men’s violence against women, it was understandably difficult to separate this from Luke’s personal experience. Luke began by giving a powerfully open account of the abuse and control which preceded the events of July 2016. He spoke of his father’s use of finances to control their behaviour, of how they all lived ‘in a constant state of fear’, and of how, in spite of all this, they were not aware that this constituted domestic abuse. In the months leading up to her murder, at Luke and Ryan’s request, Claire kept a diary of the abuse. Luke highlighted that ‘much of it seemed pretty mundane, but it was the pattern and the intensity of it’ that highlighted the sustained and extensive level of control and manipulation.
The many and varied forms of domestic abuse—including financial and coercive control—have until recently remained largely invisible, a fact acknowledged by Safer Lincolnshire’s recently completed Domestic Homicide Review (2018) which sought to investigate the homicides of Claire and Charlotte Hart. Luke and Ryan’s testimony was crucial in this review, and from Luke’s conversation with Dani it’s easy to see why. Luke spoke of the subtlety of his father’s abusive behaviour, noting particularly that this kind of abuse is often gradual and escalating. He noted that one of the difficulties is being able to recognise the signs at the beginning; unlike domestic assault, there are often no visible markers. A lack of awareness, he argued, is crucial: ‘abusers don’t think they’re abusers, and the abused don’t think they’re abused. That’s the problem’. This is unquestionably a failure in numerous arenas; in policy, education, and the media.
These contexts do not, of course, exist in isolation. While Luke addressed the need for legislative change, he pointed out that this would be ineffectual unless accompanied by increased awareness and education. This is far easier said than done. As a member of the audience pointed out, the only man in attendance at the sold-out event was Luke himself. How do we extend awareness and provide education on domestic abuse, in all of its forms, to men? Dani, Luke, and most (if not all) of the audience agreed that this was a pressing question.
Particularly in the present climate, as Luke commented, ‘There's a level of entrenchment on the part of men, where they feel like their privilege is being stripped away from them... There is a backlash culture which is hard to navigate’. Indeed, calls to ‘think of the men?’ echo far and wide, frequently followed by questions about men’s mental ill-health and suicide; rising rates of which are undeniably a serious issue. Yet fighting to end men’s abuse of and violence against women does not oppose, or erase, the tackling of men’s mental ill-health and suicide. Luke argued that these issues were interlinked, that ‘men are the greatest perpetrators of violence; against women, children, and themselves,’ that this continues because of structural and systemic inequalities, and the media have a role and responsibility in that context.
Lance Hart spent days composing his twelve-page murder note, and referring to his online search history—obtained by the police—Luke said, ‘We know what he read influenced what he did’. In the aftermath of Claire and Charlotte’s murders, Luke said that the media eulogised his father. Lance Hart was described as a ‘nice guy’, ‘a DIY nut’, and there was speculation that the prospect of divorce ‘drove’ him to murder Claire and Charlotte. Reports such as these, with their implicit or explicit justification for perpetrators and blaming of victims, reinforce the gendered inequalities which leave space for domestic abuse to occur. Claire was blamed as ‘causing’ her own abuse while Charlotte, when she was mentioned at all, was referred to as an innocent bystander of an almost natural disaster. According to Luke, ‘One of the most traumatic things was that the media’s voice echoed our father’s voice’.
This treatment of men’s violence against women is unfortunately not—to quote all from Jeremy Corbyn to the owner of the local Post Office—‘shocking’. The media has a clear and important role in challenging the gendered assumptions that afford misguided justifications of domestic abuse and coercive control. The recent media coverage of the Domestic Homicide Review is a step in the right direction and the value of Luke and Ryan’s work, including their recent book on their experiences, is invaluable in awareness raising. It remains clear, though, that coverage of these crucial contributions is nowhere near as far-reaching as the reports which positioned Lance Hart as ‘a nice guy’ and there is much still to be done. The recent reporting of the case of Sally Challen is just one example of just how much. While this is the case, sustained efforts to change the media landscape will remain vital if we hope to end men’s violence against women.