Trigger warning: The following article discusses violence against women and has mentions of suicide and murder. Some readers may find this distressing.
On Sunday 5th February 2023, Emma Pattinson and her daughter Lettie were killed by her husband and Lettie’s father, George Pattinson, in a murder-suicide killing. To put it plainly, Emma and Lettie are now two more people to the rising prevalence of femicide in the UK.
Soon after the BBC reported Emma’s and her daughter’s murder by her spouse, a Daily Mail article asked whether “living in the shadow of his high achieving wife lead to unthinkable tragedy”, while the murderer was described in a way that might be perceived as sympathetic, reporting his own description of himself as “a career accountant desperate to find something better to do with his day”.
I am a Thames Valley core psychiatry trainee, and I have written before in Inspire the Mind on topics such as “Mental Health of Women and Children in Conflict Zones: Their Bodies and Health are the Battlefields” and “Rape and Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine: The Cheapest Weapon of War”. In this piece, I want to discuss the media’s depiction of violence against women.
In the UK, two women are killed weekly by a man; in 2020, 52% of these femicides were by current or former partners; 70% of these femicides took place in a house (that of the victim and perpetrator, that of the victim or that of the perpetrator). Violence and abuse against women and girls have a vast impact, not only on the individual woman but on the locality, the community and public health. Gender-based violence is a “shadow pandemic” that was unmasked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On 13th February 2022, Femicide Census released its’ 2020 annual report as its “most comprehensive study of male violence towards women” during the pandemic. Although the number is the lowest since 2009, we’re warned that there is a significant decline in the number of women being recorded as “killed by a male suspect”, especially by current or former partners, as a result of COVID-19.
The rising femicide is a public health issue, and the media should focus on raising awareness of those campaigns, highlighting what are the statistics of these gross acts of violence, and what are the percentage of male perpetrators being held accountable under criminal law. Over the course of 10 years (2009–2018), 111 men had been implicated in their femicide killings, but at the time, only 79 had been found or pleaded guilty to their crimes. In 2020, 60% (n= 47) of male perpetrators were found guilty of murder as the outcome of criminal justice.
In November 2021, in honour of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls, the Royal College of Psychiatrists did a podcast highlighting the significant prevalence of the femicide pandemic.
The disappearance of Nicola Bulley, since 27th January 2023, was also poorly reported; there were no suggestions of violence and abuse, but the focus on her past alcohol history and being “peri-menopausal” already sent a dismal portrayal of her. Her body was found 23 days later. Bulley’s family had expressed distraught as they saw the media press had “misquoted and vilified Bulley’s friends and family”.
Victim blaming and family of victim-blaming media narrative do not help with future femicide deaths.
The patriarchal cultural belief that “high-achieving women” is what provoked their male partners into killing them, as indicated by the Daily Mail in the case of Emma Pattinson, can be strengthened and perpetuated by headlines and articles from tabloids that’d rather focus on explaining male violence as “actions out of character”.
However, it should be pointed out that the media language was very different when Caroline Flack, a celebrity well-known as Love Island presenter, was charged with assaulting her boyfriend Lewis Burton, and was prosecuted by CPS (Criminal Prosecution Service). The tabloids’ language depicted Caroline Flack as a “toxic woman” and an abuser in all her relationships.
This does not minimise the very high numbers of male victims of domestic abuse and homicide: ManKind Initiative published a report in April 2021, stating that 2.9 million men between the ages of 16–74 were domestic abuse victims, compared to 5.9 million female victims (2019- 2020); between March 2018–2020, out of 362 victims of domestic homicide, 86 were men.
Nevertheless, it is a starching difference in how the media portrays domestic femicide as “what did the woman do to make him angry and kill her?” compared to a domestic androcide as “what is wrong with that woman to become violent?”
The avoidance of media in reporting the complexity, risky and uncomfortable issue of domestic violence can result in the negative stigma attached to the victims of femicide.
By avoiding discussion on the high prevalence of femicide, by “normalising” the gruesome actions as “to be expected” from men in our culture, by blaming the victim, and finally by blaming the police and criminal justice system, then the individual male perpetrators in each case are avoided public opinion’s blame and are sympathised as “having acted out” due to being provoked or as being deviant from “normal behaviour”. However, these men often demonstrated controlling, gaslighting and manipulative behaviour toward their female victims. In 2020, 42 (53%) perpetrators were known to have previous histories of violence against women.
The UK charity Level Up campaigned for a press code of conduct on how to report intimate partner homicides sensibly. This campaign has been adopted by leading press regulators IMPRESS (Independent Monitor for the Press) and IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) since 2019.
Zero Tolerance, a Scottish charity aiming to end male violence against women and girls, has also released detailed guidelines for media reporting and a language guide on femicide cases, cases of violence against women and girls, and cases where men have been victims of violence.
Time for all media narratives to adhere to these.