On New Year’s Eve, 44-year-old Melanie Clark was stabbed to death by her husband. Her sons, aged 23 and 20, returned home to find their mother dead and their house swarming with police officers. Just 12 minutes into 2018, Melanie was the first woman in the UK this year to be murdered by her partner.
By June, her husband and murderer David Clark was in court, and the media had twisted Melanie’s death into a salacious spectacle. Headlines read “Wife jibes about penis size and lesbian tryst ‘drove hubby to murder’” and “Husband killed his wife after she mocked the size of his penis”. The Mirror printed a giant photo of a woman in her underwear, whom the killer in court claimed had been Melanie’s lesbian lover. The whole murder was reported from the point of view of her killer, and, given that she was dead, Melanie did not get the right of reply.
I can’t imagine anything more unfair, or undignified, than total strangers speculating on why someone I loved had been murdered – citing “reasons” that are just the depraved excuses of her killer. Violent men are obsessively controlling, and murder is their final act of ultimate control. But as it stands, the press gives them control of the narrative afterwards too. I don’t know if Melanie was open about her sexuality with her family or sons, or whether this was her husband further humiliating her even after her death.
Domestic homicides like this are not random. They are usually underpinned by a longstanding pattern of controlling and possessive behaviours. But themedia rarely portray this accurately, which only compounds the grief of bereaved children such as Luke and Ryan Hart, whoco-authored a bookon coercive control after their father murdered their mother and sister in 2016.
Ryan Harttold the Guardian last year: “I was shocked at the ease with which others, sitting behind their desks, could explain our tragedy away within an afternoon.” He says now: “It was very difficult to read that they were sympathising with a man who caused Mum and Charlotte misery their entire lives. One writer even dared use the word ‘understandable’ to justify why they were murdered.”
No family should ever have to go through this. And we can make sure they don’t. It’s been done before withsuicide reporting, thanks to aSamaritans campaignthat changed the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) editors’ code. It’s time to apply a similar sensitivity to domestic violence deaths, not only because of the traumatic impact it has on victims’ families, but because, as with suicide, accurate reporting could play a vital role in preventing more deaths, both by contextualising the killings within controlling relationships, and suggesting support services for those who need them.
It’s time to put an end to irresponsible reporting, which is why I’m campaigning for IPSO to update its code to regulate how domestic homicides are reported. If you want to give dignity to women when their deaths are featured in the press,join Level Up’s campaign.Two women a week are murderedby a partner or ex-partner in the UK. This means that by this time next year, 104 women will have been killed by their partners or ex-partners. As a society we should be doing all we can to reduce this number, and the press has a huge role to play.
We have produced media guidelines to help journalists responsibly report on domestic violence deaths. It’s simple: avoid speculative “reasons”, avoid invasive, insensitive or graphic details, or images that compromise a woman’s dignity. And most importantly, name the crime as domestic violence and include the national helpline number. We produced these guidelines in consultation with domestic violence experts and victims’ families (including the Hart brothers, and Frank Mullane, the brother ofJulia Pemberton, who, with her teenage son William, was murdered by her ex-husband).
In January 2019, a year on from Melanie’s death, IPSO will renew its editors’ code. It is the largest press regulatory body in the UK, and if its code helps journalists responsibly report on suicide and eating disorders, it must do the same for domestic violence deaths. If the editors’ code had included such a clause last January, Melanie Clark’s memory would never have been dragged through the mud. And maybe, if the press starts reporting on domestic violence deaths more accurately, we can stop more women dying.