Zero Tolerance – Positive Futures

c8lwcttxuaiajmlTaking the first steps to changing a toxic media into an empowering one have begun. By Claire Sawers, freelance journalist, and Jennifer Jones, academic and founder of Media for Communities.

Last night Zero Tolerance launched the ‘Write to End Violence Against Women’ Pledge in Glasgow, along with representatives from Engender, Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid. Zero Tolerance’s pledge offers best practice advice for the reporting of violence against women and girls (VAWG), including running free seminars for media professionals on the causes of VAWG, and asking journalists to refer to statistics rather than individual incidents, to provide the audience with the “bigger picture”.

“The Scottish press play a key role in influencing public opinion around men’s violence towards women and girls,” said Liz Ely (right), co-director of Zero Tolerance. “At Zero Tolerance we seek to work constructively with all sections of the media to support an increased understanding of the reality of men’s violence in Scotland. This is why we launched the ‘Write to End Violence Against Women Media’ Pledge which lays out our commitments to support media outlets covering this issue as well as guidelines for journalists and editors to aid responsible coverage.

Violence is a daily reality for too many women in Scotland. By signing up to this pledge journalists, editors and media outlets can signal their intention to be part of preventing men’s violence, rather than supporting myths which perpetuate it.”

The launch was followed by a Q&A, where Paul Holleran, Scottish organiser of NUJ, told how the NUJ first issued guidelines for reporting on mental health 24 years ago. He told the audience at the ZT launch that Scotland is now held up as a global example for treating the subject responsibly in the media. Thanks to the guidelines, with cooperation from the press, Police Scotland, Samaritans, Choose Life and See Me, there has been a huge drop in the number of copycat suicides. It’s taken over two decades for these ideas of how to discuss mental health to trickle into the mainstream, and for workplaces and other organisations to get onboard, but there has been a definite rise in public awareness.

“Violence is a daily reality for too many women in Scotland. By signing up to this pledge journalists, editors and media outlets can signal their intention to be part of preventing men’s violence, rather than supporting myths which perpetuate it.”

“There are so many experts on violence against women – we should be using this wealth of expertise when reporting,” tweeted Zero Tolerance. “We have to make sure the readers have an appetite for the gold standard of media reporting,” they added.

As for the problem that women face online from trolls, particularly when talking about issues around VAWG, arts journalist Vonny Moyes recommended her survival tactic of, “seeking out other voices, promoting them and amplifying them to drown out the negativity.”

In the crowd were also a group of women who’d got together after reading a column in The Herald a few weeks back. Four members of the National Union of Journalists, and one academic who specialises in alternative media. To quickly recap, the paper’s political editor, Iain Macwhirter wrote about the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, saying it was “fraught with danger”. Although he insisted afterwards that he wasn’t, it read to many as though he was doing exactly what Zero Tolerance warns against, using an inappropriate tone and casually minimising the damaging effects of psychological abuse – brushing it off as, “almost a form of sexual foreplay.”

People started sharing the piece – some agreed that legislation on psychological abuse and coercive control would be tough to implement. But the reason politicians, academics, service providers and abuse survivors started weighing in with their objections online and offline, was the column’s tone. Something about the language, the veiled messages, the things Iain wasn’t quite saying, seemed way off. Fraught with danger, even. He paraphrased Bette Davis, saying, “Family life is not for cissies.” There was a dismissive, “no big deal” tone to the piece, an underlying mistrust of “women’s groups”, and what appeared to be a pretty dangerous lack of any evidence from experts or abuse organisations to back up his views.

The five of us started chatting about how common this kind of article is. Writers of opinion columns are under constant pressure to generate reactive, controversial pieces – hot potatoes that will get readers engaging and sharing, and boost traffic online. Conversation and debate is healthy – but perpetuating dangerous myths on a well-read, public platform, especially without researching the realities – not so much.

We talked about how we could respond. We knew it was never a personal attack on Iain – even if his words in that particular column had us face-palming ourselves in dismay. Since then, Iain has taken up Scottish Women’s Aid’s offer and gone into their offices for a chat. SWA welcomes the launch of the Bill as an opportunity to discuss the practicalities and workability of the legislation, and share their expertise in domestic abuse with other journalists, editors and reporters.

The article last month was just another everyday example of domestic abuse and violence against women being portrayed in a problematic way in the printed press. (Domestic abuse obviously does not affect only women, but statistically has a disproportionate impact on them.) We wanted to open up the conversation and see how others felt.

We approached The Herald initially, asking if they’d be interested in running a response letter from us. After lots of back and forth (catch up here), and two turn-downs for a letter then an article, we published an open letter to see if anyone else felt the same way. With 167 signatures gathered in a week – there were clearly plenty others who did.

The next steps are about encouraging more dialogue around this complex subject. The launch of the Zero Tolerance Media Pledge shows a desire to challenge the myths and preconceptions in the media around VAWG. It’s also a good opportunity to share Zero Tolerance’s guidelines on responsible media reporting of VAWG again, which recognises the problem of “chronic stereotyping” and “over trivialising”. It encourages “conscientious journalists” to consider the survivor’s perspectives when they’re writing, and also links to the numerous support groups for those affected by domestic abuse in Scotland.

Just as the five of us all felt more comfortable, and less likely to be targeted by trolls by linking up, we’d like to extend a safe place to others, or speak up on behalf of those who might be too scared to. Plans are underway to organise an open meeting, where we can ask people what steps they think should be taken next. We are also keen to work with alternative media platforms, such as Bella Caledonia, who are putting together a database of women writers and experts [ JOIN UP HERE ], to ensure inclusive and proactive commentary and dialogue about the issues that disproportionately affect women, and highlight underrepresented communities in the media.

We want to keep looking at ways in which we can we support and represent the voices of those who are unheard or deliberately silenced – both online and IRL – maybe because they have restricted access to their social media (another area of coercive control addressed in the new legislation), or no computer or smartphone, for example.

There isn’t an easy fix to institutionalised misogyny, but tackling it is also a way of galvanising like-minded people, who’d like to protect and support vulnerable people in our communities. Encouraging ethical journalism, challenging misconceptions, unpacking dangerous clichés, working directly with women’s groups and allies to try and spread the messages they would like to put out (by alternative media, and citizen journalism if that’s more effective) and calling out writers who glibly take us back to the 1970s on a daily basis – we’ll continue to look for ways to bring about positive changes, just as we believe the Domestic Abuse Bill is striving to do.

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    In my reading on World War 2, it would seem that vast, systemic violence against women and girls is largely unremarked upon in the mainstream depictions in the UK, except to comment on Red Army rapists. The ‘cult’ of WW2, which is popularised by documentaries, dramas and computer-video games as well as histories, appears to concentrate more on battles, male personalities, derring-do and technology.

    However, in historian Sean Longden’s book To the Victor the Spoils (covering British and Canadian soldiers in the 21st army group from D-Day to victory in Europe) the author turns up much troubling evidence in records and ex-servicemen interviews/questionnaires. The war obviously changed people, who committed crimes abroad (like looting but also crimes against the person including rape) that they presumably wouldn’t have done at home. What happened when those soldiers returned home? And what happened during the occupation of Germany when the population was exceptionally vulnerable?

    In historian Miriam Gebhardt’s book Crimes Unspoken: The Rape of German Women at the End of the Second World War, the author argues that (male) historians have used flawed assumptions about violence against women and girls, and (persuasively, I think) draws on later feminist-inspired methodology to suggest that all the Allies committed such crimes (and asserts that the GIs of the USA started raping Allied woman as soon as they landed in Britain and continued through occupied Europe). She makes the point that the British recorded less rape than the USA, Soviets or French, but that may be partly due to certain sensitivities/hypocrisies, and says more research is needed.

    And in his book Among the dead cities by AC Grayling, the philosopher examines the moral question about targeting civilians in war, using the bombing of German cities (which disproportionately fell on women, children and old people) as his case study.

    So what effect did WW2 (stripped of its myths) really have on violence against women and girls, and mysogyny in cultures? Gerhardt is convincing in her depiction of a long, dark shadow cast over the victims, some of whom are in nursing homes and still get panic attacks over half a century later triggered by some current detail. Are the perpetrators, the witnesses, the people who heard the stories also affected by this long shadow?

  2. Jo says:

    I find this whole sort of approach problematic to be honest and my position isn’t helped by the, sort of, attack on Iain MacWhirter. I happen to think he was right about how difficult this proposed new law will be to enforce.

    What I would really like to see a lot of money spent on is in educating children from as early as possible about violence within relationships and how vital it is for the person being bullied to walk away as soon as the first blow has been struck or the first sign of intimidation appears.

    Since the writers here are concerned here only with women let’s go with that. How many who chose not to walk away after the first sign of intimidation or violence would say that was a good choice? How many chose to stay with that man after the second time, the third time and so on?

    We hear, constantly, how women want to feel “empowered”. Grand. Let’s do that by pointing how how vital it is that any man who shows signs of intimidation or violence should be left immediately and not given another chance. Let’s make it clear that a second chance tells him it’s ok to do it again. Let’s make it clear that bringing children into such environments is madness and potentially teaches a boy child that this is how men behave and a girl child that this is what she should expect from men.

    There are certainly responsibilities to be faced by violent and abusive men. There ate, however, also responsibilities to be faced by women who CHOOSE to stay with such men after the first incident and who even bring helpless children into the mix. Children can’t make big decisions. They need protection too, not just from abusive fathers but from mothers who will not leave that sort of hell.

    We can help those children by teaching them that the time to leave violence in a relationship is the very first time it raises its ugly head. That way a woman leaves at her strongest and able to make that decision. Every time she goes back she is empowering the bully. And she is allowing him to reduce her further and damage her more.

    If the writers are serious about zero tolerance let’s teach all little girls that this begins as soon as abuse of any sort begins at which point the female MUST walk away. Let’s stop ignoring how many women chose /choose not to do that and highlight how wrong that is.

    Let’s have a balanced debate and start by getting this subject into schools so that very young children learn the signs of an abuser as early as possible and also learn that the only way to respond to such a person is to get out of that relationship.

    The most depressing part of this issue is that it’s often implied that women are powerless in such situations. They are not, particularly early on. The long term damage happens because a woman has chosen to go back. And that damage can be horrendous for her and for children in that environment.

    I’d really like to see writers sending out that message rather than having a go at MacWhirter and others for not following their preferred script. That does women in general no favours at all by suggesting they have no way of changing their own lives but are born victims. As a woman I find that appalling.

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