We originally asked The Herald to publish a letter in response to Iain Macwhirter's column (link: http://goo.gl/vVcE98) on the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill. They were initially open to this, but then declined to publish it. A separate approach was agreed by The Herald, requesting we draft a version as an article in response to the column, but this too, once submitted, was declined. They saw the response letter/article as a personal attack on Macwhirter, imputing attitudes or motives that weren't his. However, we believe that both the tone and the content of his original column clearly support the need for a response.
This is an updated version of what was sent to The Herald:
A ‘hot take’ column by Herald political editor Iain Macwhirter last Monday, however, criticised the Bill, dismissing it as “mince”. Yes, any attempt to police private relationships comes with clear challenges and risks. For many though, the Bill seemed a positive step towards understanding and handling the complex problem of domestic abuse differently.
Reading Macwhirter’s article got a group of female members of the National Union of Journalists talking. Not just about his clickbait-generating opinion piece, which we found problematic and dangerous, but about those who hold power within media channels.
Macwhirter’s views will be read, largely unchallenged, by a wide audience who trust and respect his expertise. His negative response to the Bill, which was based on expert research and evidence, seemed shaped by off-the-cuff opinion, personal anecdotes and BBC dramas like The Replacement and The Archers.
“Family life is not for cissies,” said Macwhirter (yes, you read right, “cissies”). “Passing legislation makes politicians feel good and pleases women’s groups. But I fear that there are going to be lots of cases of ‘he said-she said’ coming before perplexed sheriffs.”
According to Macwhirter, a certain amount of bad behaviour and cruelty is par for the course in a couple, and doesn’t warrant any interference from the authorities.
“Everyone knows couples who seem to be in a state of constant low-level verbal violence, where they put each other down at dinner parties or in the pub. They get drunk and argue and say terrible things to each other – then the next day they are back to normal. Sometimes this kind of behaviour is almost a form of sexual foreplay.”
To minimise the damaging psychological abuse experienced by many in Scotland as not only unimportant, but also a bit of a turn-on, is fist-bitingly misjudged. It contributes to silencing the many who struggle to speak out about mistreatment and terrifying situations they have become trapped in.
Macwhirter also indicated a disturbingly old school, potentially toxic approach to romantic relationships. Undermining a woman’s confidence in order to establish the upper hand for sexual reasons was precisely what the dating guru Julien Blanc, aka the pick-up artist, outlined as his successful tactic of “negging”. Blanc was banned from entering the UK back in 2014 after more than 150,000 people signed a petition to deny him a visa.
“‘Checking a partner’s access to social media is apparently to become evidence of a crime punishable by five years in jail,” said Macwhirter. “As is ‘repeatedly putting them down and telling them they are worthless’. Better not tell drill sergeants or rugby coaches.”
Comparing power tactics of humiliation and degradation used by army and sports bosses to a coercive, dysfunctional domestic relationship is another worrying indication of Macwhirter’s lack of understanding.
Several women’s groups found his comments shockingly out of touch, and offered to educate Macwhirter on the realities of coercion and psychological control.
“Happy to discuss the 40 years' worth of evidence from women, children, police, and prosecutors that underpins this Bill,” tweeted Dr Marsha Scott, head of Scottish Women’s Aid, a Scottish organisation working towards the prevention of domestic abuse.
Macwhirter also faced criticism from the likes of former MSP Malcolm Chisholm, who said it was the worst article the journalist had ever written. Others drew parallels to historical objections when the concept of marital rape was introduced to law.
Jennifer Jones, who runs Media for Communities, and recently submitted a PhD on mainstream media and alternative narratives, says we see this kind of article all the time.
“Someone becomes the self-proclaimed protagonist, the expert on, and subject of the experience. In this case it’s a male, grabbing the mic, using their space (here, a news column) to speak loudly, while probably protected by a newsroom, and not held accountable. His words perpetuate this ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative about women, and ‘women’s groups’.
“In fact, we need to be having a discussion about how we report domestic abuse - as we did about mental health five or six years ago. We need to destigmatise certain aspects - Iain’s words play into a perpetrator’s hands and further silence the marginalised groups we are trying to protect and give a voice to.”
Brenna Jessie, external affairs officer at Scottish Women’s Aid, which also runs the Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage 24-hour helpline, says they are pleased Macwhirter has accepted their invitation to come in for a constructive conversation.
“We just wish he’d chatted with experts before writing that column. It said some unhelpful things - but in a way his comments could end up being useful. It opens up the conversation, to engage with these wrong, outdated assumptions.
"The Bill is necessary and it’s a huge opportunity, a paradigm shift in how we think of domestic abuse. At the moment, the law primarily allows us to deal with one-off incidents of physical violence, but that’s not reflective of patterns of control and intimidation that we see in women and children’s lived experience of abuse.
"No-one is saying men don’t experience domestic abuse either - the Bill encompasses everyone, but at SWA we recognise that women are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse and all forms of gender-based violence. His column revealed a fundamental lack of understanding and we’re pleased he’s coming in for a chat.” It will be interesting to hear how Macwhirter responds to what expert organisations and academics are saying, and if his column, in a roundabout way, can actually bring any positive changes to views around psychological abuse and its treatment by law.
We also want to highlight the need for constructive discussion as to how The Herald and other media outlets can prioritise the safety of people in our society, and make sure traffic-generating opinion pieces don’t triumph over fact.
We are planning to organise an inclusive co-design session to draft guidelines around reporting on domestic abuse, and on wider reporting on issues that disproportionately affect women - and we mean women in the most inclusive sense. If you would be interested in participating let us know.
And if you support our response, please add your signature below.
Claire Sawers, freelance journalist & NUJ member Rachel Hamada, journalist & NUJ memberLayla-Roxanne Hill, writer & NUJ memberFiona Davidson, journalist & NUJ memberJennifer Jones, academic, media practitioner & UCU memberJacq Kelly, journalist & NUJ memberSharon Greenwood, PhD candidate, University of GlasgowVonnie Sandlan, President NUS ScotlandMo McRoberts, media practitionerSandy Thomson Theatre Director and PlaywrightJenna Condie, Western Sydney University Zoe BarrowMalcolm ChisholmEilidh LeanElaine Gallagher, writerIshbel MacDonald, TV Producer/DirectorSarah Currier, Glasgow Feminist CollectiveLauren AitchisonFiona Dunn, survivorKatherine Mackinnon, volunteer coordinator, Refugee Survival Trust/co-convener, Glasgow Green Party Ella Leith, academicRebecca LaiFiona HunterAlison Mayne, academicAvril and Dave McEwan HillOisín Murphy-Lawless, LLM student in Human RightsGraeme LyonDr Stewart Smith, freelance journalist, academic & UCU memberSarah Anderson - Scottish Green Party Renfrewshire Council CandidateBruce Scharlau, University of AberdeenGemma Docherty Bob McGoran EducationistMalcolm Jack, freelance journalistEmma Smith, writer, musician & Communityusic leaderGeetha Marcus, University of GlasgowSheena Fraser, former WA Worker, WFI ActivistLou McGillDr Catriona Stewart Chair SWAN: Scottish Women's Autism Network.Doug BondJane Barton, Scottish Women's Autism NetworkEllie JamesMary Macmaster, musicianRoss StevensonHania Elkington, ScreenwriterFaz AzizElizabeth Alderdice, Neuro-diversity ActivistSarah Beattie-SmithPeta DewarDr. Ann McClintock, retired university lecturer in Psychology & CommunicationMike Press, Emeritus Professor and service designerFraser Stewart, Researcher, School of Government & Public Policy, University of StrathclydeChristopher NapierHazel White, Open ChangeDr. Karla Perez Portilla, Discrimination and Media lawyerMontse CasamayorMonica MartinsHannah SalomeSarah HayhurstIrene MacKinnon, former journalistAlison GormleyNadia Maloney, Managing Director, Unchained International Nabu White, survivor and social worker Robert SandlanSusan MorrisonGiulia TrentacostiSheena Wellington, singerA Crow, doctor, poet, Scottish Green Party memberLucy GrantDr Elizabeth Hutchin-Bellur, freelance historianKirstie Paton Freelance Designer/ ex production journalist Akwugo Emejulu, University of WarwickKaye SymingtonHeidi Gardner, University of AberdeenLorraine HosieKaren MacMillanSekai Machache, ArtistEdward Gillespie, PDMS Engineer.Joan Newbigging Ding Wang, PhD Candidate, Lancaster UniversityTamsin RussellDaniela Sannino - University of EdinburghAshley mclennan. human.Dr Imogen McKenzie, Social & Women's Historian & ArchaeologistDr Carey Normand, academicClaire HeadspeathCaitlin McNeillJoan ForbesKaren Cuthbert, Doctoral researcher, University of Glasgow Erin Farley Doctoral researcher, University of StrathclydeRebecca McKinlayDr Amy Watson, University of StrathclydeIan Macbeth Nicola MunroFie CunninghamJulia Daramy-Williams, musician Jane CarnallLisa-Marie Ferla, blogger and journalistDr Clementine Hill O'Connor, Researcher Paul Dariganly h KerrLaura HillMargie MacDonald-Atkin, Mental Health Project Worker, Historian, Women's Issues Karen Dietz; parent; musicianMiranda, passionate ND women supporter & authorVictoria Wylie, Artist & DesignerR Reid - WomanDoug MorrisonCaroline HiggsDr Aileen M Stackhouse, Woman, Mother, Artist and Blogger Alastair BallochPaul MaslinEmma Clarkson, Early Education & Childcare Practitioner Kirsty PatersonJen Stout, writer and NUJ member Kimberley BrightKirsty StansfieldAmanda TurnerLena Wånggren (University of Edinburgh)Dr Claire Evans-Williams; The Autism Academy UK