Last week Nicola Sturgeon launched the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, making Scotland one of the first countries in the world to criminalise coercive control and psychological abuse.
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 member
Layla-Roxanne Hill, writer & NUJ member
Fiona Davidson, journalist & NUJ member
Jennifer Jones, academic, media practitioner & UCU member
Jacq Kelly, journalist & NUJ member
Sharon Greenwood, PhD candidate, University of Glasgow
Vonnie Sandlan, President NUS Scotland
Mo McRoberts, media practitioner
Sandy Thomson Theatre Director and Playwright
Jenna Condie, Western Sydney University
Elaine Gallagher, writer
Ishbel MacDonald, TV Producer/Director
Sarah Currier, Glasgow Feminist Collective
Fiona Dunn, survivor
Katherine Mackinnon, volunteer coordinator, Refugee Survival Trust/co-convener, Glasgow Green Party
Ella Leith, academic
Alison Mayne, academic
Avril and Dave McEwan Hill
Oisín Murphy-Lawless, LLM student in Human Rights
Dr Stewart Smith, freelance journalist, academic & UCU member
Sarah Anderson - Scottish Green Party Renfrewshire Council Candidate
Bruce Scharlau, University of Aberdeen
Bob McGoran Educationist
Malcolm Jack, freelance journalist
Emma Smith, writer, musician & Communityusic leader
Geetha Marcus, University of Glasgow
Sheena Fraser, former WA Worker, WFI Activist
Dr Catriona Stewart Chair SWAN: Scottish Women's Autism Network.
Jane Barton, Scottish Women's Autism Network
Mary Macmaster, musician
Hania Elkington, Screenwriter
Elizabeth Alderdice, Neuro-diversity Activist
Dr. Ann McClintock, retired university lecturer in Psychology & Communication
Mike Press, Emeritus Professor and service designer
Fraser Stewart, Researcher, School of Government & Public Policy, University of Strathclyde
Hazel White, Open Change
Dr. Karla Perez Portilla, Discrimination and Media lawyer
Irene MacKinnon, former journalist
Nadia Maloney, Managing Director, Unchained International
Nabu White, survivor and social worker
Sheena Wellington, singer
A Crow, doctor, poet, Scottish Green Party member
Dr Elizabeth Hutchin-Bellur, freelance historian
Kirstie Paton Freelance Designer/ ex production journalist
Akwugo Emejulu, University of Warwick
Heidi Gardner, University of Aberdeen
Sekai Machache, Artist
Edward Gillespie, PDMS Engineer.
Ding Wang, PhD Candidate, Lancaster University
Daniela Sannino - University of Edinburgh
Ashley mclennan. human.
Dr Imogen McKenzie, Social & Women's Historian & Archaeologist
Dr Carey Normand, academic
Karen Cuthbert, Doctoral researcher, University of Glasgow
Erin Farley Doctoral researcher, University of Strathclyde
Dr Amy Watson, University of Strathclyde
Julia Daramy-Williams, musician
Lisa-Marie Ferla, blogger and journalist
Dr Clementine Hill O'Connor, Researcher
ly h Kerr
Margie MacDonald-Atkin, Mental Health Project Worker, Historian, Women's Issues
Karen Dietz; parent; musician
Miranda, passionate ND women supporter & author
Victoria Wylie, Artist & Designer
R Reid - Woman
Dr Aileen M Stackhouse, Woman, Mother, Artist and Blogger
Emma Clarkson, Early Education & Childcare Practitioner
Jen Stout, writer and NUJ member
Lena Wånggren (University of Edinburgh)
Dr Claire Evans-Williams; The Autism Academy UK