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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

You Won't Read About This In the Media

The call came in from a member of the public. A man was throwing puppies from a tower block. The police officers, who knew the building, correctly predicted that the lift would be out of service. On the eighth floor, behind a door swinging from its hinges, a woman lay bloodied and sobbing. A baby crawled naked on the filthy carpet; a toddler squatted nearby, while a puppy, one of two survivors from a litter of six, gnawed at a discarded nappy. There was no sign of the suspect, an IC1 (white) male.

Journalists and politicians catch glimpses of the realities of other people’s lives, as I did, in this instance, during a week-long ‘embed’ with a police force, or through constituency work. That is not at all the same thing as living those realities.

That matters because what we do, in different ways, shapes and impacts those lives. One reason I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party is that covering Westminster I’d observed firsthand the damaging effects of the too-narrow range of lived experiences represented in our politics. Laws and policies made and administered by and within a bubble of privilege, mostly male, overwhelmingly white, middle class and able-bodied, serve the interests of these demographics at the expense of others. The media, its workforce a mirror image of politics, routinely reinforces these biases.

Seldom has this been more obvious than in the political and media responses to the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer and to the actions of the two policemen who responded to the slaughter of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman not with the professionalism—and horrified sorrow—the victims deserved, but by taking photos and sharing them on WhatsApp.

These events demand so much more than the indulgent outrage of soundbites, of coverage that vents and moves on, of the failure to honour those women with the hard work of making change. You could see this indulgence in the comments of North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Philip Allott, who said that women ‘need to be streetwise’ and ‘learn a bit about the legal process’ to protect themselves, as if our lives are not already governed by an understanding of the very real dangers we face—20% of women in England and Wales have experienced sexual assault, while every year 56,000 report rape and 1.6 million domestic abuse. It is the job of Commissioners to set policing priorities, not to blame the epidemic of violence against women and girls on its victims.

You could see it in the ‘bad apple’ defences that have painted Everard’s killer, the police who let down Henry and Smallman, the 2,000 officers accused of sexual misconduct in the past four years and the 800 alleged cases of domestic abuse among police employees since 2016 as outliers and exceptions. In overlooking the cultural and systemic weaknesses that enable misogyny and violence within the police, every institution responsible, whether formally or informally, for policing the police—from PFCCs and PCCs (most Commissioners do not have remits for the fire service) to police chiefs, politicians and journalists—is letting the public down. At the sharp end are women, people of colour, anyone who is vulnerable and/or a target because of economic circumstances or identity—and who has most need of the services of the police.

Another group is thrown under a bus by these inadequate responses, too: the many police employees doing their jobs with integrity and dedication. The officers I accompanied on the call to the tower block didn’t just administer first aid to the woman who had been badly assaulted by her partner; they comforted her children and secured emergency care for them. In case you wondered, they also found temporary housing for the surviving puppies and contacted an animal charity.

During the week I spent with this particular team, they attended many such calls, witnessed oceans of human misery and did their best to alleviate it. That sort of work takes a toll. Researchers from Cambridge University found that 90% of police employees have been in traumatic situations; one in five showed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder or complex PTSD. Another recent study highlighted not only high rates of mental health concerns among police—77% of more than 12,000 officers surveyed admitted to difficulties—but a reluctance to report these problems for fear of being stigmatised.

There are no quick fixes for any of the things I’ve described, but there are fixes that consist of multiple, smaller steps. Sometimes these involve resignations. Philip Allott apologised for his comments and stood down. On November 25, voters in North Yorkshire will select his successor.

If you haven’t heard about this by-election, I’m not surprised. Voter turnouts in previous PFCC and PCC elections have been low, excitement lower. That’s in part a function of the structural biases of news organisations. No matter how many hand-wringing headlines you see about violence against women, editors lack understanding of its causes and impacts while media culture, in its reductive treatment of women, is as likely to exacerbate as deconstruct the problem. News directors are missing the urgency of this story. Registration for voting closes on 9 November! The deadline to apply for postal ballots is 10 November!

By the way, fewer than a quarter of PFCC and PCC candidates at the last election across England and Wales were women. Oh, and 18 sexual assault claims have been lodged against serving North Yorkshire police officers over five years.

North Yorkshire policing desperately needs strong strategic leadership that puts a top priority on eradicating violence against women and girls and understands this aim not as an attack on the force but as essential to the wellbeing of the public and police. I’m pleased that there are strong contenders in this race and proud that the Women’s Equality Party candidate for the role, Hannah Barham-Brown, brings not only exceptional skills and smarts to the campaign, but also exactly the sort of lived experience in shortest supply in public life. As a Yorkshire-based trainee GP and member of the British Medical Association, she engages with the realities of a wider range of people than most politicians. As a wheelchair user, she understands structural barriers, some of them literal, and vulnerability, herself at heightened and increasing risk of assault.

Does this PFCC election really matter that much, a jaded news editor might ask. It won’t turn the tide. True enough, but transformative change depends on accretions of smaller shifts that combine and gain momentum. Grief for victims means nothing if it fails to translate into action to protect other women, other families. Enough is enough. Every scrap of attention this PFCC contest generates, each moment of clarity about the extent and toll of violence and its horribly everyday ubiquity, will make a difference. And if Hannah is elected—as I hope she will be—that difference will be visible, practical and a model for further change.


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Words ©Catherine Mayer 2021

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