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Veitch case: have media left us any wiser about domestic violence?

Jul 30th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Article, Opinion

SINCE the Dominion Post broke the story on July 7, we have been drenched in coverage of broadcaster Tony Veitch’s alleged violence towards his ex-partner, Kristin Dunne-Powell, and his subsequent payment of compensation with confidentiality agreed.

The DomPo coverage assumed, for the first time as far as I am aware, a public consensus on a domestic violence issue, and seemed to cover the story differently from other media outlets.  The difference was the absence of familiar domestic violence staples of minimising the violence and blaming the victim.

After breaking the allegations, the DomPo slightly misleadingly reported that the assault had spurred an outcry in feedback to their website.  In fact, the website featured a range of views from members of the public – from insisting Mr Veitch should be left alone to condemning his alleged use of violence.  The DomPo also editorialised on July 11 that: “TVNZ has only one option over sports broadcaster and woman-beater Tony Veitch. It must terminate his contract and say he will never work for the state broadcaster again.”

Whether becoming unemployed will help Mr Veitch understand and change his use of violence I will leave to another day.  For now, I am interested in whether coverage of Veitch-gate in the DomPo has been a watershed moment.

Typically when covering violence against women the media fail to present context, ignore evidence-based research, minimise the seriousness of violence and blame the victim.  We also, too often, rush to report statistically atypical cases, such as when women have been violent towards their male partners, or when rape allegations are withdrawn because they are proven to be false.

So is the DomPo signalling a change in approach?  Or has this just been an opportunity to give rival media outlets TVNZ and Radio NZ the bash?

On the whole, media coverage has included a great deal of information about Mr Veitch’s emotional and physical state at the time of the attack.  He was exhausted, working gruelling hours in two demanding jobs, and on medication.

We understand he is sorry, very sorry, for having “lashed out” – as he described the alleged assault in which he struck Ms Dunne-Powell with sufficient force to break bones.  Although this incident has been widely aired, we do not know whether violence was typical in their relationship.  International research on domestic violence suggests one-off assaults are rare.

Many media reports have focused on Ms Dunne-Powell’s acceptance of money in compensation for the assault, including implied criticisms of her decision not to report to the police.  The sub-text here is “if it was that bad, she would have told the police”, with just a hint of “was there really a crime here at all?”

Again, this ignores the facts of domestic violence, which are that even in 2008, most women do not call the police, most of the time – even though a woman is murdered by a male partner or ex-partner every six weeks; even though at least 90% of protection orders are granted to women seeking protection from male partners; even though the police estimate that 85% of male assaults female charges relate to domestic violence.

Without information about how most women victimised by domestic violence behave, including the reasons why women are still reluctant to report to the police, those who learn about domestic violence in the media are likely to draw the conclusion that non-reporting means no crime has taken place.

One reason the media so often reports poorly on issues around violence against women is simply that it is not “news”.  Every day, courts all over the country grant protection orders to desperate women – more or less completely unreported.  “News” demands the unexpected, the unusual, and unfortunately domestic violence stories are mostly pretty much the same – man uses a combination of insults, put-downs, isolation, control of money and resources, with the occasional assault and/or rape to reinforce the other tactics, to keep his female partner pliant, lost and under control.

A 2007 study of media coverage of the Family Court – coverage it was argued the Family Court needed because of accusations of bias against men – showed that not only had the media decided against reporting the majority of cases, but in 33% of articles and 54% of TVNZ items the focus was father’s rights groups.

Comments from journalists quoted in the research suggested the run-of-the-mill “male victimises female” domestic violence cases were too, well, run-of-the-mill to report.  The media coverage of our Family Courts gives the public a skewed image of what is happening there – reporting not on the soul-destroying conveyor belt of abused women and children, but on statistically unusual cases where male litigants are arguing they have been wronged.

This is not balanced, fair reporting.  Although constrained in some reporting situations, the media could give details and context of abuse, but we tend to cut to the chase of the “glamorous” assault.  Perhaps another reason why Mr Veitch’s case was so enthusiastically reported by the DomPo was the level of alleged damage done to his ex-partner.  No tricky – though still illegal – psychological abuse alleged here – he broke bones and that definitely is wrong, right?

The media often do even worse on sexual violence.  Next time you read about a pending rape trial, pay attention to the word “alleged”, conventionally used to ensure an accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  In rape cases, unlike other crimes, reports are often littered with references to both “alleged” victims and “alleged” rape – sometimes even when women have received internal injuries.  This implies the event may not have occurred at all, and/or women routinely lie about rape.

DNA tests should have been good news for rape victims – the age-old defence that “it wasn’t me” is no longer possible.  Instead, rape defendants now argue that it wasn’t rape at all, but consensual sex that the woman is lying about.  Media misuse of “alleged” helps cement this stereotype.

New Zealand has such high rates for rape charges failing to result in prosecutions that government research has been commissioned to investigate.  Criminologist Jan Jordan discovered in 2001 that three rape allegations judged false by New Zealand police were in fact early rapes committed by serial rapists, one of whom went on to rape at least 45 women over the next 13 years.

Both the Law Commission and the New Zealand Law Journal have identified problems in our legal system regarding rape trials, including routine attacks on victims’ credibility in order to defend a case.

Much media coverage of sexual violence also continues to put victims on trial, describing in great detail the clothing a woman was wearing, how late she was out and whether she was drinking, as if any of these things mean an assault is inevitable.  Imagine a street mugging victim being described in a news article as wearing “clothes which flaunted his wealth while he staggered around after a drinking spree, taunting the poor mugger beyond his control”.  Imagine the mugger being found not guilty.

The media must do better at reporting violence against women.  The DomPo’s coverage of Veitch-gate is certainly not unproblematic, but it has provided a contrast to other media coverage in terms of refusing to minimise the violence or blame the victim.

There are alternatives to traditional writing on violence against women, and the media must inform the public about what is known about how this violence happens, and how it can be stopped.  We have a role to play in highlighting gaps in protection for victims, and gaps in services for men who use violence and want to stop – growing numbers of whom are seeking help from agencies woefully under-resourced to deal with them.

We have a role to play in exposing stereotypes for what they are – and all of this can be done while reporting in a fair and balanced way.

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is a student journo who loves to write. Her interests, apart from media slavery, include social justice, music, sports and gardening. Preferably a combination of all four. She doesn't know yet what she wants to be when she grows up.
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