By Nour Haydar
In 2015, I was shocked by the news of 17- year-old Masa Vukotic’s murder at the hands of serial sex offender Sean Price in Doncaster. A fortnight later, my mother’s picture hit the front page.
My mum, Salwa Haydar, was murdered a month before my university graduation. I remember swearing off becoming a journalist because I resented reporters prodding for interviews with my sisters and me only hours after our dad had stabbed our mum to death.
As I lay awake in the days after my mum’s burial, the disappearance of Leeton teacher Stephanie Scott filled the headlines. Julie Hutchinson. Daniela D’Addario. Melita Hart. Linda Locke. Seker Yildiz. Leila Alavi. Rose Maries Sheehy. Brittany Harvie. Rebecca Webb. Norma Ludlum. Tiffany Taylor. Anna Hay. Tara Brown. Karina Lock. A total of 80 women across Australia died violent deaths that year. Counting Dead Women estimates 80 per cent of those deaths were at the hands of a partner or former partner.
My siblings’ Facebook inboxes were flooded with messages from journalists, and these requests made me angry and anxious. The media intrigue in our trauma felt insensitive, and responding to journalists’ questions trivial when our mother’s body still lay in the morgue. I also feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming.
I questioned the role and value of the news media in our lives when incomprehensible and seemingly unpreventable acts of violence could happen without warning. But my mum was one of few people who encouraged me to pursue journalism, so after her death I reluctantly went ahead with a news producing internship I had previously lined up. At first, the job was a welcome distraction, but working in a newsroom soon proved to be anything but.
I feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming.
Countless police media releases about the violent deaths of women in our neighbourhoods have continued to drop into my email inbox with a faint ping. They punctuate my weekly routine and remind me of the trauma and heartache I share with an ever-growing group of Australians who have lost their mothers, sisters, daughters and friends to men’s violence.
As I scan the emails, I am not surprised to learn that in most cases police have charged a man known to the victim. A-fucking-nother-one. I can’t help but imagine how a similar statement would have been sent out to my peers in the early hours of March 31 2015:
Police were called to a property in Bexley after reports of a stabbing. A 46-year-old woman was found with lacerations to her arms, neck and torso. She was pronounced dead at the scene. A 60-year-old man, believed to be known to the woman, has been arrested and charged after attending Kogarah police station.
I take a deep whiff of air through my nose and exhale to ease the building tremor in my chest.
After Adrian Bailey raped and murdered Jill Meagher in 2013, her husband Tom Meagher wrote about the “danger of the monster myth”. He describes his visceral reaction to hearing Bailey speak in coherent and intelligible sentences in court as he was committed to trial. Meagher states that he had previously sought self-comfort by dismissing violent men as “psychotic or sociopathic aberrations” to avoid “the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions”.
Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help.
As I struggled to make sense of my father’s brutal crime, I naively insisted to a constable taking my initial police statement that my dad’s actions were unforeseeable and unimaginable because I had a “normal family”. With a voice full of pity she replied, ‘That’s what most people who sit in that chair tell me’.
The way I understood my parents’ relationship began to unravel. I was forced to confront that what I had accepted to be a “normal” marriage was a grossly unequal and abusive one. Like Meagher, I also had a distorted perception of the type of man capable of committing physical violence and murder. It was a flawed image that had allowed me to dismiss my mother’s fears and overlook the subtle controlling, belittling and manipulative behaviours exhibited by my father. I had thought men capable of such brutal crimes were inherently unlikeable and aggressive. They certainly were not personable, law abiding and university educated like my father had been. I know now that they can be both.
The media can use its influence to inform victims of domestic and family violence to recognise the many ways in which abuse can manifest – and that it doesn’t have to be physical before it becomes fatal. Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help. Good reporting can teach others to identify what I learnt before it is too late.
In fact, it can go a step further. As Rosie Batty observed, “media are uniquely placed to help stop violence before it starts.” Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step that can help encourage victims to tell and own their stories and experiences – and you cannot underestimate the liberation that comes with that. But curbing the staggering number of women being assaulted and murdered in Australia, and indeed around the world, won’t happen solely because victim blaming headlines and sensational and distasteful teases have been eradicated.
Violence against women in all its forms is pervasive, but it’s preventable. Perpetrators of domestic violence are amongst our readers, listeners and viewers. Responsible media reporting challenges men to reconsider toxic behaviours, encourages younger readers to adopt respectful attitudes towards women, and recognises that the driving force behind violence against women is gender inequality.
Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step.
For generations the media has been complicit in condoning domestic violence by remaining silent. There has been a significant shift in recent years that has seen bouts of coverage about this epidemic, but it’s often limited to individual cases, in particular those perceived to be more vicious. Given the scale and prevalence of violence against women, it deserves greater and sustained scrutiny. Flawed policies that contradict expert advice, like the Morrison government’s recent decision to fund couples counselling, should be interrogated. The government must rectify the systemic failures and underfunding that keep women, particularly those from Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, in danger.
Positive change in the industry is being made — overwhelmingly by my female peers. Our Watch and the Walkley Foundation last year established the inaugural Our Watch Fellowship. I was fortunate enough to participate in the program alongside 13 insightful and fierce journalists committed to gender equality and safe, respectful reporting on violence against women. Our Watch has also created media reporting guidelines that are designed to uphold the dignity of dead women. If followed, they can limit the retraumatisation of victims and grieving families. They are there to ensure journalists contextualise domestic violence, which is insidious and remains largely invisible.
We need to talk more about domestic violence, but when we do, we must make sure our words and actions are doing more good than harm.
Nour Haydar is a multiplatform journalist with ABC News covering politics. She is an advocate against gender based violence and in 2019 she was awarded the inaugural Our Watch fellowship.