The media ‘spectacle’ of Nigella Lawson’s domestic abuse

The sensationalist coverage of the domestic violence inflicted in public on celebrity chef Nigella Lawson has the potential to normalise the behaviour. EPA/Sebastien Nogier

There is something concerning about the media coverage of Charles Saatchi’s violence against his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. It is the willingness of the news media to reproduce images of Lawson’s abuse.

The incident has not just served as a graphic reminder of the pervasiveness of men’s violence against women; nor just to note how quick society can be to blame the victim in cases of family violence or turn a blind eye to such “private” matters.

This type of sensationalist coverage can have a dangerous, if unintended, effect. When the news media acts voyeuristically in instances of domestic violence (for example, by reproducing images of abuse), it can serve to normalise such violence. Studies have long documented that the viewing of violence can lead to desensitisation and reduced tendency to intervene or feel sympathy for the victim.

A media study commissioned by VicHealth and undertaken by Jenny Morgan and Violeta Politoff of the University of Melbourne emphasised the role of the media in shaping how people understand men’s violence against women.

The repetition of myths and construction of social norms regarding men’s violence in the media has been found to shape not only public attitudes towards victims and perpetrators of violence, but also has affected rates of conviction and policy-making.

The reproduction of graphic images of domestic violence may be read by men who act violently towards women as an implicit approval of their actions. As one blogger noted, the problem with “rape jokes” is that:

Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.

The same may be true for violent men. A quick read through the comments on any of the news articles covering the story will show how many people question the legitimacy of the label “abuse” in the Lawson case. And those are the comments not weeded out by moderators.

For decades, the media has ascribed to a code of conduct that has meant most outlets will not report on incidents of suicide unless it is of particular public interest. A similarly sensitive approach should be taken with instances of domestic violence.

The Australian Press Council has a list of standards to guide journalists in this regard. It includes cautions to not describe the suicide in detail and to not “sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides”. These reports should also not be given “undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images”.

The reasons for these standards are clear – to avoid unnecessary harm or hurt to either the family or friends of the victim, or to others who have attempted suicide themselves. Why is such sensitivity not afforded to those affected by domestic violence?

One billion women around the world are said to experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. EPA/S. Sabawoon

By no means should a silencing of the issue of men’s violence against women be advocated, or any form of victim shaming be suggested. As public figures, there’s a case to be made for this story being in the public interest, and shedding light on it may help to raise awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence. However, it is the nature of these images and their presentation in the media that is disturbing.

The full page image in UK newspaper The People shows the incident in question, Saatchi’s hands at Lawson’s throat, and Lawson looking frightened. The accompanying headline calls the incident a “bust up” and a “boiling point” in the couple’s relationship. As Sarah Ditum points out, the photograph appears to be an opportunistic shot by paparazzi, with:

…no sign in the attached copy that the photographer made any effort to ensure Lawson’s safety before clicking the trigger.

Perhaps even more insidious than the normalising effect of such media portrayal of men’s violence against women is the fact that there is an industry of people making their living off of this violence. The media voyeurism in this case is both opportunistic and exploitative, while problematically co-opting feminist discourse towards their less laudable ends of making a buck.

The image of Lawson’s abuse has become a commodity in the global media. Real people are making real money off the abuse inflicted upon one particular woman, when the unfortunate reality is that this violence mirrors that experienced by one billion women around the world.

The reproduction of images of Lawson’s abuse does not, therefore, represent ethical reporting on men’s violence against women. Her abuse has been fetishised by the global media, decontextualised from the broader issue of men’s violence against women and objectified as an independent spectacle.

This instance of abuse has been divorced from the wider social context of men’s violence, its prevalence, and the underlying social and structural causes. Instead, it is made out as an individual phenomenon, sensationalised to evoke an emotional response rather than informed discussion or concerted action.

Part of addressing the problem of men’s violence against women is acknowledging the role of male privilege and socialisation in the perpetration of violence as root causes of this widespread issue. We cannot separate out the “bad men”, pathologising this form of violence and attempting to “fix” the bad guys.

Men who act violently operate in the same social context of sexism, the valorisation of violence, and social structures of male domination - as do “good men”. It is the collective socialisation that has for so long justified violence against women. And it is the social construction and experience of being a man that leads some men to act violently toward women, and leads many to turn a blind eye.

I am not advocating turning a blind eye to this instance of abuse. However, I think we have an obligation to represent domestic violence ethically – to not sensationalise, individualise, and to place in appropriate context of the root causes of men’s violence against women.