What was the tipping point that brought a long-ignored subject out of the shadows and onto the front pages of the nation’s dailies? Annie Blatchford delves into recent history and asks whether the media’s current interest in the issue of violence against women will lead to real change.
Herald Sun journalist Ellen Whinnett was editing the newspaper the night Jill Meagher disappeared after drinks with her ABC colleagues, and again when the “blue hoodie” man was arrested for the 29-year-old Irish national’s murder.
Whinnett feels closely connected to what became one of the biggest news stories of 2012.
She remembers decoding police communications the night that Meagher disappeared. Senior detectives and the homicide squad had become involved early on, a sign the ‘missing persons’ case was being treated seriously. And she remembers calling her editor insisting that the story of Meagher’s disappearance go on the front page of the next day’s edition.
“We could tell that something was up . . . and that there was not going to be a safe resolution,” Whinnett recalls.
Six days after her disappearance and the media campaign to ‘Find Jill Meagher’, Adrian Bayley was charged with her rape and murder. Ultimately, he would also be convicted of a series of previous rapes, and become a catalyst for heated debate about the inadequacies of Victoria’s parole system.
Jill Meagher’s death invoked a wave of public grief across Australia, stunningly underscored by the many thousands who, a week later, marched through Brunswick in her memory.
But within days, the newspaper was reporting another shocking crime in which a 23-year-old East Kew woman, Sargun Ragi, had her throat slit by her husband, Avjit Singh, who then doused her with petrol and set her alight. He also died later in hospital from burns.
The Herald Sun soon learned that Ms Ragi had taken out an intervention order against her husband, prompting the newspaper to take legal action to be allowed to publish that fact, normally a no-go zone for journalists hampered by the confidentiality provisions of Victoria’s Family Violence Protection Act.
“We, the newsroom, had identified the fact that there was a systemic failure,” says Whinnett. “We all felt particularly aggrieved on [Sargun Ragi’s] behalf.”
The confluence of tragedy inspired the Herald Sun’s Take a Stand campaign calling for greater efforts to prevent family violence and, more widely, violence against women, which was launched in 2013 with the imprimatur of four of Victoria’s most powerful men – the Chief Commissioner of Police, Ken Lay, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, Premier Denis Napthine and AFL boss Andrew Demetriou.
Whinnett says the time was right and the newspaper believed the community was listening.
The following day, she spent 10 hours on the phone listening to people share their stories — and missed another 77 calls in the process.
“What it showed us was that this was the right story, that it was important, but that it was also . . . just the tip of the iceberg.”
Journalist and author Malcom Gladwell defined a tipping point as “that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.”
In his international best-seller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Gladwell argued that just like viruses, social trends can blow up and die out very quickly, and even the smallest change can get them started.
His theory is that it takes the right combination of individuals, behaviour and messages to cause sociological change. Applying his pop science to different social trends, including fashion, smoking, dips in crime rates, and popular TV shows, he asked: how did they start?
The same question might be asked of the media’s amplified recent coverage of the issue of violence against women and especially that perpetrated in the homes of thousands of Australians, violence that journalists — like police — once considered a private matter or dismissed as “just another domestic”.
But since the murders of Jill Meagher and Sargun Ragi, stories of violence, strategies for its prevention and the sociology that underpins it have been given new prominence in Victoria’s — and the nation’s — media.
A Royal Commission investigating family violence is under way. Survivor and advocate Rosie Batty has been named Australian of the Year. Senior police and politicians have added policy weight to their rhetoric, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has promised to put $100 million towards prevention programs.
Suddenly, the media’s newfound recognition of violence against women as one of Victoria’s biggest social, economic and criminal issues is in alignment with those working in the family violence sector and the community at large.
Vanessa Born, the media projects manager of Domestic Violence Victoria, says the murders of Jill Meagher and Rosie Batty’s son, Luke, had caused “booms” in the media coverage of such violence.
“Jill Meagher was a very specific incident and had a very specific context,” she said. “[Jill] was murdered in an area that was meant to be friendly, safe and community-focused. Jill was likeable, but most of all she was a media professional and I think fundamentally it shifted how media viewed the issue. It suddenly became very real.”
Ms Born said that she had in the past tried to convince journalists that the story of violence against women and its causes was newsworthy; they just needed to find an angle.
While the response was generally supportive, it was not until the murder of Meagher that the media really sat up and took notice.
“People realised that because [violence against women] is not talked about, even though it is happening all the time, itself makes the issue newsworthy,” she said.
But social media was also starting to give the issue a nudge with the anti-sexism campaigners Destroy the Joint keeping tabs on the number of women murdered in Australia on its hugely popular Facebook page – at last count 78, almost two a week. While the number includes murders committed by both men and women, overwhelmingly the perpetrators have been men.
Interest was heightened further when 11-year-old Luke Batty was murdered by his father at a Tyabb oval in 2014. Greg Anderson had turned up to Luke’s cricket training in defiance of court orders and outside of custody arrangements, and murdered his son while his former partner, Rosie Batty, stood nearby.
A shocking crime was suddenly seared into the nation’s consciousness when Ms Batty faced the media in the immediate aftermath to reveal her history of torment and fear.
Ms Born said that the public liked Ms Batty and she had expressed things that a lot of people would not be comfortable saying in private, let alone on national television.
Kelsey Hegarty, who heads the General Practice and the Primary Health Care Academic Centre, agreed that Ms Batty’s testimony had had a huge influence on the media’s coverage of violence against women.
“Often, the perpetrators of violence have isolated women and children to the extent that no one, not even family and friends, know their story,” Professor Hegarty said. “The fact that Rosie was alive to tell hers captured the imagination of the media.”
Professor Hegarty added that the naming of Ms Batty as Australian of the Year had given her a stamp of approval that had allowed her to continue advocating on the issue.
The saturation media coverage that followed Luke’s murder — and Meagher’s — was unique, but shouldn’t have been, argued Ms Born.
“You are talking about people dying in environments that should have been safe. They are not [dying in] wars, they are not [dying in] natural disasters, they are people going about their lives and someone interferes.
“Women are killed on the streets and children are killed by their fathers frequently. That is why the story should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
Decades of research and behind-the-scenes advocacy
The chief executive of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre, Emily Maguire, says the media coverage of the deaths of Meagher and Luke Batty was helped by an accumulation of advocacy and research, and without that work their names may never have been heard.
Critical to the sudden newsworthiness of violence against women were two pieces of research by VicHealth that Ms Maguire and others nominate as having significant impact on the media’s reporting.
Ms Maguire, who has been working in the field for almost 10 years, pointed to VicHealth’s research from the late 2000s that showed that violence against women was a serious health and economic issue rather than “just a women’s issue.”
Together with the Department of Human Services, VicHealth launched an international study in 2004 which revealed that violence was the leading contributor to preventable ill health, death and disease for Victorian women aged 15-44 and that the economic cost of violence against women was $8.1 billion in 2003.
Ms Maguire said the research was legitimising and ground breaking, and had since become world-renowned with both the UN and World Health Organisation citing the work frequently.
Renee Imbesi, who manages the prevention of violence against women program at VicHealth, said although the report was released 10 years ago it continued to be quoted by journalists.
In fact, work around the prevention of violence against women dates back as far as the 1970s when the first women’s liberation conference was held in Melbourne and where the issue was identified as a priority area.
Since then, a succession of events have marked a growing awareness in Australia: the establishment of the Women’s Liberation Centre in 1972, the first ‘Reclaim the Night’ march (1979), the emergence of ‘No to Violence’ – a men’s family violence prevention association (1993), the creation of White Ribbon (2003) and, most recently (2013), the formation of OurWatch and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, funded by federal and state governments.
Throughout this time, there have also been significant projects that have focused on improving the quantity and quality of the media’s coverage of violence against women.
Ms Maguire pointed to the media advocacy project run by Safe Steps, which trains and supports survivors of violence who are willing to share their personal stories with the media.
“The success of the program is not because the media like the shock tactics,” she said. “That is a small part; but I think it is because of the personal, emotive and cognitive connection.”
Also in the early 2000s, and coming out of Victoria’s Grampians region, was the first ‘Family Violence in the News: Strategic Framework’, a guide for reporters that was developed by Child and Family Services Ballarat and the community based not-for profit tenancy organisation PACT Ballarat.
The framework looked at the relationship between the media and the violence against women sector and has since been built on by Domestic Violence Victoria, which has been supporting prevention professionals in their work with the news and social media.
Ms Born, who has led this work for the last five years, said: “Regardless of Jill Meagher or Rosie Batty, if you did not have all those sectors tuned in and responding, we would not see what we are seeing today.”
Voices of authority the media tune into
Journalist and academic Margaret Simons, who is currently researching the relationship between the media and police, believes the latter have played a significant role in making violence against women newsworthy. She points in particular to the role of former Commissioner Lay, as do others.
Mr Lay had used White Ribbon Day 2012 to tell an audience at the Women’s Hospital that it was “the responsibility of every good man in this room to help stamp out violence against women.”
Since then, his has been a recurring and loud voice in calls to end violence against women, cited regularly in reports and a key figure in the Herald Sun’s Take a Stand campaign.
Dr Simons, who heads up Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, said that while Lay should be congratulated for his efforts, his predecessors Christine Nixon and Simon Overland, had laid the ground work.
Ms Nixon, who was appointed Chief Commissioner in 2001, had nominated violence against women as one of her top three priorities and, according to Victoria Police submissions to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, initiated a review of the force’s responses to domestic violence incidents. This had led to the establishment of a joint government and community steering committee which has delivered key changes within the police.
Mr Overland also introduced a second violence against women strategy that extended family violence reforms to include children. The strategy was recently extended into 2016.
“It has been a slow burn, but the police in Victoria have had a change of attitude to violence against women and I think both Nixon and Overland can take credit for that,” Dr Simons said.
Ms Maguire said that the involvement of men like Ken Lay had been a critical factor in piquing the interest of the media along with former army chief David Morrison and former AFL head Demetriou, who have both spoken out against violence against women.
Ms Imbesi, whose work at VicHealth has involved meeting and working with politicians, agreed that the involvement of people in power had been critical.
She pointed to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who has a long history of advocacy work on the subject of violence against women, and was also responsible for establishing the Royal Commission into Family violence, which had in itself set in place a year of continuing news coverage.
“Important people are talking about this issue,” she said. “They may not be doing enough and maybe not the things we always want them to do, but [violence against women] has become newsworthy because people in power are talking about it and taking action.”
Ms Imbesi said there had been a vast improvement in the way the Victorian media cover violence against women, including more consistent rather than sporadic coverage that gave the impression incidents were random and irregular.
“There is ongoing discussion of the issues in-between the incidents and, increasingly, the media is placing an event in context. For example, a story is being placed alongside data that conveys that violence against women actually is an issue,” she said.
Ms Born, who co-ordinated Victoria’s Eliminating Violence Against Women Media awards, which were recently folded into the national OurWatch awards, agreed that journalists were now talking about the broader context of violence against women.
She pointed to writer Clementine Ford who called out the sexist and victim blaming comments made by the media in the wake of Jill Meagher’s murder, that Meagher shouldn’t have been wearing “suggestive clothing” or been out so late.
Ms Maguire said that despite this progress there were circumstances where an editor might add a bad headline or poorly edit a reporter’s story, undermining their diligence.
“Editors are busy, so they do not have time to be going to training, and they are not the ones having the conversation with the victim, so how would they know?” she continued. “I think, though, we are at a stage where ‘I do not have time and I am too busy’ is not an excuse anymore.”
Dr Simons added there were also reporters who still struggled with the notion that violence against women was a gender political issue.
“The increased reporting around violence against women has not yet gone beyond the issue into the culture of the newsroom and other areas of the news agenda where gender is also relevant,” she said. “This might indicate that it is a relatively shallow change and therefore easily gone.”
Dr Simons, who is currently developing a tertiary and industry training package on the responsible reporting of violence against women as part of Our Watch’s national media engagement project, said that achieving long-term change would require educating journalists.
“We need journalists who can think reflectively about what they do while still being sharp and quick enough to turn around a news story fast,” she added.
The threat of the news cycle
As Malcolm Gladwell warned, social epidemics can die just as quickly as they spread, and so is the risk with efforts to counter violence against women.
Ms Maguire said she and others in the family violence sector were making the most of the media’s current intense interest in the issue.
“People will get sick of reading and writing about this and they will move on. It might come back, but the problem is it will not be for years.
“That is part of the reason why we are all trying to jump in and communicate our messages, because two years ago if you pitched a story about family violence, you would not have got a call back.”
Ms Born said she, too, was cautious about the current interest being maintained.
“We have seen strong conversations about different social topics but have not necessarily seen any real change on the ground,” she said.
“There might be slight improvements and some people would say we should be happy with that, but when you are talking about an issue that is so devastating to communities and people, slight improvements are not enough. You really need significant change.”
Professor Hegarty, who appeared before the Royal Commission to speak about health and child protection, among other topics, said she expected a new surge in media attention when its findings are published early next year, but feared this would not last long.
Ms Maguire agreed that once the impact of the Royal Commission faded, it would only be stories that involved murder, well-known individuals or high-profile events that would be likely to turn heads.
However, Ms Imbesi hoped that sustained media attention might not be needed provided those pushing for real change could capitalise on the current buzz.
She listed a number of critical points in policy that she believed could bring this about, including a third National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children and the implementation of the world’s first evidence-based National Framework for Prevention.
“That might not be enough,” she added. “Maybe we will get lost in political cycles and in two years we will be having this conversation again because the numbers won’t have changed at all. I think the key thing now is how the attention graduates into action.”
Can conversation lead to change?
Ms Maguire said there was no mistaking that Victoria had reached a tipping point in the conversation around violence against women, but whether that would cause real change was another issue.
“The changes required are diametrically opposed to the way we live our lives, our institutional structures, our political cycles and our media reporting.
“This issue is also a very private and personal issue that is deeply ingrained in us even if we do not think it is.”
Ms Born agreed that Australia had reached a tipping point in its conversation but it would take many more tipping points to reinvigorate a “starved system”.
“You can pass one [tipping point] and stop dead and not go any further at all,” she lamented. “But I think there is a lot of potential and I am interested to see where it goes.”
Professor Hegarty also claimed a long journey ahead, requiring resources and funding that would make a real difference in the lives of Australians.
Ms Imbesi said that she had observed a number of key milestones being reached in the last four years, and the increased awareness of the media and public around the issue was yet another one.
“What is different about this time is that family violence is genuinely one of the top five policy issues at every level – local, state, territory, federal, the community and the media.
“Maybe that is as good as it is going to get, but that is OK because we can now go off and do the work we need to do. So in that sense, it is unprecedented change.”
► If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For practical information and confidential support visit I-DECIDE, an online interactive tool for women in unhealthy or unsafe relationships.