Violence against women and Sports “Stars”: trial by media or special treatment?

I have watched with a rising level of dismay the coverage of the current allegations made against a footballer from the South Sydney Rabbitohs Rugby League club, Ben Te’o. The incident in question happened some 5 weeks ago and was the subject of a police complaint that was, apparently, investigated to a conclusion that no charges would be laid. Then Channel 9 broke the “exclusive” last week via an interview with the victim of the alleged assault. This lead to a media frenzy that included the revelation about the conduct of the investigation the first time around. Today, amongst another media circus, the victim has made a statement to the police and then been dealt with for outstanding warrants and the alleged attacker has refused to be questioned by the media at a press conference for the Queensland State of Origin team. I know this because my twitter feed has been filled with seemingly minute by minute updates of the statement, the appearance before court and the failure to be questioned.

Let me be clear: domestic violence and violence against women in any form is abhorrent. There is never and nor should there ever be an excuse for such violence. Those making statements about the character of the victim need to shut up and let due process take its course.

What I am massively concerned about in this case and that which has led me to write this blog is the manner with which this particular alleged case of violence against a woman has been dealt with by the media. That is what I want to focus on today.

First some statistics; the ABS Personal Safety Survey 2005, which defined violence as any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of either physical or sexual assault, found:
•since the age of 15, two percent of women (160 000) and one per cent of men (68 100) had experienced violence from a current partner
•since the age of 15, some 15 per cent of women (1 135 500) and five per cent of men (367 300) had experienced violence from a former partner
•Seven per cent of men (485 400) and three per cent of women (242 000) were physically assaulted in the 12 months prior to the survey
•of those women who were physically assaulted in the 12 months prior to the survey, 31 per cent (73 800) were physically assaulted by a current and/or previous partner compared with four per cent (21 200) of men
•almost two thirds of men who were physically assaulted in the 12 months prior to the survey (66 per cent or 319 100) nominated a stranger as the perpetrator, compared with 22 per cent of women (52 900)
•in the 12 months prior to the survey, 1.3 per cent of women (101 600) and 0.6 per cent of men (42 300) were sexually assaulted and
•of those who were sexually assaulted in the 12 months prior to the survey, 21 per cent of women (21 500) reported that the perpetrator was a previous partner; eight per cent (7 800) reported that the perpetrator was a current partner. No males reported sexual assault by a current or previous partner.

Later ABS surveys have found similar results. Further the Australian component of the IVAWS in 2002–03 employed a broader definition of violence, measuring physical violence (including threats), sexual violence (including unwanted sexual touching) and psychological violence (including controlling behaviours such, as put downs and keeping track of whereabouts). The survey found:
•34 per cent of women who had a current or former intimate partner (including boyfriends) experienced at least one form of violence from a partner during their lifetime (since the age of 16).
•31 per cent of women who had a current or former intimate partner experienced physical violence and an estimated 12 per cent suffered sexual violence from a partner during their lifetime.
•Of the women who had a current or former intimate partner, six per cent reported that their partner had forced them to have sexual intercourse at some stage during their lifetime; this is the most common form of sexual violence perpetrated by intimate partners. A further three per cent of these women reported that their partners had attempted to force them to have sexual intercourse and four per cent experienced unwanted sexual touching.
•Of the women who were in a current relationship (spouse, de facto partner, or boyfriend), ten per cent reported that they had experienced violence from their current partner over their lifetime, and three per cent over the past 12 months. Physical violence was more commonly reported (nine per cent, lifetime) than sexual violence (one per cent, lifetime).
•Almost four in ten women (between 37 and 40 per cent) who were in a current relationship reported experiencing at least one type of controlling behaviour over their lifetime; six per cent experienced controlling behaviour in the past 12 months.
•Women experienced higher levels of violence from a previous partner than a current partner. Of women who have had a past relationship, 36 per cent reported experiencing violence from a previous partner over their lifetime, compared with ten per cent for a current partner.
•Previous partners were also reported as perpetrating more severe violence than current male partners. For example, less than one per cent of women in a current relationship reported that their current partner had used or threatened to use a knife or gun on them. However, six per cent of women who had a former relationship reported that their previous partner had used or threatened to use one of these weapons on them.

(All of the foregoing has been reproduced from a Background Note published by the Australian Federal Department of parliamentary Services entitled “Domestic violence in Australia—an overview of the issues” authored by Liesl Mitchell).

You are probably asking what the relevance of this data is to the current situation involving Ben Te’o? Well the answer is simple: how many of the other victims / perpetrators of domestic violence captured in the statistics above faced a lead story on every news service in Australia (well Queensland and New South Wales) and then had the giving of their statement become an event live tweeted?

Herein lies my major objection to the way this matter has been dealt with by the media: for every domestic violence incident reported as an exclusive on Channel 9 there are a plethora of such cases that never reach the media let alone the lead story. Why? Because those cases do not involve a sports “star” of any note. To me this creates a whole poultice of issues including but not limited to the complete lack of due process that now could possibly follow if Mr Te’o is charged and the matter proceeds through the courts. How is Te’o supposed to defend himself and, indeed, find a jury that has not pre-judged the case? More to the point, we now have a victim who also has become a cause celebre and has faced the ire of fans and friends of Te’o which one could only expect would be enhanced if charges are actually laid. The media have much to answer for the way they have conducted themselves here.

However, for all of the foregoing, the biggest problem that I have with the reporting of this particular case of domestic violence is the, to my way thinking, monumental lack of respect the television networks, in particular Channel 9, et al have shown to the victims of domestic violence who do not make accusations against sport stars but against individuals from every other walk of life. Where are the lead stories about the plight of those victims? Where are the exclusive interviews? Where is the financial support of the victim? As noted above, violence against women is simply abhorrent. The abhorrence of that conduct has only been exacerbated in the last fortnight by a media that seems to only care about the victims of such violence if their alleged attacker runs around a sports field for a living. Shame on the television networks and media pundits who have created this situation and shame on our society that is so craving of news about “celebrities” that cases such as this are front page news.

I hope for a day when violence against women is not an issue in our society. I am sickened that I believe that that day will never come. I also hope for a day when all victims of such violence are treated fairly and with dignity not because their alleged attacker is a sports star but simply because they are a victim. Given the current state of the media, I have a similar fear that that day will also never be seen in our liftime.

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