Anti-domestic violence campaigners are demanding an apology from one of Britain’s best-selling regional newspapers over an article they say blames victims of domestic violence for their own abuse.
In a piece in the Birmingham Mail this week, columnist Maureen Messent wrote that “the women who allow themselves to be used as punch bags are often their own worst enemies”. She argued that women who do not leave their abusers are “holy cows”, who popular opinion dictates must not be told of the harm their staying in the abusive relationship does to their children.
She was criticised as having given succour to potential perpetrators of domestic abuse by campaigners.
“I am speechless. It is hard to know what to say in the face of such vicious ignorance. The idea that you could blame someone who is being abused versus the abuser is incredible,” Caroline Criado-Perez, who faced a torrent of misogynist abuse after successfully campaigning to have a woman on a British bank note last year, told Channel 4 News.
She added: “The woman being accountable is incredible. It discounts all the evidence about coercive control that shows that women are terrorised. It is not a free choice to stay or not. If you are financially dependent, if you are debased to the point that you cannot escape, it is not a free choice.
It is clickbait using domestic abuse as the bait. Potential abusers will read it and it will give them succour. Holly Dustin, End Violence Against Women
In her article, published on Friday 4 April, Messent wrote that the number of women killed as a result of domestic violence was “shocking for its avoidability”, adding: “we’re never told how many of the dead refused police advice to leave their attackers once and for all”.
She wrote: “I know West Midlands Police will take whatever steps necessary to help the vulnerable. Officers burn the midnight oil, never preach, are prepared to listen for hours at a time.
“Imagine their frustration and disappointment, then, when the women they want to help fail to turn up as witnesses ‘because I love him really’.
“Battering is a foul and cowardly crime. Why, then, is it also the offence so many women baulk at taking to court, their silence perpetuating the evils used to control them?”
Holly Dustin of End Violence Against Women called her more recent article highly irresponsible because, she said, it sought to blame women for the violence perpetrated against them.
“It is a dangerous message, both to men and to survivors of domestic abuse,” she told Channel 4 News, adding: “It is clickbait using domestic abuse as the bait. Potential abusers will read it and it will give them succour. Victims will read it; people who get a lot of victim-blaming already. How is that going to help?”
Dustin said that a press regulator “with teeth” should be more open to complaints made by third parties, such as charities. The Press Complaints Commission can currently accept such a complaint, but will usually only act upon it if an individual named in the article also wants to take it up.
Dustin added that Messent’s article promotes tolerance of violence against women. And she called on the Birmingham Mail to make a donation to a women’s refuge.
She said: “It should be retracted and they should apologise. This is very damaging, it is deeply misogynistic.”
The view that women play a role in their own abuse is, according to Caroline Criado-Perez, “sadly quite a widespread view”, which she said owed much to ignorance.
She added: “the paper should apologise and get an expert to write; someone who has worked with vulnerable women and who can explain the issues. It is not a question of why a woman doesn’t leave her abuser, it is a question of why her abuser doesn’t stop.”
The woman being accountable is incredible. It discounts all the evidence about coercive control that shows that women are terrorised – Caroline Criado-Perez
According to Women’s Aid, on average, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. “We should be focussing on why men in such huge numbers are attacking women, so that women are dying,” said Criado-Perez.
Messent has courted controversy in the past, perhaps most notably in 2006 when she escaped prosecution for wasting police time after officers said they established she could not have helped an elderly relative to die because she was working elsewhere in the country at the time. The CPS eventually reviewed the case offered no evidence to the charge of wasting police time and the case was dropped.
She had originally been arrested after writing a front-page article for the Birmingham Mail claiming to have carried out the “mercy killing” of her great aunt.
Neither Maureen Messent, nor the Birmingham Mail could be reached for comment. However on Sunday they posted an article on their website detailing some of the feedback they had received to the article.
Dave Brookes, Birmingham Mail editor-in-chief, posted a statement the newspaper’s Facebook page, welcoming the comments.
He said: “Maureen Messent’s views as expressed in her column are her own and not those of the Birmingham Mail. Maureen is renowned for her straight talking and her opinions do not always find favour with everyone.”