Update (22nd May 2019): The 27-year-old man accused of killing Grace Milane has been found guilty of her murder in Auckland. He will be sentenced on the 21st February 2020.
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"British backpacker died when consensual sexual activity went wrong," screamed the headline. Not from a tabloid, not from a half-baked Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) blog, but from the BBC. After a backlash on Twitter, the headline was amended to make it clear that it was in reference to what the defence in the Grace Millane case claimed, but at that point the damage was already done.
The BBC was not the only one to seize on the "sex act gone wrong" claim.
The Evening Standard topped its coverage of the death of Grace Millane – the British traveller backpacking in New Zealand who was killed two days before her 22nd birthday – by highlighting the fact she was a member of BDSM dating sites. The Telegraph similarly ran a story with a "sex act gone wrong" slant, although it at least mentioned that it was a claim her alleged killer, a 27-year-old man who cannot be named for legal reasons, made in Auckland High Court that day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail also chose to focus its reports on the claim that Grace asked her killer to choke her like in the film Fifty Shades of Grey.
The killer in question had been top of the news a few weeks earlier when he was captured on camera dragging Grace’s dead body away from the scene in a suitcase and dumping it in the middle of nowhere. So far, the court has not heard that he called for an ambulance or, it seems, paid any attention to the fact that the young woman he was strangling was suffocating and died. All things most of us would probably notice during sex. And probably before we’d woken up the next day, as he claims.
But that’s not what the defence want jurors to believe. They are painting Grace’s killer as a misunderstood lover who simply gave her what she asked for – and then panicked once he realised he had squeezed the life out of her. In doing so they are playing up to powerful myths so deeply ingrained in society – not just in the UK but globally – that "rough sex gone wrong" has become an increasingly legitimate defence that is seeing men get away with murder. They want us to believe that her death was somehow consensual, and that it was her fault or that she was in some way asking for it. It's victim blaming in its purest and most dangerous form and media headlines are facilitating it.
According to research collected by the campaign We Can’t Consent To This, set up by Fiona Mackenzie earlier this year in response to the "rough sex" defence being used by the now jailed millionaire John Broadhurst (Broadhurst murdered 26-year-old mother Natalie Connolly), 59 women have been killed by men in the UK in this way. Add that to the 174 women murdered this year at the hands of their partners, and you can see we are a nation in the grip of a serious crisis – one in which the media is complicit.
For me personally, as a survivor of male violence, and a journalist, I’ve worked with several organisations – including the Independent Press Standards Organisation – to provide stronger guidelines for reporting on cases like Grace Millane's responsibly – and with respect to the victims. These guidelines already exist, and publications like BBC News are signed up to them. However, there is little to enforce the guidelines and editors are rarely held to meaningful account when they are in breach.
"The media know full well the power and control they wield in public perceptions, which makes the narratives they promote in rape and murder cases such as Grace Millane even more abhorrent," Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager at End Violence Against Women, explains to Refinery29.
"By effectively promoting (and legitimising) the defence's position of 'rough sex gone wrong' they create a ready made defence for the next perpetrator to use.
"The media needs to be more responsible and ethical and we need a regulator with more teeth to hold them to account. This is part of why we are working to create media guidelines, as far too often we have seen media outlets seek to exploit an experience of horror and trauma to try and turn it into titillating clickbait and lurid headlines."
Rebecca is right.
The enormity of the influence that reporting has on our culture and the way we behave should never be underestimated. Unless we change the victim blaming narrative, and stop doing the defence’s job for them, more women will die and more men will get away with murder.