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Nigella and a “playful tiff”, the changing face of the media and letting Ian Brady die

Helen Lewis writes the First Thoughts column.

Would you have stepped in to halt what Charles Saatchi called a “playful tiff” and the police called assault? After the Sunday People published front-page pictures of Nigella Lawson being grabbed round the throat by her husband, I found myself cast into the unusual role of tabloid defender. Some think the whole episode was a shameful intrusion of the couple’s privacy but I can’t agree. Saatchi and Lawson were in public, outside a restaurant, and there’s a public interest in reporting a crime – particularly one that is as commonplace as it is ugly. “If that’s what’s happening in public,” one senior journalist emailed me to say, “imagine what’s happening in private.”

According to government figures, 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse last year but fewer than one in four victims reports the crime to the police. Saatchi has now accepted a caution – to stop the incident “hanging over all of us for months”, he says – but Lawson did not make a complaint to the police.

Partner violence is toxic precisely because it happens in otherwise loving relationships, in which a man (or, more rarely, a woman) can switch from being affectionate and supportive to controlling and violent. “Why doesn’t she leave him?” we ask, not knowing if she has the money or energy or self-esteem or whether he’s threatened that she will lose access to their children if she does. “Why doesn’t someone intervene?” we wonder, all the while averting our eyes from the kids making a nuisance on the train because we don’t want to risk getting our heads kicked in.

Meanwhile, most British women’s refuges are scrabbling to survive as their local authority funding is being savagely cut. It’s very easy to moralise from an armchair about whether the photographer or other diners should have intervened to help Lawson, but the possible closure of women’s shelters has received relatively little coverage. We’re all guilty of walking by.

Slap happy

The other important question raised by the Saatchi incident is whether our attitude to domestic violence has changed as much as we’d hope in the past 50 years. I’m torn. In 1965, just three years after his great success in Dr No, Sean Connery told Playboy: “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman – although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man. An open-handed slap is justified – if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it . . . But I wouldn’t call myself sadistic.” Try to imagine an A-list actor saying something similar today.

On the other hand, as Kate Mossman writes on page 48, the singer Chris Brown has continued to receive awards and to sell albums since his 2009 assault of his girlfriend Rihanna – even though photographs of her bruised and swollen face were leaked on the internet, graphically demonstrating the viciousness of the assault. The conclusion has to be that we’re now more confident about identifying domestic violence. We just don’t know how to deal with those who commit it.

Cursed to live

I thought I was the wettest, most bleeding-heart of liberals but even I can’t see why we’ve spent years keeping the Moors murderer Ian Brady alive against his will. Still, it’s intriguing to see Mail and Telegraph website commenters, who are usually keen on the death penalty for any crime bigger than a parking ticket, decide instead that Brady should be force-fed just to spite him.

Lonely asylum

Talking of being locked up, on 19 June, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, reached the one-year anniversary of his decision to seek asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy. With talks between Britain and Ecuador stalled and the media caravan having moved on to a new leaker, Edward Snowden, Assange is now said to be ready to spend five years there.

Indie shuffle

A year ago, the NS ran a special report into race and the media, in which Rafael Behr tackled the “monochrome majority” in the lobby and Mehdi Hasan asked why, in 16 years of reading newspapers, he could “count on two hands the number of regular staff columnists . . . with fixed slots on the comment pages of the British press, who have looked similar to me”. We also noted that there were no non-white national paper editors – but that’s now changed with the promotion of Amol Rajan to editor of the print Independent.

Rajan and the new editor of the 20p ipaper, Oly Duff, are both just 29, so the appointments represent a gamble by Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev that more youthful papers can entice young readers away from their iPads and smartphones and back to the grubby world of ink.

Time for action

I’ve spent a great deal of the past couple of years writing about violence against women but I’ve decided to do the unthinkable for a member of the commentariat – and try to do something about it. If all goes well, I’ll soon be joining the board of Nia, a small, Hackney-based rape and domestic violence charity. Wish me luck.


Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland