Nigella Lawson pictures: We must not look away from domestic violence, but we can do more than just gawp

The photographs of Nigella Lawson in the Sunday People are undoubtedly shocking - but do they really "raise awareness", or is the victim, already, being neglected and ignored?

It’s the domestic part that gives domestic violence its particular horror: private brutality concealed within the public bonds of affection, intimate terror exposed in visible wounds and court reporting. It’s often hard to see from the outside, and hard to speak of from the inside. All of us, after all, are entitled to our private selves as well as our public version. How much harder to give yourself up when the self you reveal is the victim of another’s violence – and you are liable to be punished for the revelation.

One of the triumphs of feminism has been to break that tyranny of privacy. We no longer accept that violence within a relationship is protected by a sacred bond between abuser and abused. It’s a recent change, though: the Court of Appeal only established the right of a woman not to be raped by her husband in 1991. And so perhaps I should welcome anything that breaches the stigma around domestic violence – including the pictures in today’s Sunday People that appear to show Charles Saatchi attacking his wife Nigella Lawson in public.

I don’t, though. The reporting makes me very unhappy. That’s not to say I consider The People wrong to report this at all: there’s a case for public interest here that goes beyond a prurient anticipation of what the public will be interested in (and Saatchi and Lawson are certainly interesting people), and into the perhaps more laudable realm of “raising awareness”. Domestic violence should not be protected by taboos, and maybe suppressing these images would have meant concealing a crime.

But it’s the nature of these images that disturbs me, both how they were obtained and how they were released. The pictures appear to be paparazzi shots – and there’s no controversy there given that they capture adults in a public place, and that they appear to show an act to which no expectation of privacy can apply. But there is no sign in the attached copy that the photographer made any effort to ensure Lawson’s safety before clicking the trigger. 

In fact, none of the onlookers quoted by the paper (who, we are inevitably told, found the incident “shocking”) mentions calling the police. They seem to have simply … looked. This is not OK. I’m not suggesting that anyone there should have directly intervened, but in that situation it’s not good enough to observe alone: you should be there as a human being first and a camera second, and as a human being your first responsibility is to check that help has been called, and call it yourself if necessary.

Your second responsibility as a human being comes after you’ve got the pictures and when you’re thinking about publishing: this time, it’s to make sure that the victim is happy for you to tell her story. Lawson hasn’t given a statement on the incident so we can only assume that she hasn’t been party to the reporting. And perhaps if she’d been asked, she would have refused and the story would have been lost.

But how much richer, more truthful and more humane reporting can be when a journalist exercises a little responsibility for their subject. In 2012, photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz accidentally found herself covering a case of domestic violence. She had thought her story was about a released prisoner adjusting to his freedom; but when Shane, her subject, attacked his girlfriend Maggie, that changed. 

Lewkowicz’s first thought was for Maggie: “After I confirmed one of the housemates had called the police, I then continued to document the abuse,” she writes. And since the incident, she’s continued to work with Maggie in chronicling the aftermath of the abuse: “Maggie asked me to move forward with this project and to tell her story, because she feels the photographs might be able to help someone else.” 

In her photographs of Maggie, Lewkowicz catches the subtle patterns of abuse: the isolation, the explosions, the apologies that win the abuser one more chance, and the hope of survival and escape too as Lewkowicz follows Maggie into her future. By contrast, in the People’s front page, we simply have a woman who looks frightened and humiliated, being further humiliated again by the crass tabloidese that surrounds her. “Boiling point”? “Bust up”? “More shocking pictures”? This is not the language of compassion and care. 

We must not look away from domestic violence, but when we look, let us see a whole person, not just the instant of victimhood presented on the front page of a newspaper. And then, when we see the whole person, we must feel the urge to do more than just look: we must offer kindness and dignity too, instead of gawping.

It's not wrong to report domestic violence, but did anyone attempt to stop it? Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.