At first the reports were vague, but we filled in the gaps. Emma Pattison, head teacher of Epsom College in Surrey, had been found dead with her husband, George, and their seven-year-old daughter, Lettie, on the grounds of the school. The story, reported first on Monday 6 February in many places as if it were some unusual occurrence, seemed suspicious. It had familiar echoes. And those who guessed that what had transpired was what it sounded like were probably right. The following day it was confirmed that police believed the husband had shot and killed his wife and daughter, then himself.
News reporting must be dispassionate. Journalists can only report the facts. But at times, as a side-effect, this can serve to flatten and contain violence, to obscure it. It can feel like the role of the press in such cases is partly to hold tight to the norms of civilised society, to pretend that an act of violent murder has not shredded the social covenants that protect us from each other.
The news is meant to reflect the world back at us, but instead it can shield our eyes from it, like curtains around a hospital bed. What is it that we are trying to collectively unsee? In this particular case, was it the sheer fact of murder? Or is it that this was no random occurrence, nor an outlying incident. Last year at least 108 women were killed in circumstances where a man or men were suspected, according to the Counting Dead Women Project. The Epsom College story was one more to add to this long line of statistics, yet more evidence of the horrendous levels of violence against women that we live with.
In the same 24-hour period that the Epsom story broke, another horror show was unfolding at Southwark Crown Court. The serial rapist and former police officer David Carrick received 36 life sentences yesterday and will spend at least 30 years in jail. The two stories – Carrick’s sentencing and the Epsom College murders – developed in tandem, both evidence of a problem we seem unwilling to face in its entirety, or to meet like the emergency it is.
Every time another woman or girl is murdered or raped or kidnapped, if her story even makes it through the news cycle, we add it to the long line preceding it. We neaten the corners around it and then we move on. Even on a day like yesterday we fail to see the full picture. One woman tweeted a photo of the eight most-read articles on the BBC website. Six involved dead or missing women, or men who had committed or were suspected of violence – or both.
We tiptoe around this violence, the manifestations of misogyny that women learn to fear. Nearly a year since Priti Patel, the home secretary at the time, launched her campaign against such violence it’s as if we would rather believe it doesn’t happen. Maybe that explains how Carrick, who was a serving police officer when he committed his offences, over nearly twenty years, managed to avoid reprimand despite multiple complaints against him. Perhaps it was easier to dismiss them, to assume they couldn’t possibly be right, that together they didn’t add up to anything, than to really see the truth of his monstrosity.
During that 24-hour period, two of the biggest national stories were the sentencing of a violent misogynist police officer – one of the most prolific sex offenders this country has known – and the suspected murder-suicide of a family by the husband and father. When the news agenda moves on to its next victim, when we go back to focusing on all the other crises, we must not forget to see things for what they really are.
[See also: The pervasive culture of violence against women and girls]