By SARAH FAULKNER
You’ve probably noticed by now that here in the Sexist Newsroom, we’re never happier than when we’re mercilessly mocking the mindless drivel pumped out by the British Press. Beneath the humour however, we are very, very serious about the need to call out the newspapers on their frankly appalling reporting when it comes to women. This abhorrent article from Saturday’s Daily Mail is just one recent example of the sort of “journalism” we want to see the back of – a particularly grim example at that. (Content warning: discussion of possible suicide and sexual assault/rape.)
Firstly, for those who haven’t been following it, here’s a bit of background to the story:
In November 1995, eighteen-year-old Private Cheryl James was found dead at the Deepcut barracks in Surrey, with a single bullet wound to her head. An inquest at the time recorded an open verdict, however in 2014 the high court quashed the verdict, ruling the original inquiry insufficient, and ordered a new inquest to be held.
Cheryl James’ death was originally treated as suicide by the Army, however in January this year a barrister for her family told a preliminary hearing for the new inquest that she had “material suggesting James ‘may have been sexually coerced or raped the night before, or before the time of her death’”. Indeed the inquiry, which is now underway, has heard evidence from a fellow soldier who suggests this was the case, and there have long been allegations that there was a culture of sexual abuse, bullying and violence at the barracks. The inquest has also heard that ballistics experts cannot rule out the possibility that Cheryl was shot by someone else, meaning that the original Army conclusion of suicide may be incorrect (although the experts stated that they couldn’t rule out suicide either).
With this in mind – that Pte James may well have been sexually abused in the days or hours leading up to her death, and the fact that it cannot be ruled out that her death was not in fact a suicide – it is completely unacceptable that the Daily Mail decided to run an article about the testimony of her former boyfriend with the headline “Deepcut tragedy girl loved sex, says boyfriend”. Aside from the sheer tastelessness of such a headline in the full knowledge that the woman concerned was very possibly a victim of sexual assault or rape, without any context, it – consciously or not – suggests that whatever occurred in the run-up to her death was consensual. It feeds into the myth that if a woman enjoys sex, she must not therefore have been raped. When a person is raped, their sexual history is – or should be – entirely irrelevant, but all too often we see the same old stereotypes perpetuated: a woman who consented to sex with multiple men in the past must have been “asking for it” somehow, and only has herself to blame.
Meanwhile, rape conviction rates remain incredibly low, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction, which is bad enough, but then when you consider that only around 15% of people who experience sexual violence choose to report it in the first place, it becomes clear that hardly any cases of rape actually result in the perpetrator being convicted of a crime.
We know that a large part of the reason people are reluctant to report rape and sexual violence is precisely because they fear that they won’t be believed. This article from Rape Crisis explains some of the more common myths surrounding sexual violence and it is clear that victim-blaming (where the victim is (erroneously) held wholly or partly responsible for the crime that has been committed against them) is commonplace, and it is unsurprising that this puts people off reporting sexual crimes.
All of this is certainly not helped by the media perpetuating these myths through sensationalist headlines like this, designed purely for their own gain because a sordid headline seemingly about a young woman’s love of sex attracts more readers than a factual report on the hearing into her death. It’s cynical, disrespectful and downright dangerous. Victims are put off reporting their rapes by this very thing: they know that their sexual history will be called into question, questions will be asked about what they were wearing, what they’d been drinking, who they were with – none of it relevant to the crime – all with a view to putting the blame onto the victim; suggesting that something they did or didn’t do must have caused what happened to them. Is there any wonder so many rapes go unreported?
The language used in the headline is a prime example of the tabloid press trivialising alleged sexual violence against women and worse still “sexing up” reports of terrible and tragic events in order to appeal to readers’ sense of scandal. The “Deepcut tragedy girl” was a young woman with a name and a career. Had she been male, would they have used the headline “Deepcut tragedy boy”? Not likely. Not satisfied with the clickbait headline, The Mail then proceeded to devote around two-thirds of the article to Private James’ intimate relationship with her boyfriend, only returning to the real point of his testimony and this article – James’ mood around the time of her death – near the end.
There are guidelines from the NUJ which give clear directive on how to safely report sexual violence. Given the sheer number of articles which flout this perhaps the time has come to make these guidelines part of the editors code. Given that the alternative perpetuates attitudes that put women at risk how can anyone argue with that?
Transcript of the full article, as printed in the Daily Mail, Saturday 19th March 2016:
Deepcut tragedy girl loved sex, says boyfriend
Scottish Daily Mail19 Mar 2016By Inderdeep Bains
A TEENAGE soldier who died at Deepcut Barracks loved sex and could not stay faithful, her boyfriend told an inquest yesterday.
Cheryl James, 18, died from a shot to the head after being posted on guard duty with an SA80 rifle alone at the Surrey base.
Her boyfriend Simeon Carr-Minns told Woking Coroner’s Court that the pair had been in love and planned to marry – but days before her death in November 1995, he found Private James was in a relationship with another recruit, Private Paul Wilkinson.
When Mr Carr-Minns – then a soldier stationed near Deepcut – confronted her, she confessed that she wanted to sleep with other men and ‘couldn’t help herself’.
In a statement, Mr Carr-Minns told the inquest: ‘Everybody liked her. Everybody seemed to like her. She was really sexy as well… and loved sex.
‘She couldn’t help herself. If she wanted to have sex with somebody else she just would. She wouldn’t have been able to stay faithful.’
The 39-year-old said he had pleaded with her to stay with him despite finding her looking ‘dishevelled’ in bed with Pte Wilkinson.
He said the couple had a ‘ long discussion’ about her ‘polyamorous’ behaviour that night before going to town the next day for a shopping
‘She couldn’t help herself’
trip and a drink with a group of friends, including Pte Wilkinson.
Mr Carr-Minns said they returned to have a party at the base before having sex behind a curtain in a room in the Naafi bar the day before she died.
He said he had grown concerned as her mood was up and down, and suspected that she had been drinking to ‘anaesthetise’ the guilt and hurt she felt inside.
The inquest earlier heard a reference to a 2002 police review of the original investigation into Pte James’s death, in which it was suggested that Mr Carr-Minns ‘should be considered a suspect’. But coroner Brian Barker QC told the court yesterday that the boyfriend was no longer under any suspicion.
Pte James was one of four recruits to die in unexplained shootings at Deepcut over seven years amid rumours of bullying, abuse and a cover-up. Her death was initially dismissed as suicide and no forensic investigation was carried out.
The new inquest was ordered last July after the open verdict from a 1995 inquest was quashed.
The court also heard yesterday that Pte James had been told by a fortune teller days before her death that ‘something terrible was going to happen’.
The inquest continues.