The balance fallacy: Wooden Spoon Award

This presentation was given by Zero Tolerance's 2016 Bursary Winner, Annie McLaughlin as part of the 2017 awards ceremony.

Tonight, we celebrate journalists and writers who play a vital role in furthering public understanding of violence against women. Their work confronts the myths that perpetuate abuse and shines a light on the systemic gender inequality that underpins it.

The Write to End Violence Against Women awards are a welcome opportunity to highlight what can be achieved when journalists give due care and attention to the complexity and continuum of gender based violence.

Over the past few months, the wide media coverage of sexual harassment, assault and abuse and resulting ‘#metoo’ campaign on social media have had a huge impact in illuminating the scale and spectrum of violence against women.

The sheer volume and weight of women’s experiences of abuse has been overwhelming. Good journalism of the kind we recognise tonight has done much to highlight the abuse of male power that lies at the heart of those experiences.

But, we know that there are still too many corners of the media where misrepresentation of the issues leads to irresponsible reporting that reinforces the attitudes that enable gender based violence.

And so, we reach the point in the evening where we shine a light on those corners in the hope that we can highlight areas for improvement, drive up standards and drive out myths.

The Wooden Spoon Award.

For the past few years, Zero Tolerance have elected to award the Wooden Spoon to a theme, rather than to an individual journalist or article. This recognises and highlights the collective responsibility of writers to represent the issues responsibly.

Read Kirsty Strickland's Wooden Spoon presentation for the 2016 Write Awards

This year, the award highlights a particularly pervasive and insidious tendency in some media reporting on violence against women. The tendency to give the impression that there is an equal balance, or moral equivalence, between the narratives and experiences of women and those of their abusers.

A tendency we can call ‘the balance fallacy’.

Regardless of the current ‘hot topic’ in media reporting on gender based violence, the balance fallacy raises its ugly head repeatedly.

Time and again, writers and broadcasters will choose to amplify the voices of those who seek to blame women for the violence committed against them or to diminish their experiences by claiming that there are ‘two sides to every story’.

It’s an approach that ignores the reality of violence against women and girls in favour of straw man arguments, that seek to lay the blame for the abuse of women anywhere other than at the feet of abusers.

Inevitably, violence against women campaigners are forced to waste precious column inches and air time knocking down those arguments, time that could be so much better spent educating the public on how we can work together to put an end to gender based violence.

The assumption that all journalism requires opposing views to be treated as equally valid simply does not hold when the overwhelming weight of evidence and experience points firmly in one direction.

Let’s be clear: there are no two sides when it comes to revealing the scale and spectrum of violence committed against women simply because they are women.

If recent revelations have reminded us of anything, it’s that ‘official’ statistics on the prevalence of abuse only tell part of the story. The ‘#metoo’ campaign has been so powerful and affecting partly because we know that for every woman who does speak out, so many more do not or cannot.

It is completely misguided to attempt to create ‘balance’ or a debate where there should be no room for doubt. Reporting which reinforces the myth that violence against women is a ‘grey area’ reduces the rape, murder and abuse of women to a game of ‘he said, she said’.

There are, unfortunately, many examples of the balance fallacy to choose from this year, but I’d like to highlight just a few.

A common trope is that women should in some way share the blame for violence perpetrated against them. That we have to somehow balance the abusive acts of men against the behaviour of the women they attack.

In March this year, rape survivor Megan Clark waived her right to remain anonymous, in a televised interview with the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire. Her testimony was an important insight into the attitudes that prevent women survivors from seeking justice and support.

Derbyshire asked Megan to respond to comments made by the judge who presided over the trial of her rapist. Lindsey Kushner QC was accused of victim blaming by violence against women organisations, after she suggested that women should protect themselves against rape by not getting drunk.

Megan’s response was a qualified one. She said that she understood why the judge said what she did and that she did not necessarily think it was victim blaming.

Heartbreakingly, though, she admitted that she did not think she would feel able to report a rape again, because she was made to feel partly responsible for her attack when she shared her story with others.

There was the story, waiting to be told. A sobering insight into the real-life impact of victim blaming on survivors’ access to support and justice.

When the interview hit the headlines, however, it’s fair to say that the slant was rather different.

Overwhelmingly, the reports completely ignored the bulk of the interview and jumped on Clark's comments as some sort of vindication of victim blaming, the ‘last word’ in a debate on women’s culpability for rape that should not even exist.

The Daily Mail’s headline announced, with an almost palpable sense of glee: “Manchester rape victim said drinking warning was right.”

The Guardian went with: “Woman who was raped backs judge over alcohol warning”, The Independent: “Rape victim says judge was right to say she put herself in danger by being drunk".

Such coverage perpetuates harmful attitudes about sexual violence that are consistently brought into courts and jury rooms and form an obstacle to obtaining convictions.

Another all too common myth perpetuated by the balance fallacy is the idea that violence against women is some sort of ‘grey area’.

This typically presents itself in opinion pieces that label serious allegations of abuse as ‘moral panic’. Columns that warn we are hurtling towards a dystopian future in which men will be afraid to speak to a woman lest they be accused of harassment.

In the Telegraph last month, at least two columnists claimed that allegations of sexual harassment and assault in Westminster amount to a ‘witch hunt’, against men who have simply ‘pushed the envelope’ that little bit too far in their natural pursuit of the opposite sex.

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the irony of using the term ‘witch hunt’ to drum up sympathy for male perpetrators of sexual assault. A term which largely refers to the systematic and prolonged torture and murder of women.

The dangerous message here is that if a woman is assaulted or harassed, she should first stop and consider the impact on her abuser should she report. It ignores the truth that the lines between ‘flirting’ and abuse have never been blurred except in the minds of men who want them to be, and who are angry that the spotlight is now shining in their direction.

The concept of “balance” has long been a key foundation of journalism and, in many cases, it is a vital and necessary consideration. But attempts to engineer false balance by creating moral equivalency between abusers and abused serves no one, least of all survivors already facing multiple barriers to achieving justice and support.

When we frame violence against women as some kind of murky moral maze, in which women must share responsibility with their attackers, we allow abuse to continue unchecked.

This year’s Wooden Spoon goes to ‘the balance fallacy’, and those who perpetuate it.

Because the prevalence of gender based violence is not up for ‘debate’. Because we do not need ‘devil’s advocates’ to defend abusers and their right to abuse. We need advocates like those we recognise tonight, who use their voices and talents in the fight to stamp out violence against women.

Annie McLaughlin was the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards busary winner. You can read her excellent writing for the Sunday Herald here.

For more excellent writing on the 'false balance fallacy', writing which inspired this topic, read below:

Kirsty Strickland, The National: Repetition of dangerous rape myths has no place in a responsible debate

Alys Mumford, Engender: Why There Aren’t Always Two Sides to Every Story

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