Sunday, 23 June 2019

When the news became a great big trigger warning...

The news cycle since last Thursday has been more unedifying than usual. Perhaps it is naive to expect that people would largely agree that the correct way to deal with a peaceful protester at an elite dinner is not to push her into a pillar and frogmarch her out, grabbing the back of her neck. And perhaps it is naive to expect that if a couple is having an argument so loud it can be heard in the street as well as in neighbouring flats, a reasonable response would be to knock on the door to see if everyone is OK and, if there is no response, call the police.

Yet here we are, arguing all over the internet about all this. I can only imagine how horrific it must be for so many women who have been victims of physical violence or domestic abuse, which can be physical, emotional, verbal or psychological - or an awful combination of these types.

On Thursday night, Janet Barker, a Greenpeace campaigner, along with a group of fellow activists, managed to barge into the Mansion House dinner just as Chancellor Phillip Hammond was about to give his speech. She was dressed in a red cocktail dress and heels, she carried a small bag, a phone and a bundle of leaflets, and she wore a Greenpeace sash. Her fellow protestors were similarly dressed - red cocktail dresses and sashes for the women and tuxedos for the men - and the obvious question is how did they get as far into the building as they did? It is astounding in these paranoid times, that they were not stopped at the entrance, bags X-rayed and leaflets inspected. I've been to events at the Houses of Parliament and Portcullis House and the security was on par with catching a plane.

But get into the dinner they did. And when Janet Barker walked towards the front of the room, Mark Field MP took it upon himself to stop her - which would have been fine if he'd handled it almost any other way other than the way he did. 

He could have been a true class act and defender of free speech by stopping her, asking her to tell the room why she was there, and then handed her leaflets around the room. Or he could have steered her away by the arm rather than push her into a pillar and grab her by the scruff of the neck, his face magenta with instant rage.

For so many women who have been attacked in that manner, whether in public or private, the endless repetition of the footage for a solid two days cannot have been easy. The pushing into a wall, the grabbing of the neck, instantly weakening defences - it's appallingly familiar for too many. It gave me a brief flashback to the time I was pulled off a footpath in Dubai and pushed into a bush in an attempted sexual assault. And I managed to get away, albeit with laddered tights and a scratch on my chest. I can only imagine how much worse this footage would be for women who have suffered worse violence at the hands of men, especially over a sustained period of time.

Field's defence was that he "acted on instinct" but if that was his instinct, he really does need to take some time away to reflect as to why his immediate reaction was rage and excessive manhandling of a woman who was clearly representing a group known for peaceful protest. Please note that "peaceful" in this context means "non-violent", not "quiet" or "non-disruptive". The Greenpeace protesters who woke me up one morning in Durban in 2011 to protest a gas industry event in my hotel made a racket but nobody was in any danger. They were allowed to sing, bang drums in the street and chant unimpeded. One activist managed to get into the hotel business centre and change the wallpaper on the computers to the Greenpeace logo. There was no harm done. I giggled to myself when I went to the business centre to write up my notes from the gas event on one of the altered PCs - it was excellent mischief.

And nobody was in any real danger last Thursday night. 

Nobody else at the dinner felt the need to react so disproportionately. Plenty of people who were at the Mansion House dinner were at the Conservative Party conference of 2017 when Simon Brodkin, a "prankster" (read: overgrown schoolboy who is about as funny as burning orphans), barged in and handed Theresa May a P45. On that occasion, no male MPs felt the need to be a Billy Big-Balls hero and push Brodkin into the wall or frogmarch him out by scruff of the neck, Theresa May was the very model of British good manners when she took the P45 form in the same way that many a Brit is too polite not to take a leaflet from someone at the tube station, and the security guard who escorted Brodkin out did so with a single, gentle hand to the back.

Following on from the usual suspects defending Mark Field, news broke of a noisy row at Carrie Symonds' flat, which would not be newsworthy except the argument was with her partner, one Boris Johnson, the man most likely to be the next prime minister. He has been staying there after his second marriage broke up. God forbid he rent a place in Uxbridge, his actual constituency, but that would require him to show some sort of commitment to his job as an MP.

But I digress. As with any argument between a couple, only the couple knows the full story, but we do know this argument was loud enough to be heard on the street and through walls, Ms Symonds was heard saying "get off me" and "get out of my flat", Mr Johnson was heard saying "get off my fucking laptop" and smashing sounds were heard. It's the kind of language and sounds that are familiar to many a victim of domestic violence.

The ethics of the neighbours giving a recording of the altercation to the Guardian newspaper is being furiously debated - along with the ethics of other newspapers making hay from it all while spouting fauxrage at the neighbours who recorded the argument and claiming Ms Symonds is "furious" based on what "friends" have apparently said, rather than anything she has directly told a journalist. There is definitely an intelligent debate to be had about media ethics here, especially in regard to whether this endangers Ms Symonds' safety. The Daily Mail, in particular, should remove from its website a diagram of the apartment building, including a floorplan of Ms Symonds' flat - that invasive crap goes way beyond the public interest defence.

However, it is stunning that anyone says the police should not have been called. The ire has been directed at "nosy neighbours" and their own politics have been thoroughly dissected in today's papers. But in this sort of situation, where an argument can be easily heard outside a flat, where it sounds as if there are people in distress and possibly in physical danger, calling police is absolutely the right thing to do.

It is pretty common for police to arrive only to be told everything is fine, but there are plenty of occasions where the arrival of the police has saved someone's life or is the turning point for an abused partner to leave a dangerous relationship. In the wake of the Johnson-Symonds row, people have spoken up about how they were grateful for the neighbours who called the police, or how they would have left an abusive relationship sooner if the police were called earlier or, tragically, how people were left badly injured or killed because nobody picked up the phone.

I have been the "nosy neighbour". In 2005, I called the police multiple times on the couple in the flat across the hall from me in Sydney. They were drug addicts who would have noisy and violent fights that would spill out of their place and carry on outside the door to my flat, usually in the middle of the night. This went on for months. On one occasion, after I knocked on their door telling them to be quiet because I was trying to sleep, the woman bashed on my door when I was back in bed, yelling that she would "kick my cunt in". Then there was the day when I burst into tears at my desk, crying frustrated tears of distress and exhaustion because I was too sleep-deprived to do my job properly.

That story did not end happily. The parents of the woman called me, desperate for information about their daughter, particularly as they were caring for her child from a previous relationship. One night, the woman knocked on my door to tell me she was pregnant and too scared to tell her boyfriend - I told her she would have to start taking better care of herself if she was serious about continuing the pregnancy and that she should end the relationship. I let her know that her parents were very worried and would take her in. She told me it was too hard to leave him and scuttled back to her flat. The good news is that ultimately she did leave the toxic relationship, but not long afterwards, her boyfriend committed suicide in the flat - by this time I'd moved to Dubai and a friend who lived upstairs told me the sad, sorry story.

I don't regret calling the police. The police officers' interventions could have defused life-endangering situations, even if they always sent the police away and said they were fine. Calling the police several times was still the right thing to do. And it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether the couple is a wretched pair of drug addicts or a privileged couple who are on the verge of being the most powerful twosome in the country.

The more we argue about the morality pushing women into walls and grabbing their necks or whether we should call the police if we overhear a nasty argument, the less safe women will be. Why the hell is anyone who professes to be decent tolerating this?

Photography by George Hodan

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