Column
12 February 2003

A licence to indoctrinate

by Jennie Bristow

If Valentine's Day left you feeling warm towards your partner, prepare to have all that nonsense knocked out of you - with a special BBC 'season' on domestic violence.

The 'Hitting Home' season runs from 15 to 23 February 2003, 'featuring bold and inspiring programmes…that will help raise awareness and break the taboos surrounding domestic violence' (1).

The domestic violence issue is stretched across genre and age-group - 'CBBC [Children's BBC] shows a specially-written drama and Newsround feature; Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 4, the Asian Network, 1Xtra and BBC Local Radio are all making programmes for "Hitting Home"; there's a BBC3 documentary; Storyville on BBC4; and films on BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4.' (2) The domestic violence 'season' has even given birth to a special BBC helpline, and a website loaded with statistics and advice.

At least we now know where our licence-fee goes: on peddling the kind of dubious statistics and misanthropic prejudices that form the basis of government propaganda. If this is public service broadcasting, it is deeply irresponsible.

Seetha Kumar, head of BBC Lifeskills, states that: 'Domestic violence is a subject the BBC can explore in an accessible way - through popular soaps, children's drama, documentaries and radio programmes - to help break down taboos.' (3) In other words, everything from storylines for soap operas to children's news programmes can shamelessly be doctored, to ram home a political message: that 'domestic violence affects us all and is all of our problem' (4).

The notion that 'domestic violence affects us all' is central to all of the information on the 'Hitting Home' website. Reading about 'what is domestic violence?', we find that it 'is a pattern of controlling and aggressive behaviours from one adult, usually a man, towards another, usually a woman, within the context of an intimate relationship'. It can, apparently, be 'physical, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse. Financial abuse and social isolation are also common features' (5).

The 'One Life' section of the website, aimed at young adults, includes a handy 'relationship checklist' to help you work out if your partner is abusing you. The questions include: 'Does your partner/boyfriend/girlfriend ever: Make you feel ashamed of your tastes in music, clothes? Try to make you do things you don't want to do? Expect to be able to borrow or take money off you whenever they want and not pay it back? Criticise you or make you feel bad about yourself?'.

'None of these types of behaviour are normal', we are told at the end. 'In fact, they can all be warning signs and can often lead to more dangerous situations, like being hit or threatened, or long-term emotional harm.' (6)

Of course, if you include in the definition of domestic violence everything from borrowing money to persuasion and sarcasm, it is not surprising that it 'affects us all'. But this is not domestic violence, in any real sense of the term (or even in a Trevor & Mo sense of the term). They are entirely normal - if unpleasant - aspects of intimate relationships, which for most people happen occasionally and do not define their relationship. Why does the BBC want to present all this in terms of violence, and caution people to get out now?

For that, blame the UK government. Awareness-raising (aka scaremongering) about the extent of domestic violence, and expanding the definition to include more and more aspects of intimate behaviour, has been a hallmark of government policy for some years. The BBC links to a 1999 Home Office leaflet, 'Break the Chain', which gives the following definition: 'Domestic violence can take a number of forms such as physical assault, sexual abuse, rape, and threats. In addition, it may include destructive criticism, pressure tactics, disrespect, breaking trust, isolation and harassment.' (7)

And most of the statistics cited by the BBC on its 'Facts and Stats' page - '1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence over their lifetimes', 'less than 35 percent of actual domestic violence is reported to the police', and so on - are official statistics, either produced by the government or used as a basis for policy (8). As Josie Appleton illustrates, the fact that these statistics are official does not make them any more credible - they too are based on all-encompassing definitions of domestic violence, and a propensity to see a crime where none exists (See The numbers don't lie?).

The UK government's preoccupation with domestic violence is not a consequence of a sudden rise in the extent of real violence within couples. If it were, there would be little need for ever-expanding definitions and guidance on how to tell whether you are being abused. Rather, it is the product of a particular mentality within the government, which is deeply suspicious of intimate relationships.

It is assumed that the problems of society result from the way in which people behave towards one another, and that, left to their own devices, people make each other miserable. Consequently, individuals are bombarded with official guidance about how to conduct their relationships properly, and intervention by the authorities into the private sphere of life is increasingly presented as a necessity.

This worldview is bad enough in mainstream politics. It promotes the notion that other individuals are responsible for the problems of the world, fuels suspicion and distrust between couples, families and friends, and lays everybody open to having their private life monitored and mentored by the authorities. But when the BBC starts pulling the same kind of stunt, it becomes positively sickening.

Built into the BBC's 'Hitting Home' website is an assumption of distrust, and a blurring of the distinction between broadcasting and advocacy. On each page there is a prominent red hyperlink, reading 'Safety warning - read this first'. The warning tells those who might be worried about somebody else knowing they have visited the site how to 'increase your safety when using the internet' - for example, by emptying cache files or using email passwords. Who does the BBC think it is - the Zero Tolerance campaign?

When it comes to the programmes - whatever the BBC's claims about breaking taboos or being ground-breaking, all it is doing is taking the government's propaganda around domestic violence out to the masses - tricking kids into watching it on a TV programme, insinuating the Message into Casualty on a Saturday night. As such, it elevates a nasty, destructive, political obsession into a broader cultural obsession.

Looking at everything on offer in the 'Hitting Home' season, you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing is a product of a Home Office directive. This, claims the BBC, was not the case - although it clearly has been open to official input. 'Working closely with the relevant agencies, "Hitting Home" examines mental and physical abuse in relationships highlighting that this is an issue that can affect anyone, no matter what their age, gender or social status', states one press release (9).

The 'Hitting Home' press pack includes a page detailing a number of events that are taking places across the UK 'to coincide with the government's proposed consultation paper due this spring, setting out proposals to prevent domestic violence' (10). (Although the relative timing of the consultation paper and the BBC season is, apparently, just coincidence.)

Unfortunately, the idea that BBC big-shots came up with the idea of doing a week of domestic violence and then sought official advice is only too believable. As any commissioning editor knows, articles designed to 'break the taboo' of domestic violence are a hot favourite among budding journalists pitching themselves as 'controversial' or 'provocative'; real-life experiences of domestic violence are the stock-in-trade of glossy women's magazines; and as for soap operas - it seems like the 'Hitting Home' season is the only time abusive partners have been absent from EastEnders, forcing the BBC to resort to a Trevor & Mo retrospective.

Domestic violence attracts a certain salacious interest - and let's face it, it's easy telly. Good and bad, right and wrong, victims and survivors and the obligatory sex and violence - what other moral and visual ingredients do you need to get both ratings and campaigning kudos? Much better than dealing with areas of moral ambiguity, or issues of which the government might not approve.

Except that nowhere in the BBC's new 'Statements of Programme Policy' is there a commitment to doing the government's dirty work, however unwittingly, by encouraging its viewing public to see one another as domestic abusers or victims of abuse. And nowhere does it state the intention to push through tired old storylines around well-worn emotive issues, heavy in prejudice and light on facts.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Love and sex

The numbers don't lie?, by Josie Appleton

(1) Hitting Home website

(2) BBC press release, 17 January 2003

(3) BBC press release, 17 January 2003

(4) BBC press release, 17 January 2003

(5) What is domestic violence?, Hitting Home website

(6) One Life website

(7) DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: Break the Chain

(8) Facts and Stats, Hitting Home website

(9) BBC press release, 12 December 2002

(10) Hitting Home press pack: UK events (.pdf)

Reprinted from : http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000006DC4F.htm
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