Her name was Reeva Steenkamp. She was a 29-year-old model who was the face of an anti-bullying campaign and was about to return to her old school to talk to girls about gender-based violence. She was adored by her family. But on Valentine’s Day 2013 she was murdered by her violent, controlling boyfriend. He shot her four times through the locked door of a bathroom in his home, where she was cowering, petrified.
Her future was stolen by a dangerous predator with a history of controlling and abusing women; a former girlfriend has said he used to lock her in his house with no food for hours at a time, call her parents many times a day to track her movements and physically abuse and threaten her to the extent that she feared for her life.
That is the story of Steenkamp’s horrific murder by the Paralympian Oscar Pistorius. But it seems our national broadcaster disagrees. Last week, the BBC began promoting a new four-part documentary series, The Trials of Oscar Pistorius. It launched a trailer that did not mention Steenkamp’s name, but instead featured Pistorius’s “remarkable” sporting achievements, praise from Nelson Mandela and his lie that “he didn’t do it”.
Accompanying this was a sickening BBC press release that boasted of a series telling the “extraordinary story” of “an international hero who inspired millions” until “he suddenly found himself at the centre of a murder investigation”. “According to Pistorius, the event was a tragic accident, but his troubled past and questionable testimony cast doubt on his innocence,” the BBC tells us. Amid the gushing, his murder conviction is not mentioned once. You could read it and think he got off.
Although the BBC has since removed the trailer, a slightly amended version of the offending press release remains on its website. But what on earth did it think it was doing buying a series directed by a man who says “he’s still flip-flopping” on Pistorius’s innocence and who reserves more criticism for the press for daring to report his history of domestic abuse than he does for the murderer himself?
This is nothing less than the BBC allowing itself to be used as the propaganda outfit of a convicted murderer. Staff are furious; sources tell me that more than 100 journalists have complained to management about the way in which the promotional material minimises violence against women.
This is a dangerous mistake by the BBC that compounds the dominant narrative about men who murder their partners. So often, the stories that get told are of upstanding citizens, loving fathers and respected colleagues who, having been provoked, lose control and lash out in a moment of madness. The tragedy is theirs, not of the women they kill, who are so often cast as the spurned lover or unfaithful temptress.
The truth could not be more different. Professor Jane Monckton Smith, an expert on intimate partner homicide, reviewed 372 cases where men killed their partners. She found almost all these killings shared an eight-stage pattern that began with a pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse, which evolved into a relationship dominated by coercive control and an escalation in control tactics such as stalking or threatening suicide.
Popular culture can play an important role in helping us understand these patterns. One of the most powerful accounts of coercive control I’ve seen was the Channel 4 drama I Am Nicola, starring Vicky McClure. BBC Three recently launched a documentary aimed at young people, Is This Coercive Control? But this positive work is more than undone by broadcasters who see no issue in glamorising the murder of women if they see it as ratings-friendly.
Societal minimisation of “domestic” killings matters. First, it feeds into the justice system via the police, prosecutors, juries and judges. Take the killing of Claire Parry, 41, a highly qualified nurse who worked overtime during the pandemic, and a devoted mother to two children. In his sentencing remarks, Mr Justice Jacobs said he was sure that her killer, Timothy Brehmer, 41, deliberately took Parry by the neck in a way that caused severe injuries, then, after leaving her hanging out of her car unconscious, “did nothing to try to help”, pretending he did not realise she was in distress.
Brehmer, a police officer, was described at his trial by a former intimate partner and fellow police officer as exerting “coercive and controlling behaviour over women”. Yet the jury acquitted him of murder. He was jailed for 10 years after admitting manslaughter.
This case is the latest in a long line where male killers have succeeded in having murder charges reduced to manslaughter by arguing that they did not mean to cause serious harm or that they lost control after being provoked. The irony is, of course, that for abusive men, killing their partner is the ultimate assertion of control.
Second, the BBC narrative obscures the real story of these men: the warning signals, the real danger these women were in. Not all domestic abusers will become killers, but Monckton Smith’s research shows that the vast majority of men who kill their partners are abusers.
Two women a week are killed by their partners in England and Wales. Their lives could be saved if they, their loved ones and the police were more aware that coercive control does not just constitute psychological abuse at that time, but could be a red flag for what might happen. Yet the popular narrative perpetuates the idea that these murders are surprising and unpredictable, so there is little we can do to proactively keep women safe from dangerous predators.
Shame on the BBC for glorifying a convicted murderer who shot his girlfriend to death. Shame on it for putting her mother through the torture of watching a trailer about her murder that did not even bother to name her. Say her name. Tell her story. Women’s lives depend on it.
• Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian and Observer columnist