Criminologists explore media’s reporting on footballer’s domestic abuse conviction

OPINIONS LAST UPDATED : 12 SEPTEMBER

New research published this week sees Birmingham City University criminologists Professor Elizabeth Yardley, Morag Kennedy and Liam Brolan explore how the news media reported the case of English professional footballer, Danny Simpson’s domestic abuse offence.

In this opinion piece, Professor Yardley shares her views on how the news media doesn’t always give the full picture.

Criminology

Birmingham City University

Domestic abuse is among the most harmful behaviours in contemporary society. It’s defined by Women’s Aid as “an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer…”

One of the most influential social institutions in informing our views and attitudes towards domestic abuse is mainstream media. What most people know about domestic abuse comes through what they read about in newspapers or online news sites. But news media generally don’t do a very good job of giving us the full picture.

Victims are often painted as having driven offenders to attack them in cases that are ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other’. Specific incidents are often portrayed as ‘one-offs’ where an otherwise normal person ‘loses it’, rather than snapshots of a bigger picture of abuse in which people make conscious decisions to control and harm. 

Some of the worst reporting I’ve seen has been in relation to domestic abuse perpetrated by celebrities, especially professional sportspeople. In a recent piece of research with two of my colleagues – Morag Kennedy and Liam Brolan - I set out to explore how news media reported a specific case of an English professional footballer convicted of a domestic abuse offence.

We looked at the case of Stephanie Ward, whose partner Danny Simpson – who happened to be a Leicester City footballer – was convicted of common assault after attacking her in December 2014.

At 1:30am on 29 December, Stephanie made a 999 call from her house in Manchester. She could be heard crying and shouting for Simpson to get off her. When officers arrived on the scene, it was reported that they saw Simpson straddling Stephanie with his hands firmly around her throat. He was arrested and charged with common assault. Simpson was found guilty and sentenced to 300 hours of unpaid work. He stated he would appeal his conviction but never did. He did however appeal the sentence – arguing that it was not feasible to carry out all 300 hours because of all the press attention he was getting. He was suspended from playing for Leicester City and faced a formal disciplinary process, the outcome of which was not made public. He resumed playing for the team in the 2015/16 season and signed a new contract in 2016 that will keep him at the club until 2019.

In terms of how the UK national press reported this case, we discovered several key themes.

In addition, news media did not portray any sense of Simpson’s personal responsibility for his offence. Instead, they reported his consistent denial of his guilt and failed to pass any comment at all on the fact that he decided not to pursue an appeal against his conviction. In covering his sentence, news media depicted him as humble and sorry – but only for the impact that his offence had on his club and his fans. He was presented as reformed – but only in terms of being less spoiled, less of a ‘brat’ and more appreciative of his privileged socio-economic position. Simpson emerged as a loveable rogue who had grown up rather than a man convicted of a violent offence who needed to be rehabilitated.

Stephanie Ward on the other hand became the subject of considerable victim-blaming. She was framed as the aggressor. The use of quotation marks about her ‘claims’ were evident in the coverage, even after Simpson had been convicted – suggesting that despite being found guilty of common assault, we were still talking about allegations rather than facts and truths.

Stephanie was presented as the problem - her behaviour as having driven Simpson to attack her. Questions of whether Simpson had changed the underlying traits behaviours that led him to decide to commit an act of violence were wholly absent. His identity as an abuser was denied within news media narrativesand by implication, so was any need to change his values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours in relation to women.

Throughout the coverage, women were portrayed as consumer items, as symbols of success alongside expensive cars and lifestyles – often referred to as WAGs (wives and girlfriends). Stephanie was presented as a predatory gold-digger, benefitting from wealth she was not entitled to. Female partners of professional footballers were never portrayed as autonomous individuals with lives, interests and minds of their own. The monetary rewards available to footballers like Simpson enable them to become extreme consumers – of products, services and indeed people.

In denying Simpson’s status as an abuser and constructing Stephanie as the WAG gone bad, news media effectively engage in something called fetishistic disavowal, - ‘I know but I don’t want to know that I know, so I don’t know’. I know it, but I refuse to fully assume the consequences of this knowledge, so that I can continue acting as if I don’t know it. (Zizek, 2009: 45-46).

News media know that Simpson was convicted of a violent offence. However, to confront and challenge his behaviour would be to confront and challenge the bigger picture in which his behaviour exists. Celebrities like Simpson are valuable cultural products in neoliberal consumer capitalist society. Their off-pitch behaviour creates a spectacle, which becomes fodder for the tabloid press. Stories about him become products themselves. They fill the pages of papers and magazines read by the ‘have nots’, those left behind by late capitalism - forgotten by liberal elites and seeking solace in celebrity culture.

We weren’t surprised by what we found - we’ve been all been working in this area for a while. However, we are incredibly concerned about the impact that the denial and disavowal of domestic abuse has upon general understandings of these issues. Such coverage impedes the progress that campaigners and advocates have made in raising the status of domestic abuse as a significant social problem. These cases are never ‘just a domestic’, yet they continue to be portrayed in this way. 

Simpson was an abuser who just happened to be a professional footballer in the same way that other abusers just happen to be lawyers, accountants, lorry drivers, teachers, police officers and whole range of other professions. Domestic abuse does not discriminate. It is not confined to any social group or social class. Everyone who commits an offence like this is an abuser – and that’s how we should be describing them.

In recent years, those standing up for victims of domestic abuse have successfully lobbied for changes to the law – the offences of stalking and coercive control have made it onto the statute books. However, cultural change has not kept up with legal reforms - introducing legislation is one thing but changing values, attitudes and beliefs is a whole other project. As long as news media continue to deny and disavow domestic abuse in general - and in relation to celebrities in particular - those who read these stories will remain in the dark about this harmful and insidious behaviour.

Footballer, rich man, celebrity, consumer: Media blindness and the denial of domestic abuse in the Stephanie Ward and Danny Simpson case is out now in the journal ‘Crime, Media, Culture’.

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