The media 'spectacle' of Nigella Lawson's domestic abuse. (And why Mamamia published THAT photo).

Sunday People cover.





There is something concerning about the media coverage of Charles Saatchi’s violence against his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. It is the willingness of the news media to reproduce images of Lawson’s abuse.

The incident has not just served as a graphic reminder of the pervasiveness of men’s violence against women; nor just to note how quick society can be to blame the victim in cases of family violence or turn a blind eye to such “private” matters.

This type of sensationalist coverage can have a dangerous, if unintended, effect.

When the news media acts voyeuristically in instances of domestic violence (for example, by reproducing images of abuse), it can serve to normalise such violence.

Studies have long documented that the viewing of violence can lead to desensitisation and reduced tendency to intervene or feel sympathy for the victim.

A media study commissioned by VicHealth and undertaken by Jenny Morgan and Violeta Politoff of the University of Melbourne emphasised the role of the media in shaping how people understand men’s violence against women.

The repetition of myths and construction of social norms regarding men’s violence in the media has been found to shape not only public attitudes towards victims and perpetrators of violence, but also has affected rates of conviction and policy-making.

The reproduction of graphic images of domestic violence may be read by men who act violently towards women as an implicit approval of their actions. As one blogger noted, the problem with “rape jokes” is that:


Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.

The same may be true for violent men. A quick read through the comments on any of the news articles covering the story will show how many people question the legitimacy of the label “abuse” in the Lawson case. And those are the comments not weeded out by moderators.

For decades, the media has ascribed to a code of conduct that has meant most outlets will not report on incidents of suicide unless it is of particular public interest. A similarly sensitive approach should be taken with instances of domestic violence.

The Australian Press Council has a list of standards to guide journalists in this regard. It includes cautions to not describe the suicide in detail and to not “sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides”. These reports should also not be given “undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images”.

The reasons for these standards are clear – to avoid unnecessary harm or hurt to either the family or friends of the victim, or to others who have

One billion women are said to experience domestic violence in their lifetime. (EPA/S Sabawoon)

attempted suicide themselves. Why is such sensitivity not afforded to those affected by domestic violence?

By no means should a silencing of the issue of men’s violence against women be advocated, or any form of victim shaming be suggested.

As public figures, there’s a case to be made for this story being in the public interest, and shedding light on it may help to raise awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence. However, it is the nature of these images and their presentation in the media that is disturbing.


The full page image in UK newspaper The People shows the incident in question, Saatchi’s hands at Lawson’s throat, and Lawson looking frightened. The accompanying headline calls the incident a “bust up” and a “boiling point” in the couple’s relationship. As Sarah Ditum points out, the photograph appears to be an opportunistic shot by paparazzi, with:

…no sign in the attached copy that the photographer made any effort to ensure Lawson’s safety before clicking the trigger.

Perhaps even more insidious than the normalising effect of such media portrayal of men’s violence against women is the fact that there is an industry of people making their living off of this violence. The media voyeurism in this case is both opportunistic and exploitative, while problematically co-opting feminist discourse towards their less laudable ends of making a buck.

The image of Lawson’s abuse has become a commodity in the global media. Real people are making real money off the abuse inflicted upon one particular woman, when the unfortunate reality is that this violence mirrors that experienced by one billion women around the world.

The reproduction of images of Lawson’s abuse does not, therefore, represent ethical reporting on men’s violence against women. Her abuse has been fetishised by the global media, decontextualised from the broader issue of men’s violence against women and objectified as an independent spectacle.

Lawson and Saatchi.

This instance of abuse has been divorced from the wider social context of men’s violence, its prevalence, and the underlying social and structural causes.


Instead, it is made out as an individual phenomenon, sensationalised to evoke an emotional response rather than informed discussion or concerted action.

Part of addressing the problem of men’s violence against women is acknowledging the role of male privilege and socialisation in the perpetration of violence as root causes of this widespread issue.

We cannot separate out the “bad men”, pathologising this form of violence and attempting to “fix” the bad guys.

Men who act violently operate in the same social context of sexism, the valorisation of violence, and social structures of male domination – as do “good men”.

It is the collective socialisation that has for so long justified violence against women. And it is the social construction and experience of being a man that leads some men to act violently toward women, and leads many to turn a blind eye.

I am not advocating turning a blind eye to this instance of abuse. However, I think we have an obligation to represent domestic violence ethically – to not sensationalise, individualise, and to place in appropriate context of the root causes of men’s violence against women.

Sara Meger is a researcher on Gender and International Relations at the University of Melbourne. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Click to read the original article.

Note from Mamamia Publisher, Mia Freedman:

The photo on Mamamia

I stand by our decision to republish the images of Nigella Lawson being abused by her husband that first appeared in the British press. Why? Because there should be nothing private or personal about domestic violence.

If someone as famous as Nigella Lawson had been assaulted by a stranger in a restaurant and images were available, they would have been printed. She would have been as much of a victim in that situation than the one she found herself in, at the hands of the man she married.

I dispute the claim that the images might ‘normalise’ such violence.

As as for sensationalising it, I dispute that too. Obviously we can’t be held responsible for the way other media outlets presented the images or the story but at Mamamia our words were measured and sparing. We reported the details of the assault and made the sequence of events clear – this was not a single moment taken out of context. It was a sustained and repeated attack by a man who grabbed his wife several times by the throat as she looked directly at him in fear and distress.

The issue of domestic violence against women is a global one.

Research conducted in Victoria only a couple of years ago revealed that intimate partner violence is the leading cause of death, disability and injury amongst women in that state who are aged between 15 and 44. There is a similar story to be told right around the nation.

These statistics are shocking but why are we shocked?

It is clear that we need to reset the way our community deals with violence against women.

Nigella Lawson

It is because we don’t regularly hear the personal stories of women who have faced violence. We don’t take the first step of acknowledging, discussing and establishing the dialogue about the magnitude of this issue permeating our culture and community.

This includes talking about the issues, treating the victims of violence with respect, treating their stories with dignity and not dismissing them because they may make us uncomfortable.

But it also means not looking away. Not using the guise of ‘privacy’ to make domestic violence seem – as Charles Saatchi claimed, ‘a playful tiff’ between two individuals. There’s nothing playful when one person commits violence against another person who is plainly scared and anguished.

If it is the role of the media to report on critical issues and represent more broadly what is happening in our community and of course to reflect upon it – then surely the sheer volume of violence against women means the issue deserves to be covered.

According to Victoria’s Domestic Violence Resource Centre who commented on the public nature of the Nigella assault: “The myth that domestic violence is a ‘private affair’ – even when played out in public – is a pervasive one and has life-threatening repercussions.

When people choose not to get involved – from neighbours, to family members, to employers, to police and the courts – they are making a choice which reinforces perpetrators’ belief that they can abuse, humiliate and violate with impunity.

When people choose to turn a blind eye to violence, they reinforce survivors’ belief that they will not be heard.”