Real-life Archers: policing and domestic violence

Saturday 22 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Frobisher 4-6 State and Society
Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

This year, The Archers, BBC Radio 4’s everyday story of country folk, broke out of its usual cult following and made headlines. Amid storylines on organic sausages and the crisis in dairy farming, fictional Ambridge has seen a dramatic story of domestic abuse, drip-fed to listeners over two-and-a-half years, in which Helen Titchener (nee Archer) has finally snapped and stabbed her domineering and controlling partner. Both Women’s Aid and Refuge, who advised the BBC on the story, praised the controversial plotline for ‘waking up the country up to the difficult issue of domestic abuse’. Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid claims the ‘Archers’ effect’ has seen a 20% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline. Archers’ fans have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds for domestic violence refuges on a special JustGiving page, ‘Because for every fictional Helen, there are real ones’.

Significantly, the story has avoided the standard depiction of abuse as physical violence, centring instead on ‘impossible to see’, ‘behind closed doors’ forms of emotional abuse. This mirrors recent changes to the law: in 2012, the official definition of domestic violence was expanded to include emotional abuse. While in The Archers we may all cheering on Helen, and booing whenever the police appear to be on Rob’s side, the reality is that the focus of policing regarding domestic abuse has changed enormously. When in 2015, ‘controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate relationship’ became a criminal offence, the police were given licence to intervene in apparently controlling relationships at an early stage, reversing the traditional reticence about interfering in family life. In Scotland, police took the unprecedented step of visiting ‘known abusers’ ahead of an Old Firm fixture (between Celtic and Rangers) to warn them they were under surveillance. Former DCS John Carnochan, who set up Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit, said: ‘there are 50,000 men there and the odds are that a lot of them will be abusers’.

Critics fear the authorities can now demonise ‘latent wife-beaters’ based on the flimsiest of evidence, and that this approach could distort statistics by bundling up relatively minor relationship problems with serious incidents of physical violence. And by encouraging the police to treat such a broad range of behaviours as ‘domestic abuse’, might campaigners actually channel resources away from women in serious danger? More fundamentally, is the Criminal Justice System infantilising women by seeing them as in need of constant protection from emotional as well as physical abuse? Or are we only now waking up to the extent of the problem and finally giving it the attention it needs? What should our approach be to ‘policing the family’?