Dressed in black, she looked pale and drawn, a woman whose world appeared to have collapsed in the days since Charles Saatchi repeatedly grabbed her by the throat in full view of diners at a London restaurant.
And who could blame her if she felt let down, not just by the husband who dismissed the confrontation as a “playful tiff”, but by all those who sought to play down what had happened and by the Metropolitan Police, who seemed reluctant to investigate?
Sometimes, a newspaper story acts as a mirror on a culture, the reaction providing a brutal reflection of its shortcomings. Where you might have expected Saatchi to face universal condemnation, a posse of commentators leapt to his defence. The London Evening Standard said it would be “irrational and unjust” to scrap his column just because this had been “a wretched week for his marriage”; Nick Clegg declined to pass judgment on the basis of a “fleeting” photograph; while Tracey Emin said anyone criticising Saatchi had “never been in love”.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of society’s continued failure to take domestic abuse seriously, however, was the police handling of the case. After initially insisting there would be no investigation, officers eventually issued a caution (for which there has to be an admission of guilt). Saatchi’s airy declaration that he accepted the caution only because he didn’t want the incident “hanging over” the family has provoked criticism. But there has been no real backlash over the decision not to take Saatchi to court.
Some suggest the police were in a difficult position because Lawson appears to have been reluctant to co-operate. But the photos provided officers with independent evidence. Is allowing Saatchi to walk away with a metaphorical shrug of his shoulders really the best the English justice system could offer? And how would such an incident have been handled if it had taken place north of the Border?
Though Scotland has its own problems with domestic violence, with almost 60,000 incidents recorded in 2011-12, it is unlikely Saatchi would have got off so lightly if the restaurant had been in central Edinburgh or Glasgow instead of London. According to Chief Supt Bob Hamilton, head of the licensing and violence reduction division for Police Scotland, if Saatchi had committed his offence here he would have been arrested, charged and appeared in court the next day. “We don’t look at this as a minor issue, we look at it as a serious issue,” he says. “We wouldn’t warn anyone over domestic abuse [a ‘police warning’ is the closest thing Scotland has to a ‘caution’]. If we can evidence it – and a picture of someone putting their hands round someone else’s neck is clear evidence – I would expect officers to make an arrest.”
This robust response is a reflection on the progress Scotland has made in the handling of domestic abuse cases in the past 20 years, but particularly since devolution. A combination of factors, including a parliament which – though far from boasting equal representation of the genders – started out with a greater proportion of women than Westminster, and a willingness on the part of the police to take a multi-agency approach, has placed the country at the vanguard of efforts to tackle the problem.
Holyrood has introduced a succession of pieces of legislation, from the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001, which extended protection of victims of domestic violence to unmarried couples, to the newly announced Criminal Justice Bill, which seeks to abolish the requirement for corroboration, which is seen by some as a hurdle for prosecuting crimes such as rape and domestic abuse where the victim is often the only witness.
Also helpful has been the pioneering of specialist domestic abuse courts aimed at speeding up the judicial process and ensuring victims have access to an advocacy service (although campaigners say more resources are needed to ensure they run effectively).
Alongside these improvements to the judicial process, there has been investment in preventative work, such as that carried out by organisations such as Zero Tolerance and White Ribbon Scotland, which challenge prevailing attitudes on male aggression through direct contact with young people or information campaigns. Among the most interesting facets of their work, given the opprobrium heaped on the diners who failed to intervene to help Nigella – are their bystander projects aimed at teaching people what to do if they witness an incident unfolding.
According to Lily Greenan, manager of Scottish Women’s Aid, however, the most important advance has been the improvement in the police response. In the 1980s, she says, “a domestic was [just] a domestic. The police were frustrated because they would go in and lift the guy, they would drop him off at the top of the road, and he would go back, and they would say ‘Why does she not just keep her door shut?’ From the mid-1990s things began to shift, but in the last ten years we have seen a phenomenal change and we now have one of the most effective police responses in Europe.”
Some of these changes had already taken place when Chief Supt Hamilton was asked by the then chief constable of Strathclyde, Stephen House, to look at the spiralling domestic abuse problem in 2009. He realised that while police attitudes towards victims had improved, officers were spending all their time managing the consequences of domestic abuse rather than stopping it happening, so a decision was taken to shift the emphasis on to the perpetrator.
Since victims are often reluctant to talk to the police, Strathclyde decided to open up its intelligence files to organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid. Where once officers would have had to wait for a woman to complain before taking action, an investigation could now be triggered by information from those working in the field. Officers also looked at patterns of abuse in repeat victims and tried to arrest the perpetrators in connection with other crimes when they thought they might be about to offend. For example, if they knew a man was likely to attack his partner after a drinking session on a Friday night, they would move in before he got the chance. If that wasn’t possible, they would simply get officers to knock on the door.
“A big part of our work is to challenge the behaviour, because a lot of vulnerable women we deal with are not in a position to stand up to that bullying,” Hamilton says. “My view is that the cop’s role is to stand there between the victim and the perpetrator, saying to the perpetrator ‘this is not going to happen today’.”
Where the police cannot obtain a statement from the individual, or even when they can but they require corroboration to get the case into court – as is still the case in Scotland for now – they will actively seek out other sources of evidence, conducting door-to-door inquiries, interviewing friends and family and approaching previous partners to establish a pattern of offending.
Greenan says this rigorous approach to evidence-gathering means cases are going to courts with more charges attached and that the approach to risk assessment – while not perfect – has also massively improved. She hopes that, where the quality of service was once patchy, the introduction of a single police force will mean best practice is rolled out across the country.
Of course, some of the issues thrown up by the Lawson/Saatchi case are more cultural than judicial. The way some commentators have responded reminds us that we live in a world where some people still see male aggression as the norm. “So much of the coverage focused on Lawson (why does she stay in the marriage?); her children (why don’t they do something about it?); and the diners (why didn’t anyone intervene?),” says Greenan.
“It was ages before I saw anything that said ‘Why is he doing this?’. On top of that, [Saatchi’s] sense of entitlement was gobsmacking; his sense of having the right to do that to his partner in public and his irritation with people’s reaction to it – it was almost like ‘Get away from me, I’m too important for this’.”
Jenny Kemp is co-ordinator for Zero Tolerance, which helps train up professionals to deliver anti-domestic violence initiatives to children and young adults. “There’s been loads of improvement in the infrastructure and the court system and the perpetrator programmes that try to change men’s behaviour, and we have seen some attitudes shifting,” she says, “but I feel there is always a force pushing back against that and saying ‘Hang on a minute, women are getting a bit emancipated here, let’s find a new way to oppress them’, so you have the lads culture and the sexual exploitation culture with the strip bars and lap-dancing clubs.”
Kemp points to a study carried out by Nancy Lombard of Edinburgh Napier University which found very young children regard violence by men as almost par for the course. “It still feels like we have a long way to go,” she says.
Also cautioning against complacency is MSP Rhoda Grant, who spearheaded the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2012 (see panel). Although police forces across the UK view Scotland as a pioneer in the field, Grant says we could, in turn, learn from other countries. For example, in Australia, the state can evict the perpetrator in domestic abuse cases where there are children involved. And in New Zealand offenders are not only vilified, they are used to front public information campaigns in which they admit their wrongdoing and explain what they have done to address it.
It is difficult to imagine Saatchi taking part in such an exercise in repentance. Indeed the danger is that – far from acting as a salutary warning to others as to the consequences of such behaviour – the case, and the way it has been handled, might perpetuate the notion that grabbing your wife by the throat is somehow less serious than grabbing a stranger by the throat.
What is certain is that the fallout has exposed some deep-seated prejudices about male behaviour which need to be confronted if domestic abuse is ever to be eradicated. “We need to tackle equality issues to make this go away, because it’s a power thing,” says Grant. “Until we have real equality and empowerment of women, we will never stop this kind of behaviour.”