Features and Distortions in the Daily Mail

In 2007 Susan George was held hostage, violently raped twice and was hours away from what police described as ‘certain death’. However, her determination and mental strength allowed her to beg her attacker for over half an hour to drive her to a 24-hour garage in the early hours of the morning for one last packet of cigarettes. At the garage she whispered to the attendant that the man in her car and raped her twice and was going to kill her. To her eternal gratitude the garage attendant phoned the Police who managed to intercept Susan’s car just minutes before she completed her journey home.

In the resulting court case Susan waived her right to anonymity and when the attacker – Michael Thomas – was named three other woman came forward and eventually Thomas was convicted of 19 offences over a 21 year period and sentenced to a minimum jail term of 16 years. All of this was covered by the Daily Mail back in 2009.

Susan George – even before the court case had been concluded – had decided that she would do all in her power to encourage the victims of rape to come forward, so that serial rapists could no longer get away with multiple offences. She embarked on a counselling course at her local college and successfully completed it – just. This is when she was sent to me for academic support as she wanted to continue in college and pursue a degree, in order to do so she needed to improve her essay writing – substantially. Over the last year and a half I have mentored Susan and have been part of her extremely busy life: she counsels victims of crisis and trauma, works closely with Gwent Police to ensure they improve their services to deal sensitively and appropriately with the victims of rape and she has lobbied politicians across Wales and the UK for more funding for rape crisis centres and better education in schools regarding rape. All the while she regularly made time to come and see me to go over grammar, referencing, research skills and we painstakingly rewrote draft after draft until she became a very capable academic writer.

Susan is quite simply an inspiration, how she finds the time and energy to pursue all of her projects I simply do not know; how she manages to pursue them all with plenty of smiles and laughter along the way is simply brilliant. Her academic achievements in spite of all of the barriers that she faced – the long hours of being on call for victims of crisis, the ongoing counselling that she still receives as a result of her personal trauma, her college work, her campaigning and her volunteer work with local charities – led me to nominate Susan for a NIACE Dysgu Cymru Inspire Adult Learner Award. She duly won the award for Further Education Learner of the Year, which was thoroughly deserved and was in many ways a huge step in Susan moving from being labelled a victim to becoming labelled a ‘winner’ and in many ways an ‘activist’.

Leading up to the awards and in the weeks following (in fact it is still ongoing) Susan was contacted by a wide range of newspapers, magazines and TV channels inviting her to appear on programmes, to sell her story and so forth (she was even asked by a certain magazine: ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’, to which she replied ‘No’; ‘Shame’, replied the magazine: ‘Your story would be worth a lot more if it had that kind of happy ending’). She was also contacted by the Daily Mail, who wanted to write a feature on her. This is where my ears really perked up, how would the Daily Mail treat Susan, a person I hold in great esteem?

Well, let me fill you in.

Firstly, Susan – as above – has already been in the Daily Mail as a news story, she has also already had her story told in a national magazine (she gave the fee to charity) in an attempt to encourage other victims of rape to come forward. She therefore suggested – when contacted by the same photographer who had done her magazine photos – that she really liked the photos used previously, so could the Daily Mail use one of those? No, was the answer from the photographer; because the Daily Mail has strict rules for the photography of women that he must abide by. For starters, Susan was not allowed to wear trousers – because, according to the Daily Mail, only men are supposed to wear the trousers (I get echos of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple here). No, the Daily Mail wanted a victim of an horrifically violent sexual assault to wear a skirt.

Susan hasn’t worn a skirt since the incident and considers white, long-sleeved shirts as ‘underwear’ – she wears them underneath all clothes, all the time; as if they are a second skin. Yet the photographer was insistent that the Daily Mail would not accept his photos unless Susan was pictured in a skirt. In the end the photographer ended up dressing Susan completely, picking a very conservative, prim and proper grey skirt along with a conservative striped shirt. He positioned Susan rigidly, made her cross her hands in a certain way and she was not allowed to smile. When Susan failed to produce any shoes that were ‘suitable’ in the eyes of the photographer, he popped out and bought two pairs and gave Susan a choice between them. Her make-up was applied by a make-up artist and with the strict instructions on posture, facial expression and hand positioning the photo was finally taken.

The end result is that Susan George in the Daily Mail looks unrecognisable from the Susan that I, and everyone around her knows. She appears as if she is a mannequin, completely passive and seems to highlight that she is still very much the victim. Gone is her sense of fun, her amazing ability to make the absolute most of life; irrespective of what it has thrown at her. Here she is not pictured as an award-winner, as an example of how human spirit can conquer adversity, she is merely pictured as the Daily Mail wants all women to be: docile, conservative and ultimately passive. Needless to say, she hates the photo and cringes at the unknown person staring lifelessly back at her.

The article is pretty accurate (although they get her age wrong by 4 years and Michael Thomas never ran his own haulage firm, he merely worked for one – he is portrayed as ‘wealthy’ though, continuing the Mail obsession with personal wealth as some kind of personality trait) but I find a lot of things wrong with it.

My major issue is that even though Susan has achieved so much since the rape and wants to achieve so much more, the article is simply interested in retelling the rape ‘story’. As the writer of the piece makes clear, she is here to tell ‘Susan’s dreadful story’ not to write about how many positive things have been achieved since. The article is a classic piece of Daily Mail voyeurism, preferring to focus on the intrusive, forensic detail of horrific events, rather than address any wider issues or outcomes. Indeed, the retelling of the ‘dreadful story’ takes up so much space that only one paragraph – just 25 words – is dedicated to what Susan has achieved since.

Whilst I can understand the value of forensic detail if it is being used to shock people into thinking about an issue more deeply, the Daily Mail makes no attempt to do anything of the sort. The necessity for the Daily Mail to portray any given event in clear black and white terms prevents any worthwhile points being extracted from the experience that the reader has just been put through. The article concludes with anger from Susan directed at the justice system for the jail sentence given to Michael Thomas (a classic Daily Mail complaint that they make at the end of any article that details sentencing), when perhaps it might have been far more insightful and proactive if they instead spent some time considering why none of the previous victims came forward at the time when they were raped.

No consideration is given to what made Susan different is not just that she did come forward, but that she waived her right to anonymity: she spoke out for herself and for others. Susan may not be satisfied with the minimum length of time Michael will serve, but that is not the area in which she is now most actively working. The area she is most interested in is why rape victims are so reluctanct to come forward. She has questioned the role of the Police, the media (with their tendency to imply the women is normally to blame) and society’s attitude to rape – a society in which often more shame seems to be burdened by the victim and their family than that of the perpetrator. None of these issues, none of the things which really matter to Susan and the whole point in her having any kind of public profile, were raised in this article. Instead it ended with typical Daily Mail rhetorical scaremongering:

‘The reality is that he could be out in eight years, which is a joke. How many years’ torment has he put us all through already?

‘I’ve had three – so, with the others, that makes at least six, nine, 12 years of hell. And that’s only the victims we know about. How many others might there be?’

The amazing thing about the article is that winning the Further Education Adult Learner of the Year award was not even mentioned by the Daily Mail, nor any other of her achievements. Because the Daily Mail treats rape so simplistically they couldn’t possibly mention Susan’s close work with the Police to ensure that any rape victim that comes forward is treated with the utmost dignity, respect and above all belief. Because of their need for fear and horror they could only end with the possibility of other victims, not the possibility that Susan, in spite of everything she has been through, has actually survived not just to be the lifeless mannequin in the photo, but an energetic activist making a real difference to the world around her.

Susan’s is an incredible story, but it will never be a story that the Daily Mail can tell because it does not comfortably fit with the media narratives it tries so hard to create. Susan’s story is not about one woman’s acceptance of victimhood, nor is it (much as a certain magazine wished) the story of a woman whose life had to be salvaged by returning to the arms of a man, a nice one, a different one. Susan has become the one thing that the traditional media hates: an activist.

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