The SkyNews current affairs programme The Great Debate might be described as a cross-over between Question Time and Gogglebox. Each week a particular topical issue is explained and debated, with a virtual audience of viewers invited to join in with a studio panel. This week, I took part in the programme as a member of the virtual audience.
The question was ‘are women safe on the street?’, on the back of the events following the conviction of then serving police officer Wayne Couzens, now serving a life sentence, for the abduction, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard. This case has sent shockwaves through the country with revelations that more than 80 women have been killed by police officers. This show somehow felt like a reckoning, and a ‘me too’ moment for the police force.
On the panel this week were Amber Rudd, former Conservative cabinet minister, including a post as home secretary 2016–2018; Colin Sutton, retired detective with over 30 successful investigations including cases of murder and rape; Femi Otitoju, equality and diversity training expert; and Sarah Vine, columnist at the Daily Mail.
Can we trust the police?
British policing is based on the concept of policing by consent. The question in my own mind raised by recent events was in fact put forward by another viewer: “Why should the public give consent to be policed, if the police continue to fail us?”. In other words, why should we trust the police?
The show started off with host Trevor Phillips asking members of the audience to describe personal experiences as victims of sexual crimes and their engagement with the police. One person – anonymised, as she did not feel safe in showing her face or giving her name – explained how she was violently attacked on multiple occasions. She repeatedly reported this to the police but nothing came of it, even though the police knew the identity of the assailant.
In this discussion of whether or not we can trust the police, it was clear that Femi Otitotju doesn’t, in either her personal or professional capacity. It was perhaps her own lived experience as a black woman that led to her professional engagement with issues of equality and diversity.
In the view of Colin Sutton, untrustworthy police officers are a significant but small minority. However, speaking from her experience as the mother of a teenage daughter, Sarah Vine said that there is a such a lack of trust in the police among teenagers that they tend not even to report incidents of sexual assault.
Systemic failures to tackle police behaviour
Another audience member asked, “Why can’t women go out at night and feel safe?”
Rudd picked this question up. In her view, there is a culture of male violence which is not taken seriously by the police. However, she expressed shock at recent revelations of errors and sexist and misogynist attitudes within the police force itself. When asked by Phillips if she was aware of the existence of these when she was home secretary, she claimed that neither she nor other senior people had knowledge of it.
The same plea of ignorance was echoed by Sutton, although it is difficult to believe that in his 40 years as a police officer he never came across such behaviour. His defence that there was no WhatsApp in his day rings rather hollow; while Vine rightly commented that it allows communication boundaries to be easily crossed, misogyny didn’t start with WhatsApp.
By this time, behind the muted virtual audience wall, I was shouting “ignorance is no excuse!” and I was frustrated that Phillips didn’t push back and ask why they didn’t know – or at least point out that if they did, they would be unlikely to admit this live on TV.
When discussion continued after the show had tuned out, it became clear that my feelings were shared. Otitoju called Rudd and Sutton out openly, saying: “it is practically criminal that these people can sit here and say ‘I had no idea that it was like that’”. I punched the air because someone had finally said something that needed to be said in public.
Here lie the systemic failures of leadership in a culture of covering up – not only of the perpetrators but those supporting them above and below. Audience members raised the issue of how attempts to draw attention to problems from within the police and military can in fact have negative consequences for a whistleblower, leading in many cases to isolation and removal of opportunities for promotion.
The culture of toxic masculinity
Otitotju’s view was that there is a culture that needs to be tackled, but not only in terms of actual male violence against women. It’s also the things that create the impression that women are sexually available such as pornography, the sexualising of women and girls, and advertising.
She said this toxic male culture starts early – she has been in situations addressing school girls aged 12 and 13 who have been sexually abused. She said behaviours and attitudes are learned at home from parents and through the media.
I could see from the expressions of other audience members on the digital screen that laying the blame on parents had not gone down well. Having had firsthand experience of safeguarding issues in schools and education and other settings, I understood where she was coming from, but I think many of us felt this was an oversimplification and generalisation. To be fair, she did admit she wasn’t a parent herself.
Sutton also raised the issue of how we bring up boys and drew attention to the role of alcohol, drugs, and a historically patriarchical society.
For Vine, the blame lies firstly with pornography, which is easily accessible as soon as children get a smartphone, a problem not successfully addressed by either age verification or the online safety bill. Another factor, she said, is music with explicitly misogynistic lyrics that legitimise and normalise harmful attitudes and behaviour, creating a groupthink mentality – millions are listening to it, so it must be ok. Making the content less accessible was her key solution, such as having regulations and paywalls.
Another area touched on was the value of having positive male role models. Younger sports personalities such as Marcus Rashford and Lewis Hamilton were commended for doing what they can to address the kinds of cultural issues raised in the programme.
Restoring trust in the police
During the back wall audience discussion, an important point was made by some – that the police are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, that there is a societal culture that will always find something to have a go at the police about.
This was not my take and I expressed my views – systemic failure needs to be addressed at the root and symptoms should not simply be plastered over.
Hopefully next week’s show will be less traumatic but important all the same. Stay tuned.