Only two people know what happened on the night Sarah Champion and her then-husband Graham Hoyland were arrested and cautioned for domestic violence. It is likely that even those two people have very different memories and perceptions of events, and of the eight-year marriage which preceded them.
In the absence of hard facts, this weekend the shadow minister for preventing abuse and domestic violence and her ex-husband used rival tabloids to present their versions of historic events, and to deny the claims of the other. In the Mirror, Champion described the arrest as occurring in the midst of a bitter, acrimonious marriage breakdown, when she ‘felt very vulnerable’ after ‘months of tension spilled over.”
In the Mail meanwhile, Hoyland insisted that he was the victim on the night of the arrest, while his friends and current partner described Champion as ‘an abusive bully’ and suggested that the violent attack in 2007 was not an isolated incident. Hoyland, it is claimed, still has nightmares about their relationship.
While we have no perfect objective truth, and never will, we can comment on some of the statements made since the news broke. The first point is that it is highly inappropriate for anyone with an admitted history of domestic violence to attempt to explain it away with phrases such as “I lost control after being provoked for years.” This is profoundly different to a claim of self-defence – pointedly, at no point has Champion ever claimed she was defending herself when she hit Hoyland with a framed painting, causing actual bodily harm.
There is a clear red line in all domestic violence prevention work: Nothing excuses or justifies the escalation of a row into violence. When a perpetrator says “I accept I was in the wrong, but…” everything after the ‘but’ should be discounted. Any attempts to explain or contextualise domestic violence have the inevitable effect of trivialising or even justifying it, which is incredibly dangerous. All of this is true irrespective of the genders of those involved.
The second deeply worrying aspect to the current row is the immediate reaction of Champion’s friends and colleagues, not to mention the leadership and conference of the Labour party. When news of the arrest broke on Saturday, Champion was instantly swaddled with sympathetic messages and unqualified support, all the way to the top of the party.
Male victims and survivors of domestic violence often talk of their reluctance to report the crimes or tell anyone about their experiences. They fear that they will not be believed, that if there is any ambiguity then authorities and society at large will always assume that the man is at fault, that he must have done something to deserve it or bring it upon himself. They believe that any injuries or trauma inflicted upon them, as men, will be ignored, trivialised or even mocked.
Over recent years there had been considerable progress made in persuading authorities and policy makers to at least recognise the existence and needs of male victims of domestic abuse. This is one reason why male victims have increasingly felt able to report crimes against them. Last year 5,641 women were convicted of assaulting their partners, a figure which has trebled over the past decade. The past 48 hours have been a terrible setback, confirming all male victims’ worst fears, at least as far as the Labour party is concerned. It will be perceived, if you will forgive the appropriately violent metaphor, as a kick in the teeth.
As shadow minister for preventing domestic violence and abuse, Sarah Champion’s responsibilities include many thousands of male victims of female abusers. Recent developments give rise to legitimate questions about her capacity to perform that role. She herself has stated that her experience helps her better understand “how living in a toxic atmosphere can cause emotional damage [and] how things can escalate out of control so quickly.” This may well be true but it does invite questions as to which lessons, precisely, she thinks she has learned.
Britain’s leading charity for male victims, the Mankind Initiative, tell me that they plan to write to the MP this week to request an urgent meeting to clarify her position and attitudes towards male victimisation. This seems to me more constructive response than kneejerk calls for resignation or dismissal, which would achieve nothing if the problematic attitudes displayed by the rest of her party remain in place.
Sarah Champion’s ability to represent all victims of domestic violence does not hinge upon what she did or did not do over nine years ago, but upon what she does next.