Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Proper reaction to Nigella pictures is to help victims

'Playful tiff': Nigella Lawson
'Playful tiff': Nigella Lawson

It was that comparative rarity these days: a genuinely shocking and compelling tabloid splash. The pictures of Nigella Lawson apparently having her throat gripped and her nose pinched by her husband had the key parts of a strong red-top story: famous people; inappropriate behaviour in public. And it was uncomfortable to look at.

In a weekend busy with stories of genuine global importance, the Sunday People managed to make an impression on the news.

Twitter shuddered and spasmed with discussion and criticism and the story has been reverberating through the media.

Charles Saatchi (Mr Nigella Lawson) made matters worse by referring to the incident as a "playful tiff", saying he was touching her neck to emphasise his point. He has since accepted a police caution for assault. But this is about more than just a set of opportunistic images, snatched in a public spot.

Our collective reaction is fascinating and the ethical aspects of our own relationship to the photos should be pushed to the fore.

Some of our response comes from the sheer incongruity of what we are seeing. Nigella has maintained a carefully-marketed status as domestic goddess: serene and commanding on TV.

We associate her with an ideal of strong femininity; a deity of home and hearth.

These photos represent a disturbing antithesis of how we have been conditioned to consider her.

So we feel unsettled as an audience, because we are shocked. We may also have that standard reaction to stories about the personal lives of others: guilt at being complicit in an intrusion.

A violent argument between husband and wife is a matter for them; it is none of our business and we should not interfere.

And yet. The other ethical dilemma inherent in this story comes from the very lack of any intervention at all.

A woman was apparently assaulted in a public place and nobody stepped in. Indeed, the only reaction was to take photographs.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about what members of society should do when confronted by violence or bullying.

Our newly-evolved impulse is to record and capture – not to act. We have become passive, not active participants.

If we recall the atrocity in Woolwich, we are struck by two competing reactions: those heroic women who tended the fallen man; and those who took out their phones and recorded the manic protestations of those allegedly responsible for the killing.

Now, there is not necessarily a simple moral judgment to be made. It is important for us to record what happens, so we can learn how to respond in future.

But sometimes our passive complicity puts us in an awkward position ethically. When we buy the newspaper, or (more likely) gawp online, we enact the same process as the casual bystander in that restaurant: we linger to the side and watch unacceptable behaviour. And do nothing about it.

It is, obviously, too late for anybody seeing the pictures of Nigella Lawson to step in and alter the situation. But we can collectively respond to them in an ethical way.

While the follow-up in rival newspapers may be prurient and interested only in the prospect of a celebrity suffering a public trauma, the spike in interest enables us all to think about domestic violence and how we deal with it.

In the end, we all have an interest in acting to help either one victim, or a group of victims. If we can, we should walk across the room to help someone in distress.

If we cannot do that, the next best thing to do is to use well-documented incidents to raise the profile of the issue itself.

We should not be passive about these photos, but make sure we do something about them.

Stig Abell is a former director of the Press Complaints Commission. Mike Gilson returns next week

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