30 December 2006

Suffolk Murders - Tragedy, journos and ASBOs

How the media handled death and sex
The tragic deaths of initially one woman, then a second were largely disregarded by the media. But as the number of deaths rose, so the media interest increased until Suffolk became the eye of a media storm.

The coverage of the media was, on the whole, insensitive, crass and at times downright offensive. In the face of the multiple strands of drugs, sex and death, many journalists used lurid, salacious and titillating coverage. Having sent so many journalists to Southwark, valuable police time was wasted feeding the media, even if there was no news to report.

As time went on, some media outlets started to revise their coverage, highlighting that the murdered women were, foremost, people - with families and friends who loved them and grieve for them. Some media commentators found themselves unable to do this, and could not get past the drugs and the sex-industry aspects of it. It was left to the commentators to explore the subject in more detail and to look at causes and solutions.

Inevitably, much of the editorial comment looked at how policy on drugs and/or prostitution could have made a difference. Some looked to greater prescribing of substitutes as a solution; others looked at the liberalisation of policy towards prostitution as a panacea.

In practice, there are no simple answers. As we see an increase in dual use of heroin and crack, the delivery of substitute prescribing practices is only a partial solution. Without high-quality, intensive interventions for stimulant users, many people will still find themselves engaged in dangerous activities like sex-work to fund habits.

Likewise, models of legalisation will aid those people engaged in sex work who can go 'legit.' This will primarily be those with minimal drug habits, and those in the UK legitimately. Those with the most complex problems - with violent or controlling pimps, those who have been traficked, and those with big habits, are as likely to be excluded from models of legalisation as they are now. So models of legalisation that create two-tier models cannot provide adequate protection.

There are severeal strands that need to be addressed simultanueosly. And fundamentally it requires rethinking not just of laws on drugs and prostitution, but the way we deal with perceived antisocial behaviour.

For it is the approaches to Antisocial Behaviour, as much as the dependency on drugs, that has increased the risk to people who undertake sex work. The way that the Antisocial Behaviour Act has been used effectively criminalised people engaged in prostitution - and mved people in to less visible, less safe arenas as a result.

The older prohibitions, for example on what could be considered a 'brothel' condemned people to working alone - or discretely in twos or threes.

Likewise, the restriction on the placing of cards in phone-boxes made it harder for people to advertise. Westminster council doing their bit to force people further in to the shadows!

But the provisions of the Antisocial Behaviour Act have had the most serious and far-reaching consequences. Prohibiting people from certain areas (e.g. known red-light areas) or times (e.g. after dark) or places (e.g. entering a car) or carrying items (e.g. a condom) has effectively made the trading of sex an imprisonable offence.

So the much touted Respect agenda has shown preciousl little respect for the vulnerable who are driven from the streets, away from lit areas, and in to greater risk.

For any intervention to work, we need a multi-stranded approach. Liberalisation of the laws on brothel-keeping and sex work to make small, well-run brothels wholly legal; increased tolerance of those who can't operate in such settings, to ensure that they are not further excluded and criminalised. And a full range of outreach and support services to address the multiple factors that have marginalised these people, so they can, if they wish, leave this hazardrous profession.

Dec 2006

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