It was March 1986, I was in my first teaching job in Birmingham, when something changed the way I read newspapers, listened to the radio, or watched TV. That ‘something’ was the ‘Ealing Vicarage Rape’, the ‘Ealing Vicarage Attack’, or the ‘Terror at the Vicarage’ story, depending on how it was reported.
This blog isn’t about what happened on that day. It’s been re-reported quite a lot since Jill Saward (my sister-in-law) died a few days ago. What happened in 1986, and how she and her father Michael handled the rape, the attack, the search for the perpetrators, the arrest, trial, and sentencing, are all matters of record. Both wrote and spoke about it at length afterwards, and in my opinion, should be best remembered for that, and not for the thing that was done to them. As far as our family were concerned, the police handling of the case was excellent, but the judicial system’s approach to rape (‘No Great Trauma?’ according to the Old Bailey judge) was awful.
I haven’t written about this before, but here are a few pointers to what can possibly happen if you have the misfortune to be part of a media firestorm, because that is what the Ealing Vicarage Attack became. (Excuse me if I refrain from using the word Rape again, except here. It’s an ugly word for an ugly deed. Call it a psychological hang-up as a result of all this, but let’s leave it there.) It’s also about what you should do (and most definitely not do) if that does happen. Our family did not choose to become public property, but that is what happened for a time, as the Attack entered media folklore and everyday conversation for several months.
So, let’s assume you or your loved ones suddenly become part of a massive news ‘event’ through no choice of your own. What’s going to happen next? What should you expect?
1 Shock and disbelief at the unreality of it all. From the time I first heard of the Attack by telephone and had to pass on the news to others in my close family, there was a strange sense of disconnection with normality. How could such a thing happen? That first night after hearing the news, I was alone with my thoughts and questions. It was a long night.
2 Relief when somebody official appears to take charge and be genuinely helpful. In 1986, the police team (both men and women) were magnificent at looking after the victims, passing on information and protecting the family from harassment by news reporters.
3 Feeling as if you are in an insulated ‘bubble’, where you and a few others are ‘insiders’ and everybody else is an outsider. It is a place where information has to be handled and released very carefully, preferably under legal advice. If there was a crime and the police are involved, take their advice seriously. In our case, the police had to manage the ‘news’, slowly releasing extra bits of information to the press, bit by bit over several days, because this helped the investigation to dig up more information on the criminals and find them.
4 Expect to become a ‘story’. The newspapers, radio and TV were all highly excited at the ‘story’, and did their best to find out and reveal as much as possible about the victims’ lives, frequently putting 2 and 2 together to make 5, and often simply making things up. Whole paragraphs of information were created out of a ‘No comment’. Although the TV and radio reports were fairly accurate, the newspapers (all of them) were particularly lousy at getting the facts right. Their reporting style veered from the inaccurate (describing events that never happened) to the salacious (with details obviously intended to titillate.) Our family became slightly obsessive media monitors, scanning every news outlet to see how our story was being handled. It made for a very full scrapbook.
5 Expect press intrusion. Everyone leaving or entering Ealing vicarage was asked for information by reporters, photographers were ever-present, and photos were published that were gross invasions of privacy. (Never, ever, allow yourself to be seduced by a reporter into ‘putting your own point of view’.) Nowadays, be very, very, careful of posting anything about it on Facebook or similar. (By the way, this posting has been agreed with other members of the family who were closely involved at the time.)
6 Expect a large postbag. We had sacks of letters arriving at the door every day from across Britain and around the world. Most of them were kindly and encouraging. A few made you wonder what else was going on in the writers’ minds. It was a wonder they had the right address on the envelope, or even a stamp- and why did they bother?
7 Anger. One thing I wanted to do at the vicarage, (but never did, unfortunately), was to take sections of all the tabloid front pages and paste them on to a giant wooden cross that was lying on its side inside the nearby church, ready for Easter. I would have stood it upright against a tree in the garden, ready for photos- providing a subversive visual commentary on the whole press intrusion-thing. And the idiots would have published it, too.
8 Laughter. One evening, we all sat down with pizza and wine to watch ‘The Blues Brothers’. That film will always have a special place in my heart for the hysterics it induced in a stressed-out group of exhausted family and close friends. Incidentally, one of the best media responses came from a spot on a Friday evening BBC1 comedy show, just after the bizarre trial sentencing and the judge’s weird comments about trauma. Jasper Carrott, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis ran a spoof charitable appeal raising funds for ‘elderly out-of-touch old men sitting on benches who need to be placed in a good home’. If you’re reading this guys- then thanks. At the time, it was appreciated more than you could ever know.
Of course, we now live in a different world of media to the one we had in 1986. Everyone can film their own stories, broadcast their own blogs, and make their own comments about what’s happening out there. Facebook, Twitter and the like can make everybody an expert in this supposedly ‘post-truth’ age, and there’s also a greater scope for ‘trolls’ to say whatever they like with little comeback, unless the police take an interest. But 30 years later, I suspect that a lot of what I’ve written here still stands true.
Looking back, many of those involved are either dead, or have moved on to other things. However, I (for one) will be glad when we finally see the obituaries of Rupert Murdoch, David Montgomery (editor, News of the World in 1986) and Kelvin MacKenzie (editor of the Sun in 1986), because it means I will have outlived people whose organisations did disgraceful things with innocent peoples’ lives purely for profit- rather like those who broke into Ealing vicarage in 1986. But in some ways, the media men were worse, because they weren’t high on drugs - and did what they did anyway, just because they could.
I do believe in Judgement and Justice, even if we don’t always see it happening in this world. And one day, I think those three will face a reckoning of their own. Our family weren’t their only victims.