On Stanley Johnson’s nomination; Boris as a child survivor; and the role of charity ambassadors

This morning I have been reading Catherine Bennett’s reflections on the proposed knighthood of Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson, on page 37 of The Observer. The sub-heading of the article was, ‘Boris Johnson’s plan to honour his father is an insult to victims of domestic violence’. Initially, as I first read it, I agreed; knighting a man who is a known perpetrator of domestic abuse sends an entirely wrong message to wider society and is a poor reflection of anti-violence and abuse values (although as the article noted, this would not be the first time, citing Geoffrey Boycott who was knighted despite a previous conviction for assaulting his girlfriend).

Anyway, as I was mulling this over, I couldn’t stop returning to the uncomfortable truth that far from the framing of Boris Johnson as separate and distinct from the faceless ‘victims’, he is actually a victim of domestic abuse himself. The 2021 Domestic Abuse Act enshrined the right for children who experience domestic abuse to be finally seen as victims themselves, rather than witnesses or bystanders. However, critics might note that there has so far been little material difference on the ground since this landmark shift in policy. In the article what is interesting is not only the false distinction between the position of Boris Johnson as the child survivor and ‘victims’, but also the later specificity in the article of the acronym ‘IPVAW’ (Intimate partner violence against women). The use of this term again discursively frames victims of domestic abuse as women (and it is correct, adult women are disproportionately victims), but this is problematic now we are considering children as co-victims too. Somehow, we are going to need to expand our language in order to account for the visibility of children of DVA without losing the recognition that DVA is a form of Gender-Based violence.

Arguably the reason for the ignorance about Boris Johnson’s role as a victim of DVA in the article was partly due to him being a boy child survivor (which are often overlooked as I noted in my recent book). But also he is very very far from the ‘ideal victim’ stereotype. Not least because there are hints at potential abuse perpetration himself, with the reports of police being called to his property due to neighbour complaints, and other allegations of behaviour in the realm of ‘toxic masculinity’. Of course even if someone is, or was, a child survivor, it does not mean anything about their other qualities.

That a child survivor would want to award their perpetrator father in such a way is both troubling and yet somehow unsurprising. There is much less research out there on the relationships that adult (child) survivors navigate with their abusive and non-abusive parents, but I can say from experience that it is often far messier and more complex than non-survivors may imagine. The ravage complexities that child victim-survivors face are part of personal battles (even if they are playing out in the public arena for high-profile public figures). Indeed this is where the newspaper subheading is correct; the proposed knighthood of Stanley Johnson isn’t just about him, or their family unit, it has an impact on all of us.

This is what makes the role of domestic abuse charities even more important. They exist not only to offer crisis support but also to give a measured and empowering public policy response for the benefit and improvement of wider society. This is why many were aghast this week when a news presenter, Fiona Bruce, who is an Ambassador for the DVA charity Refuge went viral in a clip from Question Time, discussing Stanley Johnson and his friends claim that breaking his wife’s nose was just a ‘one off’.

The clip went viral and in the case of a few seconds, it managed to repeat and reinforce what every victim-survivor, adult and child, will have heard at least once. Abuse and violence as one-off’s rather than as part of a repeated pattern of abuse. But the BBC defended Bruce, saying that she has an obligation to put forward a right of reply from an accused person or their representatives when a serious allegation is made about them and that she was not expressing ‘personal opinion’. Staggeringly, Refuge said;

‘Fiona is deeply sorry that last night’s programme has distressed survivors of domestic abuse. Refuge stands by her and all survivors today.’

But if the role of a journalist/ambassador is not to stand up to the so-called ‘balanced’ script writing, or add context which would frame her obligation of putting across ‘the other view’ then what exactly is the point of her charity links? If a DVA organisation is keener on keeping high-profile connections than prioritising the perspective of victims at home watching these messages, what does that mean? That clip will have done significant damage to the confidence of survivors (and embolden their peers) who also downplay DVA injuries as one-offs. By giving airtime to Stanley Johnson’s ‘friends’ it served to discredit the truth and voice of his victim, Charlotte Wahl, who spoke out only 4 years ago for Tom Bower’s book.

Ultimately this whole discourse has raised a few salient points;

rightly questioning the suitability of DVA perpetrators to receive public honours;

the invisibility of child survivors;

the complexity of healing and recovery for child survivors;

the important roles of charities in setting the narrative both for the public and also for survivors who are living in the complex grey areas of trauma and recovery;

and the questionable role of the media and high-profile ‘ambassadors.

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