Why Do We Still Lead Domestic Violence Stories With The Perpetrator’s Character Traits?

Warning: This article discusses domestic and family violence. If anything in this article raises issues for you or someone you know, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.  In an emergency, call 000.

As postup’s Editor, I’m constantly preaching our style guide and the general rule that we – as a publication –  tend to write in the third person. I also rarely tend to publish anything myself, instead tweaking others’ words for your consumption.

But as I was editing a different, soon-to-be-uploaded story, my attention was pulled away sharply by yet another devastating news headline: Ex-Warriors player Rowan Baxter and his three children dead after car fire in Brisbane.

Upon first glance, my heart sank. I thought, “three young children and their father, it must’ve been a horrible car accident”.

But I was wrong. As I read on, my stomach lurched as it became clear that this was likely not an accident, but instead yet another horrific act of family violence.

According to the ABC, 31-year-old Hannah Clarke and her three children – aged six, four and three – died on Wednesday after their car was set alight in Camp Hill. Police say her husband – and their father – Rowan Baxter had self-inflicted stab wounds and had got himself out of the car before dying at the scene.

While authorities continue to officially investigate the cause of the car fire, Detective Inspector Mark Thompson said “…to call it a murder-suicide or a tragic accident – it is inappropriate for us to do that”.

But with an eye-witness alleging Clarke yelled “he’s poured petrol on me,” it’s difficult to believe it could be anything else. And, as the crews that attended the scene have been stood down, we’re left reeling.

The Courier Mail reported that Hannah Clarke was taking her kids to school on Wednesday morning, when her estranged husband ambushed the family, doused their car in petrol and set it alight.

So, this cannot be a story that can be written in the third person. This is not unbiased or balanced or any of the qualities you learn about good reporting in journalism school. This is the opinion of a 23-year-old woman, furious and broken.

I’m furious because this is being reported as a car fire and not a murder. I’m furious because four more innocent lives have been lost at the hands of a person who allegedly ‘loved them’. I’m furious because Rowan Baxter’s qualifier is “a former contracted player with NRL side the New Zealand Warriors” and not “man with history of alleged domestic violence”. I’m furious because it takes a case this extreme to capture our attention.

I’m broken for Hannah, for her children, for their friends, and for their family. I’m broken for my sisters because domestic violence remains all too common.

This is indeed a horrific act of violence, but its media prominence is spear-headed by the perpetrator’s public profile, not its rarity.

Other media outlets have championed videos of Baxter playing with his children and tales of a happy family.

The Australian pointed out that “only a year ago, Mr Baxter was organising a fundraiser to help his wife compete for the title of ‘Australasia’s fittest mum’”.

The NZ Herald wrote an entire story focused on his Facebook posts.

Unsurprisingly, The Daily Mail also fixated on his social media presence.

But I don’t care that Rowan Baxter held a fundraiser, I don’t care that he posted happy snaps and loving messages about his family. These things don’t justify, lessen or excuse what happened in that car.

And while it makes my blood boil to think anyone could sympathise with a man that has killed his family because he was a ‘good bloke’ or a ‘great rugby player, it’s telling of the reality of domestic violence in Australia.

Because there is no stereotype for violence. Violence may hide in dark corners, but it may also be a prominent sportsperson posting adoring photos of his family, only to murder them a week later.

Rowan Baxter’s actions are unspeakable, but we must speak about them to squash the notion that these acts are committed by loving men acting out of character, or those who’ve ‘lost it’ due to a separation or custody battle.

According to White Ribbon Australia: almost 40% of women continue to experience violence from their partner while temporarily separated; intimate partner violence is a leading contributor to illness, disability and premature death for women aged 18-44; and Australian police deal with domestic violence every two minutes.

Perhaps most shockingly, on average, one woman is murdered by her current or former partner every week.

Put infuriatingly simply, domestic and family violence is killing us. What will it take to let us – and our children – live?

If you or someone you know is impacted by family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

For other family violence support services:

To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit: www.ourwatch.org.au 

Editor’s note: All views expressed are Michaela’s own.

Image by Rachael Sharman