THE world is fascinated by the men who kill women. We see it in the Hollywood films or the meticulously stylised TV series that make real and fictional serial killers into menacing but seductive heartthrobs. We see it in the burgeoning true crime documentary section on your favourite streaming service. We see it in the media reports that vacillate between salacious horror and fawning sympathy for men who have been convicted of the most violent, misogynistic crimes.

You might argue that this is just a natural, if morbid, curiosity, about the minds behind actions that most of us would find unfathomable. But where do you draw the line between trying to make sense of senseless behaviour and over-empathising with abusers at the expense of their victims?

Too often, women and children become extras in the story of how their lives were taken, as if their existence is barely worth a footnote in the epic drama of the larger-than-life figure who ended it. And that’s even before you bring in any element of doubt – however baseless or conspiracy-fuelled – that the man in question actually committed the murders. In that case, they become the “real” victim, and the people who were killed might as well have never lived at all.

This week the BBC proved that the best efforts of violence against women campaigners to raise awareness of exactly these issues have yet to filter through to many of those working in the media, and that this is by no means a problem only of the tabloid press. The national broadcaster was forced to apologise and delete an online trailer for upcoming documentary series The Trials of Oscar Pistorius on Tuesday after it was criticised for failing to name Reeva Steenkamp, the 30-year-old model and aspiring lawyer Pistorius was convicted of murdering.

The press release was also quietly amended so that the original description that Pistorius had “suddenly found himself at the centre of a murder investigation” on Valentine’s Day 2013 was replaced to reflect that he “was charged with murder when he killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp”.

This oddly passive phrasing and the relegation of the murdered woman to the shadows elicited such a strong reaction not only because it is unjust to the memory of Steenkamp, but because it isn’t the first or the 100th time this has happened to women whose lives were cut so violently short. In saying very little, the BBC managed to say a lot about whose voice, whose story, whose experience deserves to be amplified.

And although the trailer was taken down, it’s not at all clear that the documentary itself is going to be much better. The director of the series Daniel Gordon told Salon last month that he was “still flip-flopping” over whether what happened was truly pre-meditated murder or a case of mistaken identity and self-defence as Pistorius claims, while for the BBC release he says that “the story of Oscar Pistorius” is “at once inspirational and harrowing”.

As an “international hero, who inspired millions with his determination and dedication” – in the glowing words of the BBC press release – the discussion around the investigation and trial of South African Paralympic and Olympic sprinter Pistorius was always going to be challenging for survivors of domestic abuse and anybody who cares about them. When high profile cases like this play out in the media and in the public imagination, regardless of the circumstances or the evidence, you can count on it that there will be an outpouring of support from unwavering fans of the well-loved accused (and convicted). Many clearly still struggle to accept that someone can be likeable, even admirable, in other aspects of their life, and still go on to commit violence against the women closest to them, or they clamour to find excuses for them when they do.

Even coverage which seeks not to excuse the violence but to demonstrate how “shocking” it is regularly falls into the trap of agonising over all of the attractive qualities and apparently incongruous behaviours of the perpetrator. He was a nice guy. He had a promising career. He used to help old ladies with their shopping and wipe the snot off babies’ faces with his shirt sleeve. There’s no limit to the superfluous details that can be offered up in telling the stories of violent men, by way of adding another layer of intrigue to disturbing events.

The problem is that this preoccupation, this apparent wonderment that a “nice” man could be responsible for such acts, only serves to further undermine people’s understanding of the nature of the issue. In reality, there is nothing surprising about this juxtaposition; it happens all the time. But when that sense of perpetual disbelief is splashed across the media and social media, it only makes things harder for other victims of abuse – the ones who still have the chance to speak out.

It also fundamentally fails to get to the root of the problem. The obsession with individual examples – with the inner-workings of a mind capable of murder, with what they ate for breakfast as a child, or (worst of all) with all the things their partner, their ex-partner, their mother or their nursery teacher did to annoy them – distracts from the fact that these are not isolated incidents but part of a societal problem.

Last year, nine women in Scotland were killed by their male partner or ex partner. Over the last decade, 74 Scottish women’s lives were ended by men they were or had been in a relationship with. In 2019-20 there were over 30,000 domestic abuse charges made by police in Scotland, including 553 serious assaults and attempted murders, and almost nine in 10 of those accused were men. Analysis of domestic homicides of women by men across the UK found that a pattern of controlling behaviour, rather than a history of violence, was the biggest predictor of fatal violence – along with the women choosing to leave the relationship.

Domestic abuse campaigner Luke Hart, whose father murdered his mother and sister in Lincolnshire in 2016, said that murder is “the ultimate act of control”. The victim’s right to live, to speak, to think for themselves is quite literally taken away. Following the initial media coverage, which the two surviving brothers felt expressed too much sympathy with their abusive father, the Harts have been raising awareness of the causes of violence against women and children, and sharing their memories of their mum and sister along the way. Many have been moved by their story.

How much more interesting and useful would it be to hear more from the people who live with the impacts of abuse and murder, than to sit through yet another account of the “troubled soul” behind the violence? After years of cultural conditioning, it may seem hard to flip the script in this way, but it’s not impossible. Take Michelle MacNamara’s book ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’, and the documentary it inspired, as an example. An examination of the crimes of the ‘Golden State Killer’, it’s a story that’s less about the man who committed these horrific rapes and murders and more about the effect it had on his victims, the investigators he eluded, and the communities he terrorised.

If murder is the surest way to take control of someone’s life, it seems that far too much of the response to it plays directly into the hands of those who commit it. By allowing violent men to be the story while their victims are forgotten, women whose agency was stolen from them are only disempowered further in death. Why not take back control of the narrative and make sure that the women whose lives were deemed expendable by their abusers are put front and centre of how we talk about the violence they endured?