You may have heard this week that Lily Allen has opened up about her harrowing seven-year-long experience with a stalker. The entire original article and interview, published this past weekend in The Observer, is terrifying. Though somehow even more than the actual stalking (the tweets, letters, spending nights in her backyard and eventually entering her home screaming in the middle of the night), the most upsetting part of the whole story is how the police handled her case.
From the very beginning, Allen said she was scared, but says “I felt comforted by the fact that I was telling the police, I was keeping a record.” Except the police weren’t doing the same. For seven years, they destroyed the letters she turned in to them, and refused to give her any information. They even refused to show her a picture of the man they knew was her stalker, Alex Gray. (They did, eventually, show her a picture, then took it away after a few minutes. That was three years before he broke into her bedroom.) She says the police made her feel “like a nuisance, rather than a victim.” And that seems to be due mostly to the fact that they have no idea how the fuck to handle this kind of case. The most telling element of Allen’s story is that, even when Gray came into her home, the police didn’t seem bent on action. And they definitely either refused or didn’t know how to link this incident to the letters and other incidents of harassment. Gray’s mother even emailed the London police, telling them that her son was in the city (from Scotland), and had told her he was going to murder a celebrity. Somehow, because we apparently live in fucking CRAZYVILLE, none of this meant anything. The day after the home invasion, though, Allen noticed her purse was missing, and suddenly everything changed.
Calling the police back the next day, Allen told them she thought the intruder could be the same man who had been threatening her. “But they were uncomfortable with the idea. Then I realised my handbag was missing and the change in atmosphere was palpable, it was like a sigh of relief: ‘now it’s burglary - we understand that’.”
…For Allen, there was still no joining up of the dots by the police. “For me, the burglary was like this insignificant thing compared to what he was doing to me and my life. After about a week, I went out as I was due to DJ at an event. I hadn’t had any contact from police, I presumed they were actively searching for him; it’s now apparent to me that wasn’t the case. When I arrived home, my handbag was on the bonnet of my car outside my house. Burnt. Everything pulled out and cut up or burned and the bag burned.” Gray was subsequently caught and charged with burglary.
It’s absolutely ridiculous that a woman can spend seven years doing what we’re all told she should do— document every incident, report things immediately, follow up with everything— and her stalker is only arrested because he finally took a piece of property. (A charge of harassment was eventually added to the case, but it didn’t include anything that happened before 2015.)
This is such an important story to tell, and one that is not limited to celebrities in any way. According to new research, one in five women and one in twelve men experience stalking at some point in their lives, “with only 1% of stalking cases and 16% of harassment cases ending in prosecution.” So I am so grateful that news sources all over the world are reporting on this story. This type of harassment needs coverage, both for victims to feel support, but also for law makers and law enforcement to hear the prevalence of the stories that don’t make sense to them yet.
There’s just one thing that keeps popping up, and it needs to be addressed.
While mainstream, popular news sites are reporting on this story, many (not all, but many) of them are choosing to categorize it in their Entertainment sections. Again, these are huge, reputable sites doing this. The goddamn BBC did it. Even that original Observer article was characterized in Music, under Arts & Entertainment.
That decision is a major double edged sword. On the one hand, I get the justification. (Or at least I get what I think is a best case scenario, maybe giving too much credit, hypothetical justification. Because it is possible that some of these sites never even thought to put the story anywhere else. Like under, say, NEWS, for example.) I want this story to be shared and read by as many people as possible, and so do these outlets, both for the same reason of spreading an important story, but they also have the added incentive of those sweet, sweet ad revenue dollars. And it’s an ugly truth that while we all say we want big, important news stories, we click on the celebrity stuff more than we do the other pieces. (I see this site’s analytics. Don’t you give me that “I remember when Pajiba did film reviews” nonsense. We all like reading about celebrities. Let’s accept it and move on.) So if it was a tactical decision to gain a wider audience, I get that. But there’s damage that comes with that choice.
It’s one thing for music or pop culture sites (like ours and the countless others who have covered this story) to write about something happening to a celebrity, because there’s an obvious crossover there, where celebrity culture and news or politics overlap. A pop culture-based site doesn’t have to choose how to cover the story in the same way that a straight news site does, because there’s an automatic blurring of that line. A news site like the BBC, though, has to choose which side of the line to place a story on. They make a choice to call this news, or to couch it as entertainment or celebrity news. And by choosing the latter, even if the hope is to get a wider audience’s attention, but especially if that’s where the outlet actually believes it belongs and never questions that placement, it diminishes not only Allen’s story, but it creates a division between her story (the one worthy of being told, but only from this angle), and the other 700,000 women who experience stalking every year in England and Wales alone. By calling this a ‘celebrity story,’ it isolates it, makes it feel salacious, and also creates a distance that diminishes its importance in a larger, societal context. Plus, from a basic semantics stance, IT’S NOT FUCKING ENTERTAINMENT. When an entertainer is the victim of a crime, that is not part of their job or their persona. To call it such is lazy, narrow-minded, insulting, and ultimately damaging to literally everyone involved.