Domestic violence: A big news story this Christmas

By Loni Cooper
Thu 22 December 09:44 AEDT
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This article contains reference to domestic violence.

I spend half my working life as a radio news journalist. As a freelancer without the luxury of annual leave, I’m often one of the stragglers populating the newsroom each summer. And while the news (technically) never stops, it certainly slows to a crawl over the silly season. Politicians are on leave, along with many other ‘newsmakers’ around the country – reports aren’t tabled, announcements aren’t made, and inboxes, usually bulging with media releases, quickly empty. Many journos take a well-earned break, leaving newsrooms on a skeleton staff. Sometimes we’re sadly reporting on bushfires or other natural disasters, but much of the time it can be hard work finding a lead story.

But there’s one big news story that doesn’t take a Christmas break, and that’s domestic violence. In fact, most agencies believe it’s the worst time of year for it.

“Christmas is a time when the violence which already exists in some relationships is often made worse by financial pressures, increased alcohol consumption and other stressors over Christmas and New Year,” said Annette Gillespie, the CEO of safe steps Family Violence Response Centre.

She said domestic violence support services inevitably experience a large spike in demand over the Christmas period. “Last year, in the two month lead-up to Christmas, safe steps received almost 11,000 calls for urgent assistance to help women and children experiencing family violence - an average of 180 calls a day.”

The period around Christmas Day can be particularly tough, according to NT Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw.

“Last Christmas, if we count Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, sadly there were 255 domestic violence incidences that our Northern Territory police responded to,” he said.

It’s also a difficult time for journalists trying to report on the issue well. With many prevention services closed for the season, and frontline domestic violence services in overdrive, it can be hard to access expert sources. And many people charged over domestic violence incidents over this period won’t face court until well into 2017, which can make already challenging sub judice contempt issues even trickier.

But while we face significant hurdles when reporting on this issue at this time, it will be one of the biggest stories of the holiday season, and the coming year. In fact, as awareness increases, services providers predict the problem will get worse before it gets better.

According to data from the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency, there were 6,613 family violence incidents reported across the state in December 2014, which increased to 7,237 in December 2015.

“And since the release of the findings of the Royal Commission into Family Violence in March this year, demand on our service has increased by more than 20 per cent,” Ms Gillespie said.

Unlike our politicians, domestic violence doesn’t take a break - and that’s something those of us coming into the newsroom over these quiet weeks should keep in mind. While it might not be the easiest story to tell at this time of year, it’s one we need to keep reporting on.