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Don’t shoot the messenger: Louise Tickle on the reaction to Channel 4 Dispatches

Date:17 NOV 2021
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Education and social affairs journalist

As some readers of Family Law may know, the Channel 4 Dispatches that I reported on how family courts deal with separating parents, disputes over access to children and allegations of domestic abuse and parental alienation was aired in July. It was called “Torn Apart – Family Courts Uncovered” and it has been, I am aware… controversial.

A lot has been written and discussed regarding the programme, but in this column, I thought I’d note that there is some stuff they don’t tell you about making your first tv documentary. 

First: walking while talking to a camera – and keeping word for word to a script that had been tightly legalled to keep Channel 4 solvent and me out of clink – requires such intense concentration that you can entirely forget where you are. Luckily you also have zero appreciation of the fact that people think you’ve lost your mind as you wander along the river across from Parliament gesticulating at nothing and mouthing silently as you practise your lines. 

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Second: get ready for your first appearance in The Sun (with apologies to Paul Bowen QC, who has I assume now also made his first appearance in The Sun). We were “screen-grabbed” from the Dispatches footage as we headed to the RCJ to make an application to publish details of the Ellie Yarrow Sanders/Patrick Sheridan case involving her flight to Greece with their young son in 2018. (We battled for about 18 months, but got nowhere, despite all parties’ identities and photographs having already been put in the public domain by the family justice system; as a result of the judge’s decision not to relax reporting restrictions, the mother can now only be known publicly as a child abductor.) The screen-grab of Paul and I was used to illustrate a “story” about the number of Ofcom complaints (331 at that point, more now) that had been made about the “shocking bias” of the film. The Sun journalist had written a splendidly researched article by…. copying and pasting a slew of outraged tweets. Ah well. We’ve not heard anything from Ofcom yet. 

Third: prepare for the pile on. I have now received many hundreds of messages about the programme. Lots of them have been complimentary in different ways. Plenty of people have told me that until they saw the programme, they had felt desperate, blamed, isolated and alone - one quote from an email that has just come in illustrates a typical response. “Until I watched this episode, I honestly believed that I was the only one who had experienced this behaviour with the court system. I felt completely bullied. It was like being back in an abusive relationship.” Another response to my posting about the film on my Facebook page, from a senior journalist I had no idea had experience of the family court: “A nightmare from which I will never recover”. From a senior police officer emailing about his daughter and grandchildren, regarding an abusive ex-son-in-law: “I have no confidence that the family court will go with the evidence or her fears and order protection of the children by not allowing him to see them unsupervised.” From my cousin, who must now wear a prosthesis after her extraordinarily violent husband repeatedly and deliberately slammed a door onto her hand, crushing it against the door frame, which resulted in her thumb having to be amputated: “A painful reminder of three years of hell going through family court.” In a conversation with her after the film went out, she told me; “I had to do it all myself, and I just remember trying to get it through to the judge that this man had literally tried to kill me and now the kids had to go and spend time with him – seriously?” From an independent social worker: “I am frankly desperate for the family court to be open to journalists. It is a sausage factory on a grand scale. What goes on there is a draconian nightmare, especially for women, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities of all kinds.” Mothers, fathers and grandparents have emailed me every day since the programme – this is not exaggeration – literally begging me to attend their family court case. They see having a journalist in court as protective. Given the judicial behaviour that was demonstrated in Re H-N, I can quite see why.

However, these were the kinds of experience we were trying to show in the programme. What I also want to talk about here is the level of abuse directed at me following its transmission – I am not talking about criticism – which has been aggressive, insulting, sometimes vitriolic and ultimately alarming.

In the couple of weeks after the Dispatches went out, I received hundreds of this type of message. The vast majority were from men. There was, in addition to emails and Twitter DMs, a pile on to my Facebook page, as a result of which I had to delete 160-odd mostly vile messages, and lock down my profile. I came to understand that this pile on was orchestrated: men's rights activists were being directed via their social media groups to swamp my profile page.

I’ll say straightaway that I quite understand that the repeated and of-themselves damaging delays, constant changes of judge, traumatic cross-examinations, inconsistencies in decision-making, failures to uphold court orders and injunctions, plus the compounded effects of the many constant micro-aggressions inflicted on parties by battling lawyers (I’ve both witnessed and experienced this myself) means that extended contact with the  family justice system can result in perfectly normal people becoming utterly traumatised and in some cases, driven half-mad.

Nothwithstanding that, the tone of many of these missives was so angry, vicious and in one case, threatening, that I truly feared for the ex-partners my correspondents had faced in the family courts. The naked misogyny expressed in some of the messages was frightening and upsetting. The overweening sense of entitlement expressed by many men regarding their “right” to their children was astonishing – rarely was a message expressed in terms that included any reference to a child’s right to a relationship with both their parents.

This is perhaps only an attitude that becomes quite so clear when extremely similar messages are received in such concentrated volume. Being given this insight into such untrammelled rage was, let’s say… instructive.

An extended version of this piece will be published in the October issue of Family Law. You can subscribe here: https://www.lexisnexis.co.uk/store/products/family-law-journal-skuuksku00147281FLJ73543/details.