The Archers’ Effect

© Halsburys Law Exchange

If like me you are an Archers’ listener, then the chances are you have been hurling abuse at your radio for months now as [the character] Rob Titchener’s campaign of coercive control over his wife Helen has slowly escalated.

For the uninitiated, The Archers is the world’s longest running radio soap opera, which first aired on BBC Radio on 1st January 1951. With the distinctly uncool tagline “an everyday story of country folk”, being an Archers’ fan is a bit like being a Mason – not something you admit to unless you know you are in safe company.

However, the ‘Helen & Rob’ storyline has become the topic of conversation in pubs, offices and around dinner tables throughout the land as Rob’s behaviour became increasingly menacing and controlling with listeners unable to believe that nobody can see through him.

In fact so strong is the feeling here in the UK that Archers’ listeners are coming out of the closet in their droves and #FuriousAtRobitis has taken Twitter by storm. The storyline finally came to a head last weekend with a desperate and destroyed Helen stabbing her husband.

Statistically two million people in England and Wales were the subject of domestic abuse in 2013/14 but the law protecting these victims fell short in that it was limited to actual violence. New UK legislation as part of the Serious Crimes Act 2015 came into place at the end of last year making it illegal to subject a partner to psychological and emotional abuse, with a maximum jail sentence of 5 years. Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said in The Guardian “Coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse. Perpetrators will usually start abusing their victim by limiting her personal freedoms, monitoring her every move and stripping away her control of her life; physical violence often comes later”

Listening to abuse on the radio devoid of the usual visual stimuli gives it an almost voyeuristic feeling, increasing the emotional intensity. A good friend who has been through similar (escaping her abuser almost 30 years ago) says that the abuse has been so accurately played out over a period of more than two years that she almost cannot listen.

Interestingly, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline report a 20% increase in calls during the last 12 months which they believe could be partly down to the ‘Archers’ effect’ . If so, this clearly illustrates the role that the media play in raising awareness of issues such as coercive control and domestic abuse.

Many people do not understand why a woman would stay with someone who was abusing her but with coercive control in particular, the abuse is so gradual and has such an impact in terms of destroying often confident and independent women that they do not recognise what has happened to them until it is too late. “It is a form of grooming,” says my friend who was only twenty when she embarked on an abusive relationship, “The abuser senses an individual’s vulnerability when ‘choosing’ his victim.”

We can only hope that this new legislation will deliver what it promises, empower the abused to speak out and help put an end to the insidious damage resulting from coercive control.