13 Mar 2019

BBC calls abused woman “hammer killer wife” -- twice

In a landmark legal case, a woman who killed her husband after years of violence had her murder conviction quashed. So why is the BBC calling her “hammer killer wife”?

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Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
BBC calls abused woman “hammer killer wife” -- twice - NewsMavens
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In 2010, Sally Challen killed her husband following decades of physical and psychological abuse, including coercive control. A criminal offense in the UK since December 2015, "coercive control" describes a pattern of behavior used by an abuser to harm, punish and frighten their victim.

Challen was initially sentenced to 22 years in prison, later reduced to 18 years on appeal. On February 28, a landmark case ruled that Sally Challen’s murder conviction for killing her husband with a hammer would be quashed. She now faces a retrial for murder.

The decision to quash the original conviction and order a retrial recognized that Challen was herself a victim of sustained violence. It was an historic moment for campaigners working for justice for women who have killed their abusive partners. But that was not the impression given by some media reports on new developments in Challen’s case.


Announcing the court’s decision on appeal, BBC News published an article on February 27, leading with the headline:

Sally Challen: Hammer killer wife in 'landmark' appeal

Similar wording was used in a headline of the report on the decision, published a day later:

Sally Challen: Hammer killer wife to be retried


Describing Challen as the “hammer killer wife” defines her by a weapon and by violence, as opposed to acknowledging the abuse she endured. This is particularly clear in the headline of the first article, which fails even to mention Challen by name. Among those who pointed out this dehumanizing treatment on social media were Luke and Ryan Hart, whose father had murdered their mother and sister when their mother left him after years of abuse.

The BBC chose to run this headline two days in a row, despite the fact that their first use of “hammer killer wife” prompted protest and complaints from the readers. Dozens have pointed out that such reporting erases the abuse committed against Challen and her status as a victim of male violence.

The reactions from readers and campaigners led to the headline from February 28 being changed to “Sally Challen murder conviction quashed over husband's death” (the report on February 27 has kept the “hammer killer wife” headline at time of writing).

David Challen, Sally Challen’s son, who has been campaigning for his mother’s release for years, expressed his gratitude to all who spoke out against such media reports.

But why does the BBC need people to (repeatedly) tell them that “hammer killer wife” is not the way to tell the story of domestic abuse? Writing headlines that acknowledge the realities of male violence rather than sensationalizing the actions of the victims shouldn’t be that hard. After all, men who kill women are quite often treated with humanity and respect by the media, which referred to them as  “amazing hubby”; “war hero”; “town hero”; and “perfect husband”, to the same effect -- burying the reality of abuse of women and children

The stark contrast between how BBC and other media outlets regularly write about women who kill their abusive partners, and men who kill and abuse their wives, can be seen in many cases.

On February 11, 2019, the BBC reported about a man threatening to kill his partner as the “TV remote control row man”. This framing diminishes the violence and threat of his behaviour. Surely a more appropriate headline would be “man who threatened to kill wife avoids jail”. The “remote control row” framing masks the violence, making it seem ridiculous that jail would ever have been an appropriate punishment.

In July 2018, the BBC reported a famous UK case of a man murdering his wife. Stephen Searle was a Counsellor for the right wing UKIP Party and it was this detail the BBC chose to lead on in their reporting.

Unlike in the Challen case, Searle was not defined by how he killed his wife, or reduced to a nameless criminal. Instead, he is presented through his social status, and the article goes on to quote his colleague calling him a “decent man.” His colleague told journalists he felt “equally sorry for both Steve and his now deceased wife”, provoking sympathy for a man who appeared to have shown no remorse after killing a woman.

If the BBC were following the same line they took with Challen in their reporting of the Searle case, the headline would ignore his job title and instead read “Knife killer husband”.

In 2010, a man was sentenced for 18 months after beating his wife to death with a roasting tin. Headlines referred to him as as “TV boss”, a high status role for a man of “good character”. Not a “roasting tin killer”.


The different way in which media treats men who kill their wives and women who kill their husbands helps to normalize violence against women by men. This kind of reporting positions men who kill women as respectable, “decent”, or men of “good character”, while women who commit the same act are pathologized and demonized. In both cases, their status as victims of violence is erased, distorting the reality of years, sometimes decades of abuse suffered by women who either killed, or were eventually killed by their violent partners.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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