A woman at the centre of a brutal domestic assault in Darwin has criticised the NT News, after the publication this week opened a story on her assault with news of how a vibrator was broken during the traumatic encounter. The perpetrator, the then-partner of Shannyn Virgo, was handed a two-month suspended jail sentence this week, leading the NT News to write a story beginning:

“A vibrator was broken during a ‘vicious’ incident of domestic violence …”

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The report, which was carried on page 4, was a straight news piece, and also noted the viciousness of the assault. It was removed online after Virgo raised her concerns about the coverage, including the fact that the article was illustrated on the website with a picture of a woman’s hand reaching for a vibrator.

“I am fucking seething that the only reason the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me was deemed interesting enough for your news was the inclusion of a relatively minor piece of evidence. Because of that broken item, one thing in an enduring hour of violence and humiliation, you tried to make my fucking nightmare into a salacious joke,” Virgo wrote in an open letter on Facebook.

The NT News’ initial report did not name Virgo, but she told Crikey this morning she was happy to be named, to “reinforce the fact that I am a real person”.

In a letter to the editor quoted on Virgo’s blog, she wrote:

“I was the victim in the assault case covered in Wednesday’s paper on page 4, whose most notable aspect of my traumatic assault was a vibrator broken during an assault …

“I have long had issues with the NT News’ reporting on otherwise serious crimes that due to a circumstantial issue — the presence or involvement of an adult item or act, the victim or witness being a sex worker, etc — has become a target for sensationalist reporting that, at its worst, trivialises and mocks the crimes committed against real people.”

Virgo notes that the detail about the vibrator was one she gave to police in the interest of giving a full and true statement, without thinking it would eventually make a spectacle of her assault. The NT News, she writes, “targeted it for a gag headline”.

Virgo says she approached the Press Council over the reporting, which then approached the NT News. The newspaper issued an apology. Virgo, however, writes that while the apology is appreciated, “it does not absolve them of their actions or intent, or their long history of reducing violent crime that happens to have a ‘quirky’ detail to a punchline. They must be held accountable.”

She told Crikey the NT News should make a public apology. “I’m glad that the NT News approached me privately, but I did express to them that what I felt was appropriate was an acknowledgement of fault, in public, to reinforce this isn’t something they want to cultivate.

“I know they go for quirky shit. But it seems to me the best outcome is a public discussion about their reporting culture on these issues. There needs to be a real, earnest open gesture that’s seen and understood by everybody.”

Approached by Crikey about the criticisms, NT News editor Rachel Hancock said the article was an “accurate report of court proceedings”, and was “in no way meant to trivialise the action of domestic violence”. “The article was immediately removed from the website, after it was brought to my intention that it had caused offence. I also personally called the victim and apologised for any harm it had caused, and she accepted my sincere apology.”

Hancock notes the NT News is currently in discussions with police about an upcoming campaign against domestic violence. Other News Corp tabloids, such as the Herald Sun in Melbourne, have also recently been campaigning on the issue.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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