How #HerNameWasClodagh missed the media’s real failing

Social media commenters were so certain: Clodagh Hawe didn’t matter to the media and the front pages proved it

The hearse carrying the coffin of Clodagh Hawe arrives at St Mary’s Church in Castlerahan, Co Cavan, where the funeral of the Hawe family was taking place. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

The hearse carrying the coffin of Clodagh Hawe arrives at St Mary’s Church in Castlerahan, Co Cavan, where the funeral of the Hawe family was taking place. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

After a blizzard of criticism from a huge volume of people, have any lessons been taken by the media from its coverage of Alan Hawe’s murder of his wife, Clodagh, and the couple’s sons, Liam (13), Niall (11) and Ryan (6), at the family home in Co Cavan?

The press was accused of writing school teacher Clodagh Hawe out of the story and of refusing to use her photograph until the #HerNameWasClodagh Twitter campaign/movement/hashtag/protest shamed them into it. At the same time, Alan Hawe was “eulogised”.

We were told journalists – all of them, it seems – wanted to package this case as a family tragedy and quickly move on. The media, the argument went, was only interested in depicting Alan Hawe as a good family man, a well-liked teacher and able sportsman who had snapped uncharacteristically.

It was all hot air, of course; one ill-informed corner of social media egging on another until you reach a place of blind ignorance deep, deep down the rabbit hole. Those who attempted to map gender politics on to the media’s treatment of this horrendous case were perhaps widest of the mark.

Many of them hopelessly mistook the placing of Alan Hawe at the centre of the coverage as misogyny in a world where the actions of violent men are somehow accepted by the media and their female victims do not matter.

The truth is that the case of the Hawe family was treated no differently to any other; with the media focused on the perpetrator over, and at the expense of, the victims. This has nothing to do with gender, no matter how hard some people try to make it so.

Clodagh Hawe became an invisible victim rather than an invisible woman. It was the actions of Alan Hawe, as a perpetrator rather than as a male, that raised the biggest question: why did he do it? When it became clear that he was not a man with a known history of mental illness, the killings became even more inexplicable. Had this been a case of a woman killing her children and husband, for the perpetrator-focused media the female killer would have been at the centre of the coverage.

Some news reports referred to Clodagh Hawe’s mother, who found a note on the back door of the family home, as Alan Hawe’s mother-in-law. This was despite her being the mother of one victim and grandmother of the three boys.

This was another result of the media’s tendency to place the perpetrator and the motive for their actions at the centre of the coverage, around which everything else revolved.

Many reports carried quotes from local people and others who knew Alan Hawe (or thought they did) about the apparent decency of the man in his personal and professional life.

Not condoning

Having had the same conversation with many people on the periphery of such cases, I have found that when people speak of a killer’s talents and strengths, they are not condoning or minimising their violence.

They are pondering – often in shock – how the life of the perpetrator was apparently so “normal” and at odds with the violence they committed in their final moments.

In these cases, local people who knew the family often feel freer, in my experience, to say more about the perpetrator, to whom they understandably have less loyalty, than the victims.

This is especially so when, like Kilkenny man Alan Hawe, the perpetrator is not originally from the area where the murders and suicide have taken place but the victims and their extended family are, as was the case with Clodagh Hawe and her Cavan-based extended family.

The extent to which this influences the coverage cannot be overestimated; it is a situation many of those who thought they knew so much about the media’s treatment of this case have no experience of.

Good quality photographs of Alan Hawe and his sons were found online on the day the bodies were discovered. But similar shots of Clodagh Hawe were not obtained by the media until Thursday. Despite days of searching, only a small poor quality image of Clodagh Hawe could be found earlier and with which little could be done by publishers. This amplified the media’s focus on perpetrator over victim.

Anybody watching the newspapers as a barometer of how the media ranked the victims – a crude practice best avoided – would have seen images of the four Hawe males and headlines and news packages driving those images from Tuesday morning through the week. But the same focus on Clodagh Hawe was missing until Friday. Only the Irish Daily Star had photographs of the mother of three to publish in its edition on Thursday morning, with the rest catching up online that day and in print the following morning.

Bloggers and some commenting on social media were absolute in their certainty: Clodagh Hawe didn’t matter to the media because she was a woman and the front pages proved it.

And she only belatedly mattered because #HerNameWasClodagh had shamed the media into pretending to care about her.

Spectacularly wrong

It was a neat conclusion based on the echo of their conversations with themselves. And it was spectacularly wrong.

In an industry driven by images and focused on men and women who perpetrate violence rather than their victims, the coverage of this case flowed exactly – and depressingly – as it always does; perpetrator-centred rather than victim centred.

It shouldn’t be that way but it is; in every case, not just this one and whether the killer and their victims are male or female.

It is interesting that the deaths of forgotten victims – women and men – from poorer social circumstances have not whipped up the same strength of feeling in the past from those most vehemently behind the #HerNameWasClodagh campaign.

There are huge lessons in this case for the media, but not the gender-based ones suggested by the echo chamber of social media and blogging; the media needs to focus more on victims. #AllVictimsMatter

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor

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