We should thank The Archers for shining a light on the dark invisible side of domestic violence.

By Martin Surl, Police and Crime Commissioner for Gloucestershire.

Our awareness of coercive control has increased over recent years. Coercive and controlling behaviour in a relationship was made a criminal offence in 2015 and is recognised as a form of domestic violence.

It can take many forms; emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial control are some of the hallmarks of coercive behaviour. Although not necessarily violent, coercive control is at the heart of domestic violence, and is often the precursor to physical abuse.

It is understood as a constant, concerted campaign by a partner to weaken the victim, through isolating them from family and friends; making them feel hopeless and unable to leave the relationship; bullying them and controlling every aspect of their life to suit the perpetrator.

The long-running Radio 4 programme The Archers has attracted much publicity for its storyline of husband and wife Rob Titchener and Helen Archer. Unlike other soaps, with the quick turnaround of plots, fans have listened helplessly as Rob has worn Helen down, bullying and abusing her for three years. To everyone else in Ambridge, Rob is the ideal man, loved and respected. His desire to exercise complete control over Helen’s life is seen by others as part of his caring personality, a seemingly doting, concerned husband. In reality, he is a tyrant – which is how coercive control often works in real life.

In drip-feeding the storyline of how Helen becomes more afraid of Rob yet finds it more difficult to leave, The Archers has revealed the ‘invisible’ side of domestic violence, which can even prove undetectable for the victims themselves. Controlling behaviour is a form of domestic abuse and the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Polly Neate credits ‘the Archers’ effect’ with a “20% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline”; Sandra Horley, the Chief Executive of Refuge, believes the storyline has saved lives as women reach out and seek help”.

The programme also challenged our own notions of what we imagine victims and perpetrators to be like. Domestic abuse is classless and genderless, but most importantly, and often forgotten, it is ageless. The definition of domestic violence was expanded in March 2013 to include victims aged 16 and 17, which is quite a bit younger than the age of the average Archers’ listener. It is up to us to bring the ‘Archers’ effect’ to schools so that young people are empowered and encouraged to stand up to coercive control in their own relationships because there have been some worrying statistics of late that highlight the prevalence of coercive and controlling behaviour in teenage relationships.

According to the NSPCC, 1 in 5 teenagers have been physically abused by their boyfriends or girlfriends. This is a sobering statistic and highlights just how many young people are ‘putting up’ with relationships that already involve domestic abuse. If they can tolerate this behaviour now, then when does it become the norm? This is not an age issue; domestic violence is unacceptable violence, whether the victim is 15 or 50.

It is vital that we empower the young people in our lives to recognise what a normal, healthy relationship looks like, and to have the courage to leave a relationship that is proving toxic. Educating young people about Coercive Control is imperative to preventing it and it is our duty, and the duty of schools in Gloucestershire, to educate young people and that is why I am proud to support a number of organisations that do just that.

The Hollie Gazzard Trust, founded by the family of the young Gloucester hairdresser who was murdered by her coercive former boyfriend, does fantastic work through the CRUSH project; a programme of group support for young people aged 13-19, empowering them to recognise domestic violence and support those affected by, or at risk of it.

My Commissioners Fund, which underpins many local projects, also helps to support Young Gloucestershire, Together in Matson and the Oakwood Federation promoting healthy relationships and supporting young people throughout Gloucestershire.

This problem will not go away unless we educate and engage with the young people of our county.

“This is part of a longer article for the Hollie Gazette which will be published in full in a one-off printed copy of the magazine on 26 November and in the next online edition on 1 December.”

Latest NewsMartin Surl on Coercive Control