Keep calm and carry on?
When Wendi Deng married Rupert Murdoch in 1999, I must admit that I wondered what she really thought of him. She was so much younger than her new husband, and so beautiful and bright. Was she marrying for power and money?
After yesterday’s incident in Westminster, when Mrs Murdoch had split seconds to respond to a surprise attack on her husband, without training or advice or time to think about injuring herself, she proved her motives beyond words.
As one MP later told Mr Murdoch: “Your wife has a very good left hook”.
The dramatic scene played on television screens around the world. Today the newspapers are making light of the incident, calling her “Ninja Wendi”. For me, that incident was not light-hearted at all. Instead, it has unearthed some troubling memories from the past. I do not write about this subject often; in fact, the last mention of it that I can find on this blog was back in 2008, when I contributed to a Woman’s Aid calendar. However I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind over the past day or so, and it strikes me that I may not be the only person in this position.
In June 2003, a man walked into my husband’s law office in Leeds city centre and asked the receptionist if he could go through for a quick word. My husband is a part time mental health judge and a legal aid lawyer, and is well-known and well-respected. The man sat down in my husband’s office and said that if questioned, he would flatly deny what he was about to say. Then he continued. He had heard that I was the intended target of some kind of “hit”. Possibly with guns, possibly a robbery. He didn’t know. But he said he liked my husband and didn’t want any harm to come to his wife. So he was warning him. Then he stood up, and walked out.
My husband was shocked. He called the police, who spoke to some of their “contacts” and obtained some confirmation that I really was a target. They didn’t know why, they didn’t know what was planned and they didn’t know when it would happen, but they came to warn me. I was, unsurprisingly, in a state of shock. I tried not to show it in front of the police though. I made light of the threat, and carried on as though everything was fine.
The police came again, to give me some advice about how best to respond if the threat was ever realised. They put various possible scenarios to me. I could be in my car, or in my home or at work. I could be out running, or out shopping. I should remain as alert as possible and try to anticipate the unexpected. I had to stop running in country areas. Never run alone. Always travel at different times to work. Learn and practice evasive driving techniques. Vary my routes to and from home. Keep changing my daily routine.
The police also sent a trained negotiator to teach me how best to react in a worst-case situation. We practiced various, imaginary scenarios – and I always did the wrong thing. He kept shouting at me, as an attacker would. I tried to fight back. I tried to protect my belongings. I looked my assailant in the eye. I wasn’t submissive. I reacted in the worst ways possible. I was then taught how to save myself by going against my instincts and doing the opposite of what I wanted to do. I had to think, stay calm and extinguish all my emotional reactions. Think. It could save my life.
Six months later, it happened: I was robbed in my office car park, by three masked men armed with a heavy iron bar. In some ways it was a relief: at least the fear and the worry were over. I did exactly what I had been trained to do and I am certain that by thinking and staying calm, I saved myself from serious injury or worse. I even went back to work the next day, badly bruised everywhere, just to show that I was okay. Outside I was fine, but inside I was a mess.
I am not the only person to have been the victim of a violent attack. A client’s daughter, also with a high profile in the area, was robbed at gunpoint of her jewellery as she waited in her son’s school car park, with a younger child in the back of the car. She kept calm. Since then she and her family have moved to the other side of the country, perhaps to escape the trauma of what happened. Me? I moved my office to Harrogate. And I kept going.
Even so, the trauma of that event resurfaces sometimes. In 2004, I was at a family law conference I helped to organise in Manchester. A tiny female government minister was speaking next to me when, out of nowhere, she was roughly grabbed by two Fathers4Justice supporters posing as lawyers, who handcuffed themselves to her. There was uproar.
It triggered memories of my own experience. After she was released by Special Branch officers, the minister took a few minutes to compose herself and then went on with her speech. Some people had reacted immediately, trying to protect the minister. I was one of them and I had flown at the men, completely forgetting my training! Some members of the audience had done nothing, but had sat and watched. A judge in the audience requested police protection to leave the conference.
I told no one of the shock I was feeling except the chairman, Professor Chris Barton of Staffordshire University who found me on my own in the auditorium when everyone had gone for lunch, quietly trying to compose myself. He was brilliant.
I write of those events because when I watched the attack on TV upon Rupert Murdoch, I watched the shock, anger and horror on the face of his son James, as he leapt up towards his elderly father. I watched Rupert Murdoch’s wife fly at the attacker, uncaring of her own safety. She lashed out and threw herself on him, to protect her husband. Mrs Murdoch did everything her instincts told her to do – everything that I know for certain was wrong. Viewed from a different perspective, everything she did was right.
Then, once the attacker was whisked away by police, I watched them all carry on with their performance as though nothing had happened. That 80-year-old man, without his jacket, could have suffered far worse than a “shaving foam pie”. However he just kept going as though nothing had happened. The examining committee, bound up with their sense of power, just kept going. Mrs Murdoch, back in control, wore her face like a mask. She had no choice.
The event brought back all my own bad memories, as vivid as they ever were, even though I thought they had gone. Politics and “Hackgate” aside, I wonder how the Murdochs are feeling now? They have had time to think. There has been time for events to catch up with them. They have been able to consider what might have been. Fortunately nobody was hurt. But I do not doubt that the shock will affect them all for some time yet. We are humans, not robots.
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Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner in Stowe Family Law, which has offices in Yorkshire, Cheshire and London. With more than 30 years’ experience handling divorce cases and family law proceedings she is regarded as one of the most formidable and sought after divorce lawyers in the UK. In 2012, Marilyn became one of the first solicitors to qualify as a family law arbitrator.
All persons mentioned in the scenarios are fictitious: details have been deliberately changed in order to protect identities and other confidential circumstances of my clients. All advice and information on this blog including posts written by guest authors, is given only as a general guide to the operation of the law on the date of publication. Readers must place no reliance whatsoever on the content of this blog and must always obtain their own legal advice. Marilyn Stowe, Stowe Family Law LLP and guest authors accept no liability whatsoever arising as a result of reliance upon its content.
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