Professor Elizabeth Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University
This year’s line up on Celebrity Big Brother includes Dan Osborne, a former cast member of the popular reality show The Only Way is Essex – or TOWIE as it’s commonly known. He was dropped from the show in 2015 after a recording revealed him threatening to stab his then girlfriend and mother of his son, Megan Tomlin. There has been considerable backlash about Channel 5’s decision to include him in the show, particularly given that ITV dropped him after his behaviour was revealed.
Threats to harm are abuse. There is a persistent myth that if there is no physical harm, then there’s no abuse. That simply isn’t true. Abuse can take multiple forms, it can be psychological, physical, sexual, emotional and financial. For many abusers who seek to control and dominate others, they might never use physical violence. Others will become violent when other methods of control are no longer working. This is all abuse. Thankfully the law is catching up with this – Coercive and Controlling Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship is now a crime in England and Wales. However general values, attitudes and beliefs about domestic abuse are still lagging behind and I’m concerned that Osborne’s presence on the show is simply reinforcing widely held myths.
He’s started to talk to the other housemates about his abusive behaviour. However, that’s certainly not what he’s calling it – the word ‘abuse’ is notably absent from the narrative. Below is a transcript of Osborne’s conversation with another housemate, Sally Morgan. It is incredibly revealing – both about Osborne and about a range of myths and stereotypes that continue to fuel misunderstandings about domestic abuse.
Osborne: My ex, who I had my little boy with, our relationship was just like a toxic relationship. We were young. And it was just like a horrible relationship. We pushed each other’s buttons and stuff. And I got angry, just like everyone does and just said stupid things and I was being recorded.
Sally: Oh no.
Sally: What by her?
Osborne: Yeah and then it went into The Sun and went absolutely everywhere. I mean I said stupid things. I take full responsibility of it and you learn from your mistakes.
Sally: You do.
Osborne: You’re young. You say things when you’re angry. Obviously, I never meant one word of it and its horrible. It’s embarrassing now even, I hate it. I hate it, I hate the fact that –
Sally: I know, I know.
Osborne: – I even done that.
Sally: I know, and I really do know, yeah.
Osborne: Yeah, I mean if I could turn the clock back I would, but I can’t. But I learnt from my mistake and yeah, I lost everything from that. And I was in a real bad place and like my career was done. Everything. Got sacked from the show I was on.
Sally: What is your career then?
Osborne: So, I was on a reality TV show.
Sally: Oh right.
Osborne: And I lost that job straight away. I was on it for like two years and it was just gone. Everything went.
Sally: Oh, ain’t that awful.
Osborne: And I had a baby and then I had to go court to be able to see him and stuff and got that all sorted.
Sally: Oh crumbs.
Osborne: Yeah, I was in a bad, bad place back then.
Sally: Oh no.
Osborne: Really bad. Depression and everything.
Sally: Of course.
Osborne: It was horrible.
Osborne begins by setting the context – he claims that his relationship with Megan was ‘toxic’, ‘we were young’ and ‘we pushed each other’s buttons’. In so doing, he’s watering down his responsibility by drawing attention to Megan’s behaviour. He’s also using youth as an excuse, his age being something that drove his behaviour rather than his actions being the consequences of decisions he made. In claiming “it was just like a horrible relationship” he’s portraying it as something external that happened to him, something he couldn’t control. This encourages us to look at things other than his conscious choices – it’s a very manipulative set of statements.
He later says “I take full responsibility of it” but I’m not convinced by this. He doesn’t acknowledge the impact that his behaviour had on Megan or express remorse and guilt for the harm he caused to her. This is just a line. A line that he believes people want to hear to move from condemning him to forgiving him – and that’s why he’s saying it. Its entirely self-serving.
His reference to feeing embarrassed is also incredibly revealing for me. This tells us that he does feel sorry, he does feel shame – but only for himself. He goes on to talk about the impact on his career and his mental state, “I was in a bad place…depression and everything”. Its all about me, myself and I. This narcissistic narrative is one we see play out in courtrooms when abusers are being sentenced for their crimes. I’ve shaken my head when I’ve heard these people described as upstanding citizens, with good careers who are ‘decent’ people who just made ‘one mistake’. I’ve sighed with dismay when they’ve walked away with community sentences because they’ve successfully claimed the victim status for themselves.
Osborne’s threat to stab Megan Tomlin is being presented as a one-off, a flash in the pan, an exception to the rule. This kind of behaviour does not come out of the blue. People do not go from being in a loving and healthy relationship one day to threatening to stab their partner the next. ‘Snapping’ is not a thing. Unfortunately, our mainstream media continue to report cases of domestic abuse in this way. In covering the conviction of Stephen Searle for the murder of his wife Anne, the BBC included quotes describing him as “fundamentally a decent man who has found himself in circumstances beyond his control”. This is wholly inaccurate. Domestic abuse is a pattern of behaviour. Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Harm is a choice.
Osborne’s narrative also appeals to everyday emotions – “I got angry, just like everyone does”. He’s essentially saying that he’s just like us, drawing on our empathy to normalise and minimise his reaction to this anger by creating a scenario that people can identify with. Yeah, we all get angry. But not all of us threaten to stab people when we do. Many viewers might think that Osborne doesn’t look like an abuser either. He’s handsome, presentable, polite and charming. But abusers do not look like monsters. Abusers are not abusive all the time – if they were, no one would date them, no one would want to get in a relationship with them, no one would marry them. This ‘regular guy’ routine is one I have seen this a lot in my work as a criminologist researching with abusers. The ones who are good at it are very convincing. They can fool family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and the criminal justice system for years, obscuring the real abuser that emerges when they go home and take off the mask.
I doubt very much that Channel 5 are going to drop Osborne from this year’s line-up. The notoriety around his appearance on the show may even increase the viewing figures and the rewards that follow on from that. People like Osborne are presented as loveable rogues – a label that many abusive and violent people in the public eye have used to reboot their careers and in turn, their bank balances. This is a very dark side of celebrity culture.
I am in no doubt that people can change. I have seen this myself in my work with people convicted of the most heinous crimes. However, for this to happen the individual needs to acknowledge the harm they have caused and commit to a process of change, in which they address the underlying traits and behaviours that contributed to their decisions and choices to harm others – things like narcissism, self-pity, lack of remorse. From what I’ve seen, that hasn’t happened for Osborne, these traits and behaviours are very much evident in the way he talks about his abuse.
I will no longer be tuning into Celebrity Big Brother, I’ve seen quite enough of the ‘poor me’ routine. I prefer to spend my time listening to victims now and doing what I can to support those who lives are affected by domestic abuse. Whether you tune in or out of Celebrity Big Brother, please get clued up about domestic abuse and challenge the myths that shows like these perpetuate.