Last week saw the launch of the UK’s inaugural National Stalking Awareness Week. It’s a worthy cause and one that shouldn’t require awareness-raising, given its prevalence. Indeed, the latest British Crime Survey estimated that between 2009 and 2010, 1.4 million Britons endured some degree of stalking.
Nobody who has been a victim of this crime, or knows someone who has, needs to be told how debilitating, damaging and terrifying it can be. Nor will it be news to anybody with direct experience that stalking is an extremely difficult menace to prevent and punish. The stalker currently operates with a wide amount of leeway, fenced in to a certain extent by the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act.
It’s tough to prove “malevolent intent” in someone’s presence in a public place, or conclusively trace anonymous post or email. The stalker is also frequently aided by the shame and embarrassment felt by their prey. In 2009, 53,000 stalking incidents were reported in England and Wales – a tiny fraction of the likely number of cases. Only 6,581 cases resulted in convictions and barely 1,200 in jail sentences.
National Stalking Awareness Week was supported by three charities – the Network for Surviving Stalking, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and Protection Against Stalking – allied behind the slogan “Name it, report it, stop it”.
“One of the main problems,” says Laura Richards, director of Protection Against Stalking, “is that stalking still isn’t properly legally defined. It falls under the Prevention of Harassment Act, so it gets hidden among fights between neighbours arguing over hedges.”
Of particular concern is the failure of legislation to keep pace with technology. To some extent, the internet has made stalkers of us all. It’s now almost reflexive, upon meeting someone new in a personal or professional context, to run their name through Google, Facebook or Twitter. This is largely harmless – a consumption by the benignly curious of voluntarily-disclosed information. Cyber-stalking only becomes a problem when that data is used for real-world stalking, or when the stalker pursues their quarry through cyberspace.
As things stand, no specific law prevents this latter activity either. One possibility being discussed is an online register, centralising information about stalkers where it is readily accessible to police.
There is a special satisfaction in turning an oppressor’s weapons back against them. The telephone, beloved of the heavy breather and anonymous threatener, was redeemed a year ago, with the launch of the National Stalking Helpline (though it does not, regrettably, provide a round-the-clock service). Eighty MPs are now calling for a review of the Protection from Harassment Act and The University of Bedfordshire is conducting the first Electronic Communication Harassment Observation (ECHO) survey.
It would be a major achievement if the internet became a place where the hunters are at greater risk than the hunted.