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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.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1.   Keep calm and carry on?|Untouched Smile says:

    […] Keep calm and carry on? is a post from: Marilyn Stowe Family Law and Divorce Blog […]

  2. ObiterJ says:

    I even saw some comments that Wendi Deng should have been charged with assault ! Quite risible. ANY person is, in law, entitled to use reasonable force in defence of another. A spouse, the more so.

    I have always thought that family law can entail personal risk. Few subjects are capable of bringing out the worst in some people. Lawyers can very easily become targets of hate by those who are aggrieved and such persons will nurse a grievance for a long time.

    I have generally avoided commenting on this “Hackgate” business. I did a post on the vague” fit and proper person” test relaying to media ownership. I did another post on “media plurality.” On various blogs, there have been some legally interesting posts relating to the powers of parliament and legal professional privilege.

    I have my doubts that it as a proper role for a parliamentary committee to be investigating wrongdoing of the sort we are seeing here – e.g. phone-hacking, alleged payments to the Police for information etc. Their proper role should be to carry out in depth analysis of difficult issues so as to inform the legislative process. Their other role is to question Ministers and require them to explain their policies.

  3. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Obiter J, thanks for the comments. This was a difficult post to write but I did so when it seemed the media were trivializing what happened. It was a serious incident. The fact that it didn’t cause Rupert Murdoch a heart attack or worse, does not mean the family weren’t significantly affected by shock. I think it’s pretty clear they were.
    If young Gilmour can go to prison for 16 months I think this man too deserves some sort of custodial sentence, but it’s not going to happen.

  4. ObiterJ says:

    Indeed – a custodial sentence cannot happen on a Public Order Act 1986 s5 charge. I am not entirely sure why they did not charge common assault. Probably some evidential difficulties? These charging decisions are not usually publicly explained.

    I think Gilmour was somewhat harshly treated so as to encourage the others! That’s my view on the basis of what has been reported about the case. I have seen many do worse and receive suspended sentences. Having said that, I think Gilmour deserved to hear the clang of the gates but for a significantly shorter period. Quite a few disagree with me on this. An appeal is a possibility.

  5. Marilyn Stowe says:

    I don’t. I agree with you. And thanks again. I’m sure you will agree sometimes it’s lonely being a blogger.

  6. Tulsa Divorce Attorneys says:

    Mrs. Murdoch’s outward displays of love for her husband are legit.

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