This is a motor racing blog – at least, most of the time. Now and then, I decide that there are things more important than Formula 1. Today is one of those days. Sadly, not all such days are happy ones, but I am going to tell the story nonetheless, because I want the international motor racing community to know about Jill Saward.
My little sister.
Blog readers who live in the UK will probably know the name already, given the coverage there has been about her in the last week. She was the lead item on most TV news bulletins last Thursday and on most of the newspaper front pages on Friday morning. There were two reasons for this: she was a remarkable person; and she died suddenly at the age of just 51. The family knew that there might be some media interest, but none of us imagined it would be front page news.
You may well ask, why is it? And for those who don’t know the story, I would suggest you read this link, but in very simple terms, Jill was “a rape campaigner”. It is not really the kind of job you want to have, because the primary qualification is to be someone who has been raped. Jill was. She was raped physically by a bunch of depraved thugs, but also metaphorically by the British media – although you won’t read that second part in many of this week’s news stories. You will read instead that she was the first rape victim ever to waive her right to anonymity. The reason she did that was because she wanted to make a difference, and because the media had already destroyed every shred of privacy. Headlines about “the vicar’s daughter” were simply too good for the loathsome creatures who sat on the news desks in Fleet Street, and for the low-lifes who chased the story.
At the time I was a young reporter at Autosport and I suddenly found myself in the middle of a terrible drama, at the hands of people who were supposed to be my colleagues. My sister was in hospital. Her then boyfriend was in intensive care, having been beaten unconscious with a cricket bat. My father was in a similar state. Ironically, he was a big fan of cricket and the cricket bat, signed by the great Donald Bradman, was one of his prize possessions. It was a surreal time, which has been described very well by my brother-in-law Chris Hudson in the recent days. It taught me a lot about what not to do as a journalist.
The case created fierce criticism about press coverage of rape cases because it was clear from the stories published who the victim had been. The Sun, edited by Kelvin MacKenzie, even published a photograph of Jill, with only her eyes blacked out. They were shameless. They argued, cynically, that media identification of victims was only banned after a defendant had been charged. As far as I am concerned, the name Murdoch will forever with tainted by that contemptible defence. The law was changed. The Press Council published new guidelines on how rape cases should be reported to prevent anonymity being breached.
The judicial process after the assailants were caught was utterly appalling: the ringleader, who was not one of the rapists and was there simply to steal, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The two rapists were each given five years for burglary, one got another five years for rape, the other got three years. The message was clear: goods had more value than the female body. The judge, Mr Justice Leonard, made the extraordinary statement when he justified the light sentences saying that Jill had not suffered any great trauma because of her controlled and dignified demeanour in court. The truth was very different, as Jill would later reveal in a book she wrote in 1990.
There was uproar after that and the case would play an important role in changing the law so that today the prosecution in any case can ask the Attorney General to increase a sentence, if it is felt the judge has failed in his duties. Jill campaigned for changes to the law and over the time these would include making rape within marriage a criminal offence, getting other sexual acts classified as rape, tougher sentencing for rapists, a ban on alleged rapists being allowed to cross-examine victims in court and restrictions on the evidence that can be given about a victim’s sexual history.
Jill went on to campaign for the rights of sexual assault victims and to improve the support they receive. She became a sexual assault case worker, trained police forces all over the country and most recently launched a new campaign called JURIES, arguing in favour of mandatory briefings for juries about the myths and stereotypes of sexual violence in rape, sexual assault and abuse trial. She also spoke out against those who in recent times have been seeking a change the law so that those accused of sex crimes can claim anonymity.
Despite all her work in 2013-2014 around 16,000 rapes were reported, only a third were sent to the Crown Prosecution Service and only 15 percent resulted in charges being made. Only around six percent resulted in a conviction. And none of this takes into account the fact that the rapes reported were probably only a fraction of the number actually committed. I know quite a few women who have told me about being raped but never reported it, because they feared what would happen. For them, Jill was a beacon of strength, someone who was fighting their fight, challenging judges, politicians and anyone else who needed educating on the subject.
On another level, Jill made a huge impact by expressing her belief that forgiveness provides victims with the freedom to move on, without being trapped by the past. The concept that one could forgive such awful acts sent out a powerful message about her Christianity.
In short, Jill’s life and her campaigns touched tens of thousands of people and made significant impacts in British legislation. At the same time she spent a large amount of time meeting, talking to or texting with rape victims, trying to help them come to terms with what has happened on a personal basis.
As a family, we have received thousands of messages in recent days, and I’d like to quote a couple of the ones that came to me, just to help you understand the kind of impact.
“The fact that the passing of Jill was the main item on last night’s BBC news speaks so clearly of the significant difference she made in the lives of so many,” one person wrote.
Another, from the motor racing world, wrote: “Jill was an incredible woman. Her support got me through an utterly terrible time and helped me to define myself, without reference to the wickedness that touched my life. Without wishing to sound trite, the difference between seeing oneself as a victim and defining oneself as a survivor is profound and without Jill I don’t think I could have made the step from one to another… I hope that the knowledge that there are people like me in the world for who Jill helped from the darkness back into the light offers a tiny bit of comfort to you all. I suspect her devotion to her cause means that she has touched 100s of lives and has left the world in a better place than she found it.”
And is there a better epitaph than that?
The Saward children were taught and shared the belief that we could – and indeed should – strive to make the world a better place. Motor racing may seem an odd place to do that, but while it is a ruthless but efficient money-making machine, it is also a place where normal people go to escape; a world of dreams that make life more bearable for many people. I’ve sometimes described myself as “a dream salesman” and I have always felt that in this way I could make a difference. This blog is all about inviting people into the sport and letting them understand.
When we were young, the family was not complicated. We had one “big sister”, then “the only boy” and finally the two “little sisters”. The latter were identical twins (left). I’m not really sure why but the only boy and the little sisters formed a little gang, in the Swallows and Amazons sense of the word. We did kid stuff. We had adventures. Our parents always seemed to be too busy to tell stories and the twins wanted them and so I, the scruffy schoolboy, became the family storyteller. I remember only too well those two, almost identical, little faces spellbound by some daft story about elephants with tail lights or whatever else came to mind. They were my first audience – and ultimately the way I learned how to tell stories and transport people to exciting places.
And then, all of a sudden, we were adults and our paths went off in different directions. We were outward-looking and independent, but bound together by this thing called love. We were never held back by the family and that meant that we could have big dreams and wide horizons. Often we got lost from one another in the forests of life, but then we would be together again, for weddings and funerals, and we would remember that families can draw strength from one another.
Motor racing took me into a world in which there are some amazing intellects and an underlying requirement for constant improvement. If you do not move forward in racing, you fall behind. No-one is ever cruising along. And brilliant minds create fantastic ways in which to apply racing technology to the real world. Yes, there are safer and more efficient cars as a result of the sport, but there is so much else as well, including such things as medical telemetry, more efficient trauma teams (based on pit stop techniques) and many other things. I am proud to be part of Formula 1 and to sing its praises.
Formula 1 is really only a village which moves from place to place. One of the things which one learns about during a career as a journalist in F1 is the science of brain injury. We’ve seen a lot of it. My sister suffered a devastating subarachnoid haemorrhage, caused by an aneurysm. My first reaction when I heard the news was to ring Gary Hartstein, who was F1’s village doctor after the great Sid Watkins. Gary knows an amazing amount about trauma medicine and I knew he would help me understand. I told him all I knew, and he answered all my questions, explained the procedures and things which I should look out for, which would signal how things were. He didn’t sugar-coat anything – and added that he was available 24/7. He went the extra mile, as so many F1 people do. Gary was also brave enough to raise the subject of the worst case scenario and how we should be prepared to allow organ donation, in order to save other people. People who die young from brain injuries are among the best sources of healthy organs, which can transform the lives of others.
Thanks to Gary, I had no illusions. It may be comforting to think that people with cataclysmic brain injuries are “fighting”, but the reality is often very different. Most are quickly gone and they know nothing of what has happened. In Jill’s case, she was kept alive simply to allow surgical teams and organ recipients to be gathered. That in itself is quite a process. And then, when all was ready, the machines were turned off.
There are always positives, even at the worst moments, and the knowledge that others were going to benefit from Jill’s organs provided something. It was good too that our parents (both already gone) were not there to endure the loss of one of their children. After that, the flood of messages began, highlighting Jill’s achievements. The experience drew the family together and healed rifts and it reminded us all that we should never take people for granted. If you feel something important, you should say it, because you never know.
This blog post is not about raising money. It is about me saying what I want to say, but at the same time, I am well aware that the motor racing world is filled with wealthy people, who have enough money to buy expensive toys. Perhaps this story will convince them to donate to the “Remembering Jill Saward Fund”, which has been set up by the charity Rape & Sexual Abuse (RASA) Centre Limited. This will help to make sure that her work for survivors of sexual violence will continue. If you would like to help then please click here.