Sarah Caden: 'Would Caroline Flack be treated differently over assault charge if she was a man?'

The obvious question to ask, once Love Island host Caroline Flack was arrested and charged with assault before last weekend, was whether she’d be treated any differently if she was a man.

The charge against Flack is assault of a man, believed to be her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, in the small hours of Friday, December 13. Photographs of blood on her doorstep made the papers. There were reports of neighbours saying they were used to hearing the couple fighting loudly. There were several police cars at Flack’s Islington home, as well as an ambulance, which took Burton away. Flack, it was reported, had some cuts too. Glass had broken, it seemed.

It was not until last Tuesday, however, that Caroline Flack stood down from her role on Love Island, the first winter series of which is due to start on January 12. She got to tweet that she would “stand down”, thus framing it as her noble decision, and in doing so also made it clear that she was only out for this run of the show.

It’s not permanent, people, it’s just that Flack, generously, doesn’t want to “detract attention” from the show with the issues currently around her.

It’s a statement out of which she emerges relatively well. In control, making it clear that there has been much misreporting, and emphasising all the support she’s had personally, which suggests that the people who really know her, know that she’s not the bad guy.

Not a bad guy. Not a guy, either. And you have to wonder that if Caroline Flack was male, would she have been treated so relatively kindly.

If she had been a man whose female partner was taken away in an ambulance, who was actually charged with assault, would she have kept her job past the weekend? And would the door be “kept firmly open” to her reported £1.2m deal with ITV, if Flack were a man?

There is an enduring issue around how we regard the idea of female violence, particularly towards men. We struggle still with the notion that a slight woman the likes of Flack could actually harm a big and fit-looking young man such as Lewis Burton. Sure he could defend himself against her no bother, right?

Except that we know, logically, that this is not how it really works. It’s more than possible for a woman of any size to physically abuse a man, and it happens all the time and yet, we continue to find ways to frame it as lesser than abuse of a woman by a man. And one way we do that is to minimise the injury.

We read that Flack was cut, too – so there was a pair of them in it. We read that there was a mobile phone involved in the actual breaking of skin and cutting blood – ah sure if you threw one of those even gently it’d fairly hurt. We hear that both Flack and Burton have been posting social media messages of love and support for each other since – you see, lovers’ tiff, no harm done.

If you say so, but would you say so if she was a man?

It’s possible, in fact, that all this business, which Flack was at pains to point out is personal – as in private – in her stepping-down tweet, might have gone away if her former fiance Andrew Brady hadn’t rowed in.

The day Caroline Flack was charged with assault, Brady tweeted that he was “sad that [he’s] not more surprised by the news”. Apparently, and according to an unnamed source, Brady reached out privately to Burton, keen to support him. Last week, he posted a picture of a non-disclosure agreement online, apparently made after splitting with Flack, with the tagline “abuse has no gender”.

A one-off row is one thing for a high-profile employer to brush off, but any suggestion of a pattern of aggressive behaviour on Flack’s part made it impossible for ITV to hold on to her. And, it should be emphasised, Brady is only suggesting at a pattern, not offering any proof.

Still, it was probably enough, and should be enough, male or female.

However, what Brady’s contribution also allowed to follow was a dissection of Flack’s romantic history in a way that just wouldn’t happen to a man.

We don’t really allow for women to be violent, but we do allow for them to be hysterical and mad and mercurial and that was a much easier picture to paint of Flack last week. And it doesn’t often happen to a man.

Last week, there was plenty of itemising of Flack’s love life and the men she has been involved with, almost all younger than her. Flack is now 40. Her current boyfriend Lewis Burton is in his late 20s, as is her former fiance, Andrew Brady. There was a flirtation with the younger Prince Harry, and her one-time on-screen partner, Olly Murs. She falls in love hard, was the detailed pattern, and she’s emotional and lots of other words that hint at intense, but not in a good way.

The Hollywood answer to something like this, of course, would be to head straight for rehab. This is a nice way to say mea culpa in your actions, to suggest that you are willing to atone, and to hide away from the world while the storm burns itself out.

It is, in fact, what happened with Ant McPartlin in 2018, when he crashed his car while driving under the influence. It was his second time in rehab, but the first time had not been under a cloud of almost causing injury or death to others. There were some noises made that he should be fired from his roles, with Dec Donnelly, on Britain’s Got Talent and I’m a Celebrity… but Ant not only returned after almost a year on the TV screen, but returned to awards for shows that were, nominally at least, still Ant and Dec affairs.

No doubt he felt lucky. And no doubt he was, as, in his case, ITV truly kept the door open. Ant, however, is half of the biggest duo in television. Caroline Flack is just one person, and, by last Friday, she had been replaced on Love Island by Bray native, Laura Whitmore.

Whitmore mentioned how much she cares for Flack and appreciates how Flack pushed her for the role, when she confirmed the gig on social media. Flack comes out of that seeming, again, seeming decent. And Flack, in turn, took to social media to get behind Whitmore. She added that this is “a really rough time… but I’m doing all I can to keep my head above water and sort this all out…”

It was reported, also last Friday, that ITV had offered to pay for therapy for Caroline Flack, but she had “assured them she’s fine”.

The assurances that she’s fine, the repeated gratitude for how kind and understanding everyone is, the big-hearted support for her replacement, it all adds up to Caroline Flack finding every which way to say that she’s innocent that it’s all a terrible understanding.

And maybe it is. Maybe the blood and the ambulance and the fact that the police felt there was sufficient cause for charges of assault are all a storm in a teacup and a private to-do that has been blown out of proportion. We have to give Caroline Flack the benefit of the doubt on all of it. It seems only right and fair.

But I’m not sure we’d do the same for a man.

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