Manchester women: filmed by voyeurs and stalked online

<span>Phoebe Collin, left, and Maddie Laing say they were told by police that nothing could be done about the incident.</span><span>Photograph: Joel goodman/The Guardian</span>
Phoebe Collin, left, and Maddie Laing say they were told by police that nothing could be done about the incident.Photograph: Joel goodman/The Guardian

Maddy Laing and Phoebe Collin had not seen the camera pointing at them as they walked down a busy Manchester street last April.

It was a warm spring day and the women were wearing brightly coloured cycling shorts, oblivious to the fact that someone was taking voyeuristic videos of their bodies using a device held below waist level.

“It’s disgusting,” said Collin, as Laing played the footage. “You can see they’re zooming in and out on our bum cheeks.”

Whoever took the high-definition video had been brazen. The perpetrator appeared to have been only a metre or two away, recording them mostly from behind and then walking around to capture their faces, which are clearly recognisable.

They felt violated. “We had no idea they were filming,” said Laing. “We just kept thinking: ‘How didn’t we see them?’”

But what was even more frightening was how the pair found out about the video.

Laing said she received an Instagram message from an anonymous person with a link to the footage. The message said: “Hi this is you right?” They later tracked down Collin and sent her a similar message, saying they had found the video online.

“That was what scared us, that they found us on social media,” said Laing. “We still don’t know who they are.”

Laing and Collin contacted the police but there were no repercussions.

“They said there wasn’t really anything they could do. They just said to let them know if it happens again,” said Collin.

The video is one of hundreds almost exclusively targeting women wearing tight clothes and short dresses, taken in towns and cities across the UK without their knowledge.

On Friday, as scrutiny stepped up of this growing problem, police urged women to report the behaviour, saying they were “very much up against it if we don’t get that intelligence, that information, coming from the actual victims and communities themselves”.

New powers have been put in place to allow police more easily to apply for a stalking protection order (SPO) for victims.

SPOs were introduced in 2019 as a means to stop stalking behaviour at an early stage and can ban perpetrators from specific areas, stop them contacting the victim and, crucially, prevent them recording images of them.

The Home Office announced on Monday, the first day of National Stalking Awareness Week, that police will no longer have to meet the criminal standard of proof – beyond a reasonable doubt – to apply for an order to protect victims. Courts will now measure applications against the civil standard – on the balance of probabilities – which should make it easier to take action in cases where the evidence is one person’s word against another.

What makes Laing and Collin’s story particularly unpleasant for women out in Manchester on Saturday night is how it is not at all unusual.

At the popular venue Printworks, Ella Gobson, a promoter, said there had been an altercation the previous weekend when a man saw his girlfriend being filmed by another man with a camera.

“It was just one guy on his own, making out that he was filming the ceiling. Her boyfriend spotted it and said ‘why are you filming her?’

“In the end, the guy made him delete the videos. It happens all the time,” she said.

On Deansgate, the scene of many of the surreptitious videos still viewable on leading social media platforms, this behaviour was at the forefront of women’s minds.

“I was thinking about that before I got here, when I was getting ready,” said Faye Lambie from Coventry, out for her friend Abbie Rose’s 24th birthday. “It’s disgusting.”

Rose added: “I was concerned to come here. It’s really shit, you just want to be able to relax without being sexualised and objectified.”

Violet Wray, a student, on a night out with her friends Mia Boyle and Sylvia Zacharczyk, said her fear was that if she was filmed, it would be “out on the internet for ever”.

“It’s an invasion of privacy. It makes you not want to go out,” said Zacharczyk.

Sisters Aya, Fatima and Jude Mohammed, and their cousin Athar Ahmed, said that while filming on a public street is not illegal, it was clear the people making the videos were cynically aiming to “victimise” women.

Fatima said: “He has an idea in his head and he’s picking a certain moment to portray women a specific way, for example when they’re drunk or alone. It leaves women vulnerable – you don’t know if a woman might be hiding from someone.”

Ahmed said: “There’s no excuse.”

The group had little faith in the police’s ability to tackle such a scattered problem but they said part of the answer lay in calling it out. “It needs a change in society,” Fatima said.

Aya said: “You should name and shame your friends if they’re sharing these videos.”

Ahmed added: “It’s like the transport slogan – ‘see it, say it, sorted’.”