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My reporting showed the sheer horror of stalking. The police are failing victims – why won’t they take this crime seriously?

<span>A still from the new Netflix documentary Can I Tell You A Secret.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix</span>
A still from the new Netflix documentary Can I Tell You A Secret.Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

In March 2022, I published an investigation into the crimes of Matthew Hardy, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison in what was then believed to be the UK’s worst-ever case of cyberstalking. The story caught the public’s attention and I later turned it into a six-part Guardian podcast series, Can I Tell You a Secret?, which topped the UK podcast charts. It has now inspired a new, two-part Netflix documentary of the same name, which is released today.

Hardy tormented people, mostly women, for years. He broke apart families, relationships and professional relationships. He sent nude photos of his victims to their work contacts. He called them late at night and breathed down the phone; when the women cried from stress and fear, he’d send them mocking messages. On one occasion he nearly wrecked a wedding. His victims were diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Nobody knows how many people Hardy targeted. Cheshire constabulary alone received more than 100 reports about him, resulting in 10 arrests and two restraining orders, over an 11-year period. I am glad for Hardy’s victims that he was finally brought to justice, and I am also glad that they have been given a new platform to share their stories and raise awareness of the devastating impact of stalking.

Hardy’s crimes were memorably awful, but away from the true-crime podcasts and Netflix documentaries, stalking is an ordinary, unremarkable sort of crime – one that attracts scant attention from police and prosecutors. In fact, arguably stalking has been all but decriminalised in England and Wales, with devastating consequences: just 6.6% of reported stalkers are charged with a crime, and only 1.4% are convicted.

Most stalkers never see the inside of a prison cell, and instead receive fines, or community or suspended sentences if they’re convicted. Like Michael Sellers. He’d fixated on seven women at his workplace before locking on to Gracie Spinks, 23, whom he met when they both worked at an e-commerce firm in Chesterfield. Spinks reported Sellers to the police in February 2021, but Derbyshire constabulary closed the case after giving him a warning, deeming it low-risk. Sellers was never arrested and police didn’t check his personnel file, which would have revealed that he’d been fired for stalking Spinks. When police were alerted that a bag containing an axe, three knives, a hammer and a note reading “Don’t Lie!” had been found in a field near where Spinks kept her horse, they did nothing, even though her family believe a receipt in the bag could have identified Sellers. Weeks later, Sellers murdered Spinks, and then killed himself.

If we saw stalking for what it truly is – often a stepping-stone on the route to murder – perhaps police would take it seriously. But they do not. Too easily, stalking victims are dismissed. I’ve heard all the justifications: “it’s just online”, “it will die down”, “change your number”, “delete your social media accounts”, “this is just a lovers’ tiff”. But nothing seems to change. Derbyshire police have accepted they failed Spinks, and apologised to her family. I’ve seen so many of these apologies. They’re always the same and commonly include the platitude of “lessons being learned”. They don’t bring anyone back. I’m not convinced they protect future victims either.

My reporting on stalking began in 2018, when I launched a national anti-stalking campaign, Unfollow Me, at my former employer Vice, in partnership with the stalking advocacy service Paladin. Using freedom of information laws, I found that more than 60 women had been murdered by stalkers in a three-year period, despite having reported them to the police.

Alice Ruggles, Shana Grice, Molly McLaren. I cannot forget their names. Their last moments haunt me. How Ruggles’ ex-boyfriend slashed her throat with a knife as she cowered from him in her bathroom. How McLaren’s ex-boyfriend stabbed her 75 times in a car park in broad daylight. How Grice’s ex-boyfriend subjected her to unthinkable terror in the months before her death – he let himself into her house and watched her sleeping – before murdering her, and setting fire to her body. All three women reported their stalkers to police, who did next to nothing. Grice, unbelievably, was fined by Sussex police for wasting police time. It’s been six years now, and all I see is the same police apologies and hand-wringing. Nothing has changed.

What I believe underpins all of this is a rich seam of misogyny. Men – and it is mostly men who are stalkers, although of course they can be victims too – who feel entitled to women’s time, their attention, their bodies and sometimes even their lives. And police forces that regard women as time-wasters and their complaints as histrionics, for objecting to this. Stalking victims deserve to live in safety and peace. Right now, as a society, we are failing them.

  • Sirin Kale is a feature writer for the Guardian

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