It is a truly blood chilling thing to discover a faceless stranger who wants to do you and your family serious harm, knows exactly where you live, has stood outside your house, and taken note of the cars that are parked in your drive.
As a woman in the public eye, you come to expect a certain amount of unpleasantness from strangers hiding behind a computer screen. But the night my daughter Mia came into our bedroom on holiday to tell me someone was sending me horrible messages on Instagram will live long in my memory. Having to endure horrendous online abuse is bad enough ‒ but when that online abuse turns into a physical threat too, and not just to you, but to your teenage daughter, it is terrifying.
It is hard to talk about what happened and is not something that I do lightly. The reason I am choosing to do so is to send a clear message to anyone who has been a victim of similar abuse that they are not alone, they are not powerless, and those trolls who send violent threatening messages can be identified, can be caught and can be sent to prison.
It was July 2020 and I was away for a few nights with my husband David and our girls Mia, then 19, and Scarlett, 16. Mia helps me with my Instagram and came in one evening looking worried. “Mum, there’s someone sending you some not very nice messages”. “Oh thanks darling,” I said, not thinking much of it. “I’ll sort it out in the morning.” I glanced at the messages, which seemed more odd than genuinely threatening; something about the language was off. Things got more disturbing a couple of hours later Mia came back in. “Mum, he’s started following me now.” I don’t tag Mia in any of my social media, so it was clear he had gone out of his way to find her and follow her. I felt extremely alarmed.
After that, the tone went very quickly from strange to scary. Overnight, messages came in thick and fast to both of our accounts. They were increasingly vile and graphic. By the morning, our inboxes were filled with shockingly violent threats. He said he would rape my daughter in my house. And terrifyingly, he seemed to know exactly where we lived.
I am so careful about my personal life. I never say exactly where I live, very rarely post pictures of the girls or say anything overly identifying in interviews or on air. Suddenly, here was this stranger who knew things you could never have got from just Googling me. The details he had about where I live was chilling, he could have only known them if he had been stood right outside my house. “I know where you live,” he wrote. “You’re not going to live there for much longer. I’m coming after you.”
The next morning, he appeared to go underground – the messages and the account were deleted – but, crucially, we had taken screenshots of everything. I called the BBC first thing in the morning, and they contacted the police. Meanwhile, we had to decide whether or not to go home. The girls were absolutely terrified, particularly Mia, who was traumatised by the messages. The threats were so graphic I still haven’t allowed my husband to read them. No one should have to read those words. Mia desperately didn’t want to go home, but though I was just as frightened I felt we needed to get back somehow. At least if we were there we could batten down the hatches while the police tried to find him.
For weeks, we felt like we were like prisoners in our own home. We put up CCTV cameras and extra fencing. I wouldn’t let the girls out on their own, wouldn’t let David leave us in the house. We changed all our daily routines, our walking routes. I couldn’t go for a run on my own and whenever I was out of the house I’d jump if someone smiled at me or said hello. I’m a visible person and people often stop me in the street. It’s usually a lovely thing, if slightly strange. Now, I saw everyone as a potential threat.
I was in a state of high alert – functioning, but looking over my shoulder constantly. If someone outside the house looked strange or out of place, I’d call the police as I had been advised to do, just in case it was him. They were supportive, but I felt none of us were safe. I was wracked with guilt too. I hated that my profile meant Mia was having to go through all this. In the days that followed I considered leaving my job at BBC Breakfast. How could I do a job where because people know my name and face someone would come after my daughter? The girls were the ones that stopped me in the end. “You cannot let this get in the way of your job, Mum,” they said. “You can’t let him win.” It’s thanks to them that I didn’t just quit that week.
The investigation process was painstaking. I gave a victim statement (in some ways the hardest part of the process, as it required me to actually read out to the officer some of the messages and go over vile language, which I had been trying not to remember in too much detail) and handed over all the screenshots. It was then over to the police and Instagram to trace him.
Eventually, at the end of March, after nine months of anxiously waiting, we were told a man was going to be charged with stalking in connection with the messages. He was bailed until the trial in October 2021. While we waited, I still felt we couldn’t breathe easy.
Thankfully when it came to the trial, we didn’t have to give evidence in court ourselves as we had handed all the images over to the police. That was a huge relief; I didn’t want to see his face let alone be in the same room as him.
I sometimes still wish I didn’t know what his face looks like. Though in some way it’s helpful, I suppose, to know what he looks like so when people smile and say hello, I know I am OK, I am safe, it’s not him, just someone who recognises my face from the telly.
The sad truth is that I am far from being alone in being targeted with serious online threats. It is not just in my profession either; you only have to take a brief scroll through the timelines of some female MPs, for example, to have a sense of the toxic nature of the messages they endure. But it is also worth remembering you don’t have to be famous or have a public profile to be the target of violent online threats. It can happen to anyone.
If anything good can come out of what we have been through it’s the clear message that perpetrators don’t always stay anonymous; they can be prosecuted. North Wales Police and the CPS have proved they can be found and they can expect a prison sentence. [Ex-soldier Carl Davies, 44, was sentenced to two years and eight months in December.] I am hugely thankful for their hard work and efforts pursuing the case.
The whole experience has been enormously emotionally draining and scary, and I have had help getting through it. I was lucky that a couple of colleagues who have experienced similar issues reached out and have been hugely supportive.
Counselling has helped with some of those dreadful intrusive thoughts. Mia and I have both needed help to cope with what we’ve been through and are doing much better now, though it has left a mark. We’re both cautious around people in a way we never used to be. As a mother I’m devastated Mia has to live with the memory of this now. She’s only 20; she should never have had to experience something like this but especially at that age and stage in her life.
Throughout this ordeal, I’ve tried to be strong for my girls. I told myself that I was OK, I was coping. I didn’t realise I was fooling myself. I know I slept a little easier the night I knew he was finally behind bars. And the next morning, for the first time in 18 months, I didn’t look twice before leaving the house.
As told to Eleanor Steafel