Good evening ladies and gentlemen – thank you so much for inviting me to be with you at such a prestigious event. I’ve been a psychology student for 18months and the thought of standing in front of so many illustrious professionals is very intimidating I mentioned that to a colleague who is here tonight and she said – don’t worry – they’ll all be drunk by the time you get on stage. And looking at her now, she is wearing a hat made of her napkin already…
When the British Psychological Society approached me to talk to you – it was off the back of an article I’d written for the magazine, about how the media portrays people who are vulnerable – and how journalists acknowledge their own vulnerability. I mentioned to the organiser that it wasn’t typical after dinner speech material – “there aren’t many laughs in trauma” – to which she said: “if you can lighten it up before the dancing, that’ll be fine”. So I’ll do my best.
When I mentioned to some of my colleagues that I was taking an MSc in psychology – their reactions were predictable. As you know, presenters are mostly egotistical – so some of them inevitably thought I wanted to talk to them, about them. And they are sometimes neurotic, which means they thought I was doing it to get some evolutionary advantage and move up the presenter food chain.
The real reason is probably one that strikes a lot of them – but which perhaps they haven’t acknowledged. How do we, as presenters and broadcasters, affect the lives of those we talk to – and what are our responsibilities towards them?
Your industry and mine have similarities.
We spend our lives listening – often to people who are in a state of highly charged emotion – shock, grief, trauma. But your motive and mine are very different. You want to help – I want to get their story on the news.
A brilliant US broadcaster, Studs Terkel said: “We mine for the precious metal of an individual, asking just enough casual questions so that, within time, the sluice gates of damned up hurts and dreams are open”. What happens in that mining process – and afterwards, was something I wanted to explore further.
Give you an example. David Rathband was a policeman who was shot and blinded by a gunman on the rampage in Northumberland called Raoul Moat. Davidwas running the London marathon to raise funds for a charity called the Blue Lamp Foundation and he wanted to raise awareness too, so we decided to do an interview the day before he ran. It was a very emotional interview, he took my hand and cried frequently. He couldn’t see the microphone and was not aware of anything other than my voice. I explained to him once it ended that the broadcast would not end up being the 90 minute interview we’d just done. He was ok with that. The interview was broadcast on Radio 4, it won plaudits and a place in the Radio Times Best Ever Interviews. Less than a year later, David took own life. I was plagued with guilt – had I treated him fairly? Sensitively enough? What was my responsibility to him afterwards, to make sure he was ok? That was the moment I thought I needed to know more about individuals who’ve had a traumatic event – so maybe I handle them differently.
Same – to greater or lesser extent – over 30 years – interviewing victims at the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, Paddington rail crash, Asian Tsunami, Pakistan earthquake.
The power is ours, not theirs. We dictate the interview and what we do with it. We frame them – and their story. Sometimes we cut them down to a symptom or diagnosis. Worse – we describe them as such.
Can we change that? If so – how? I came up with some tips for journalists, which the Psychologist magazine has published, including asking whether the guest can give informed consent and whether they fully understand the interviewing and editing process? Whether we’ve reassured them about content/publication date? And also whether journalists have considered their own mental health and sought support if necessary?
That last point – takes me onto what I’m studying now.
Journalists often learn to box away emotion. My Father was a journalist and my mother an intensive care nurse so I learnt early – don’t bring emotion home. Also – there’s a fear of weakness or stigma if you mention to anyone you may have been affected.
There’s guilt, too. When we are reporting on disaster or war, we are very aware that we can leave, they can’t. Studies suggest between 6 and 28% people in news experience PTSD – guilt mediates it – according to a study by Dr Tess Brown and Prof Neil Greenberg.
But healing begins with the telling of a story – which brings us right back to the beginning.
Maybe – our role as journalists interviewing those in trauma, or vulnerable, goes beyond telling the news – maybe, depending on how it’s done – it can be part of their healing process, too. Perhaps we’re not so different, after all.
Before I open the floor to questions – and because I promised to lighten the mood before the Bangra dancing – I thought I’d give you some examples of when the power is definitely with the viewer. Here are some emails I’ve received over the years, which managed to flummox or floor me:
I think Sian is a good example of how someone can have ginger hair and still look presentable.
Sheila – why does Sian think orange hair goes with mauve?
What has happened to Sian Phillips? She used to look so smart and co-ordinated, now, everyday she looks like a throw back from the Oxfam shop
Sian Williams is clearly a good interviewer, as her savaging of Gordon Brown shows, but she’s mumsy and completely lacking in sex appeal. Bill Turnbull is surplus to requirements and gives the impression that he’s far too good for you and us.
Sian Williams has lost her sparkle and Bill Turnbull never had it. The only thing that you’ve done right is to get rid of the obnoxious Jonathon Ross
PS. Chris Evans will never replace Terry Wogan-kiss your listeners goodbye.
So – from this sparkle-free, orange-haired, Oxfam throwback – can I say thank you for your attention. The power most definitely is with you now –I’d love to hear your questions
This speech was delivered on 8 May 2014.