Channel 4 defends decision on mental health panel make-up

Channel 4 has been criticised for hosting a panel discussion on how the media treats mental health, without inviting anyone with mental health difficulties onto the panel.

The event on 17 May will mark Mental Health Awareness Week, and includes a discussion on “mental health portrayal on mainstream television and beyond”.

The discussion will be chaired by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former Downing Street communications director, who has spoken frequently of his own mental health problems, but none of the five-strong panel have mental health issues themselves.

The panel is made up of Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind; Mark McLane, head of global diversity and inclusion for Barclays; Professor Lord Layard, director of the wellbeing programme at the London School of Economics; James Morris MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health; and the former Liberal Democrat care services minister Paul Burstow, now chair of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.

A Channel 4 spokesman said that people with mental health issues had been “invited to give testimony at this event”, and added: “Their testimony will form the basis of a panel discussion involving some of the most influential people in the field of mental health and, of course, they will be invited to join the panel if they wish to do so.”

But Channel 4 has refused to explain why it failed to ask anyone with mental health issues to join the five-strong panel.

Mark Brown, development director of the social enterprise Social Spider, who has written and spoken extensively about mental health, said: “It’s always easy to divide the world into the do-ers of good works and the beneficiaries of those good works.

“As ever, in mental health this manifests as experts talking and people with mental health difficulties delivering testimony or case study.”

Brown, who has experience of mental health difficulties himself, said: “It’s fascinating to look at a panel discussing mental health representations in media that is in the main representative of large organisations, bodies or movements that provide service to people with mental health difficulties with the promise that people with direct experience will ‘feed in’.”

He added: “In an ideal world it wouldn’t be too hard to find a person from within the industry who also has direct experience of mental health difficulties who would be able to address the structural reasons why representation of mental health difficulty is such as it is in mainstream media.

“It’s notable that in the panel as it stands that there is no-one, perhaps apart from Alastair Campbell, who can speak to the question of what it feels like to be represented in mainstream media; never mind who can address the question of why people with mental health difficulties are often the subject of the media lens without ever being behind the camera to direct that gaze ourselves.”

Another leading campaigner with experience of using mental health services, Professor Peter Beresford, who co-chairs the national service-user network Shaping Our Lives, said the panel line-up showed that Channel 4 needed to “up their game on issues of distress and mental health”.

He said he doubted if the broadcaster would make such an error if the subject was disability in general, rather than mental health.

He said he had previously been open about his view that Campbell’s “record as a bully”, and his role in the decision to invade and go to war with Iraq meant he was “an appalling spokesperson for us”.

Beresford’s concerns appeared to be confirmed by the line-up of another Channel 4 event, planned for next week, this time focusing on disability.

The five-strong panel for this event features four disabled participants: Paralympian Sophie Christiansen; disability equality consultant and former BBC age and disability correspondent Geoff Adams-Spink; and two disabled people who have featured in disability-related Channel 4 documentaries.

(Disability News Service)

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