You don’t have to be mad to work here…

It is not new for political figures to be affected by mental illness – Winston Churchill was famousl

In the light of the recent carnage of the local elections, it is easy to forget that the present government is one of the most successful in history. In 10 years as the chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown never experienced the economic problems he currently faces as prime minister. However, in a decade which was undoubtedly good for business, the Tony Blair premiership was characterised by an approach that contrasts strongly with the no-risk approach to recruitment of many employers in the commercial sector. This can be clearly illustrated by two interviews which appeared in Sunday newspapers on 20th April.

The higher profile of these was the revelation in the Sunday Times that John Prescott had experienced bulimia during his spell as deputy prime minister. The media reaction was almost entirely scornful and can be divided into three camps: those who simply expressed some variant of “Ha – Fatty”; those who were snootily surprised that Prescott’s choice of addictive substance betrayed his working class origins; and those who noted the cynicism in the timing of the announcement, which coincided with the release of an autobiography which gives little attention to other more colourful incidents in Prescott’s life, such as the punch he threw at a protester or the affair with his secretary. The last approach was perhaps more intelligent than the others but, if its protagonists had thought even harder, they might have reflected that, had the story had emerged earlier, his mental illness might have done more damage to his career than either violence or adultery and this would be both unfair and rather disturbing. Commentators were quick to note that Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after leaving office, scared to do more than hint about his religious beliefs to the voters, but they failed to spot a similar pattern in the announcement of his deputy.

The man who decided that “We don’t do God” was Alastair Campbell and, while he did not attempt to hide it, he was equally coy about talking about his history of mental illness before he retired from his post. However, since doing so, he has been dedicating a great deal of energy towards raising awareness of depression, with which he was diagnosed in his late twenties. In particular, he commends Blair for giving him his chance after being elected leader of the Labour Party, even though he was aware of the previous breakdown and Campbell did not yet have the towering reputation he has now. In his interview in the Independent on Sunday on 20th April, he urged other employers to follow this example.

It is not new for political figures to be affected by mental illness – Winston Churchill was famously manic depressive. However, what has changed is the attitude towards using the experience in a productive way to challenge stigma. It was all too much for Churchill’s family when a mental health charity portrayed him in a straightjacket as they figured that he would wish to be seen as a strong leader without any demons. This completely misses the point which is that Churchill does not need to be protected and indeed his reputation weakens any stigma rather than the other way around. Like many others, Campbell says that his depression contributed to his success by making him tougher mentally but this is a romantic view. The reality is simply that mental illness is as common among talented people as among the rest of the population and a good manager makes use of everyone at his disposal. If the Tories win the next election, I hope David Cameron heeds this lesson.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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Does it matter that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group?

Well yes, a little.

“#WESTMINSTERBUBBLE JOURNOS CHAT ON #WHATSAPP. NOW THAT’S INTERESTING,” writes the alt-left site Skwawkbox.

Its story refers to the fact that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group chat. The site finds this sinister, suggesting the chat could be used to “swap info, co-ordinate stories and narratives”:

“It’s a technology that worries Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in case terrorists use it – but its use by the Establishment for 1984-style message co-ordination would worry many people just as much.”

Skwawkbox’s shock was mocked by lobby journalists and spinners:


Your mole, who has sniffed around the lobby in its day, also finds the suggestion of journalists using the app for terrorist-style collusion a little hard to swallow. Like every other industry, journos are using WhatsApp because it’s the latest easy technology to have group chats on – and it’s less risky than bitching and whining in a Twitter DM thread, or on email, which your employers can access.

But my fellow moles in the Skwawkbox burrow have hit on something, even if they’ve hyped it up with the language of conspiracy. There is a problem with the way lobby journalists of different publications decide what the top lines of stories are every day, having been to the same briefings, and had the same chats.

It’s not that there’s a secret shady agreement to take a particular line about a certain party or individual – it’s that working together in such an environment fosters groupthink. They ask questions of government and opposition spokespeople as a group, they dismiss their responses as a group, and they decide the real story as a group.

As your mole’s former colleague Rafael Behr wrote in 2012:

“At the end [of a briefing], the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn’t said.”

Plus, filing a different story to what all your fellow reporters at rival papers have written could get you in trouble with your editor. The columnist David Aaronovitch wrote a piece in 2002, entitled “The lobby system poisons political journalism”, arguing that rather than pursuing new stories, often this ends up with lobby journalists repeating the same line:

“They display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.”

This tendency for stories to become stifled even led to the Independent and others boycotting the lobby in the Eighties, he notes.

Of course, colleagues in all industries have always communicated for work, social and organisational reasons in some way, and using WhatsApp is no different. But while Skwawkbox’s “revelation” might seem laughable to insiders, most people don’t know how political journalism works behind-the-scenes. It touches on a truth about how Westminster journalists operate – even if it’s wrong about their motive.

I'm a mole, innit.