Dr Christian Jessen: "The word 'exploitative' drives me mad"

Helen Lewis talks to Dr Christian Jessen about Twitter diagnoses, self-promotion and the best of the NHS.

Dr Christian Jessen lives an odd life. Quite regularly, people send him photos of their diseased body parts; others seek medical advice from him on Twitter, which he retweets with his response in capital letters before the question. So: “IT’LL KILL YOU IN AN HOUR OR TWO. @DoctorChristian how poisonous exactly?”
 
Dr Christian, as he prefers to be known, is the presenter of Channel 4’s prime-time hits Embarrassing Bodies and Supersize vs Superskinny. In the former, members of the public air their piles, warts and assorted deformities for the benefit of a grateful nation; in the latter, an overeater and an under-eater swap diets for a week in the “feeding clinic”.
 
Both shows have millions of viewers. As a result, Jessen is now our best-known telly doctor (and he is a real one, unlike Gillian McKeith and her internet PhD). But where a previous generation had Robert Winston talking through his trustworthy moustache about the miracle of life, Dr Christian is more likely to go to Magaluf, strip down to his pants and give everyone a pep talk about genital warts.
 
The big question is –why? Why would anyone submit to showing off their bunions, never mind their STI, on national TV? “Sometimes, they’ve been trying for ages to get help and they haven’t been able to get it,” he tells me over juice and pastries at a hotel in London. “Some of them are very political. Some of them are [saying]: ‘I want to promote my condition because I’ve had it long enough and my GP doesn’t seem to understand what it is.’”
 
Isn’t there an element of the freak show? “The word ‘exploitative’ drives me mad. These people have watched the show – it’s been going on for, what, seven series now?”
 
No one can accuse him of not practising what he preaches. He’s spoken about having a hair transplant and his struggle with body dysmorphia, which makes him see a puny weakling in the mirror, when he actually looks more like He-Man. Once, asked on Twitter if he’d ever had an STI, he simply replied: “YES”.
 
Hearing from so many people about their problems, he has a clear perspective on the health service. “The NHS is really, really good at dealing with acute problems, emergencies, major illnesses like cancers. Where it’s not so good is [treating] your ingrowing toenail, your small hernia, your haemorrhoids . . . But what other way is there of doing it, really?”
 
He certainly doesn’t think that the NHS should refuse treatment to immigrants, as some right-wing papers have suggested. “What I like about the NHS – and this is a contentious issue – is that if you’re a poor, African woman with HIV and you know you’re going to die in your country and your children are going to die, if you scrape the money together to get [here], they’ll look after you.” He pauses and flashes a wry, if expensively maintained, smile. “I don’t think we can afford to, but that’s a different issue.”
 
Unlike most doctors I have met, Dr Christian is unafraid of the internet and how it has changed patients’ expectations. He loves to tweet, despite the British Medical Association’s worries about the medium, and in one series of Embarrassing Bodies, people used Skype to consult him. He thinks that video calls could be a scalable solution for those who find it hard to visit their doctor in person (“Most GP questions are: ‘Should I worry? Shouldn’t I?’”).
 
He also doesn’t mind when patients turn up having researched their condition on the web. “I don’t sigh. Well, sometimes I do. Patients come in and they go, ‘Doctor, you gave me these tablets and I’ve just seen that according to the latest trial data they’re not necessarily the right ones.’ That can only be good for us.”
 
Medicine Man: unlike many other doctors, Jessen has embraced the internet. Photograph: Phil Fisk/Camera Press.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.