Many of the people who start their careers wanting to be journalists find out pretty quickly that the job is not what they thought. They dream of truth-seeking heroics, but it often doesn’t work out that way. They recoil from the media’s cynicism. They don’t want to become hacks ruled by tabloid values, and fear they will be condemned never to write about the things that really matter. So, they become charity press officers instead. At least, I did. No dumbing down or marching to the editor’s tune for me. I chose the path to true virtue: the freedom to work only on the stories I really cared about . . .
Yet here I am, years later, working at the mental health charity Rethink and spending my time chasing celebrity quotes and case studies that fit the “under 30, photogenic female” demographic demanded by the press. Instead of explaining to millions why mental health discrimination is the next big civil rights issue, I’m often to be found reminding journalists that our beloved Stephen Fry has bipolar disorder.
This has been especially true while I’ve been working on Time to Change, the national campaign to end the stigma on people who experience mental health problems. If you read the papers or travel on the London Underground, you’ll probably have seen photos of Stephen, as well as Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell, peering at you from the page or following you up the escalator. They’ve been fronting the campaign, designed to break down one of our last great taboos, by sharing their own experience of mental illness. Nothing wrong with that per se – in fact, it has probably doubled the coverage the campaign would otherwise have received.
But there’s the rub. Shouldn’t we want to hear about these issues anyway? Do we really need to look to the stars? I started “selling” this campaign to journalists armed with a raft of compelling stories of real-life discrimination – the experienced business analyst who, after six months off with depression, made 150 job applications before an employer would give him a chance; the singer barred from joining a choir because she had had schizophrenia; the Cambridge graduate refused a chance to train as a teacher because of a history of mental health problems. They’re interesting stories, emblematic of a stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and they matter to a great many people: one in four of us will have a mental health problem at some stage. And journalists know it. “Wow, yes, that is very interesting,” they say. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it? I know someone that happened to, actually, but . . . I was wondering if you could get me Mel C, y’know, Sporty Spice? Or Ruby Wax? Or, even better, do you have any new celebs who’ve had problems in the past?”
Not only glossy women’s magazines or the red-top papers gave this response. Those on the guilty list include the Daily Telegraph and the BBC (evidence, perhaps, of an increasing tabloidisation of the British media). I wasn’t even especially surprised when, after I had lined up a series of “real people” with fascinating stories for Newsnight, the producer scrapped it and said the programme wouldn’t cover the campaign at all unless they had a film on Alastair Campbell talking about his breakdown in the 1980s and recurrent depression. I’ve lost count of the number of times a section editor has come back to me saying that “we’d love to do something on Time to Change – if you can get me a famous face”.
Celebrity sells. We know that. It is a tried and trusted method of polishing up a brand and increasing product sales. So it might make a lot of sense for charities to adopt proven marketing methods if they are fundraising. At a push, you might compare the decision to buy a product with the decision to “buy in” to a charity. But that’s not what Time to Change is all about. We don’t want people’s money; we want to mobilise popular indignation about the fact that mental illness, an issue that affects 25 per cent of the population, is still shrouded in shame. And I’m not so sure celebrities could, or should, lead social movements. I choked on my breakfast a few weeks ago when I read Ed Miliband’s call for green activists to launch a “mass social movement – like Make Poverty History”. Make Poverty History, with its TV adverts starring the highest-paid Hollywood darlings, looked more like a Gap advert than a popular social movement to me. But if it works, does it matter?
And it does work, to a degree. In fact, it worked on me. I confess that it was Simple Minds’s Jim Kerr who brought me to the anti-apartheid debate as a kid. In my teens, I joined Amnesty because the sleeve notes on U2’s Achtung Baby told me to. Yet predicating a campaign, an advert or an article purely on the involvement of a celebrity so often leads to the message and the issues becoming oversimplified. Francis Bacon said: “Fame is like a river, that beareth up things light and swollen and drowns things weighty and solid.” It’s very easy for complex social issues to become diluted and even drowned in the torrent of celebrity on which they’re often carried.
More and more of our information now comes through the prism of fame, even health warnings (Kylie, Jade Goody). We will never know how many people voted for Barack Obama because of Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement. I would guess that most New Statesman readers, like me, are pleased Oprah did endorse Obama, because we’re happy with the outcome. I also like the outcome of Alastair Campbell’s fronting the Time to Change campaign (coverage in several national papers and a bevy of TV spots), but I’m not comfortable with the fact that we needed his fame to achieve it. Nor is he, I think. As we sat in a radio studio one afternoon and he did his tenth regional interview of the day, he asked me why I hadn’t got some “real people” telling their stories on their local radio stations. Oh, how I’d tried.
When I heard he was guest-editing the New Statesman, I thought to myself: “He’s bound to give us some coverage.” And it didn’t surprise me either that he said he wanted me – and not a celeb – to say whatever I wanted about the issues and the campaign.
There is no doubt whatsoever that listening to a high-profile public figure divulge their experience of psychosis is riveting. And, with or without the charity brief, we have found a celebrity who understands that, in having a boss who didn’t hold his mental health against him (in his case the Prime Minister), he was in the lucky minority – he knows that the stigma of mental health illness is real.
Alastair Campbell, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Patsy Palmer are all good ambassadors for Time to Change because they speak from personal experience, they care about the issue and they know how to engage people. But celebrities alone do not constitute a movement: a deeper level of engagement and popular mobilisation must happen. Without it, our support for campaigns is no more meaningful than our preference for a particular brand of cooking sauce or, for that matter, a certain colour of rubber wrist bracelet.
And if there are any editors out there who want to hear about real stories of ordinary people suffering discrimination on the grounds of mental health problems, past or present, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Hilary Caprani is media manager for Rethink: www.rethink.org 
Rethink, along with Mind and Mental Health Media, is leading Time to Change, England’s most ambitious campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems. Find out more at: www.time-to-change.org.uk