Media shrinkpack who put celebrities on the couch

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The Independent Online
THERE was a time, not so long ago, when facts about famous people - whether true or pure gossip - were sufficient. But now even the most fantastic lie is no longer enough; we want to know not only the who and the what, but the why as well. To provide this important service a new breed of professional has emerged: the media psycho-pundit.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and psychoanalysts line up in print or on the television to dissect and explain the minds of people in the news whom they have never met, from John Major and Margaret Thatcher to Michael Jackson and the Princess of Wales. Last week it was the turn of the free- spending Duchess of York to be analysed in her absence by the psycho-pundits.

So rampant is the practice that the British Psychological Society is preparing guidelines for its members on what they can and cannot say about the motivation, personality and behaviour of figures in the public eye. "We were inundated with demands for opinions after Panorama's interview with the Princess of Wales, and there seems to be a notion that a person in the public domain becomes fair game," said a society spokeswoman.

Viewing the phenomenon from the other side, one tabloid features editor had fewer doubts. "Who are these people? God knows - but they give great copy," he said. "They're a godsend. You are looking for a commentator, preferably with doctor in front of their name, and in five minutes you've got 400 words to fill out your feature. It's absolutely brilliant."

How is it done? "You ring up the British Psychological Society, say you're doing a piece on one-armed mothers who leave their husbands for their gay uncles, they give you five numbers to call," he explains. "You ring one of them up, and they say straight off, how much am I getting for this? You say you'll stick pounds 100 in the post, and it's: 'Great. What do you want to know?' " Some preface their comments with the proviso that they can't discuss a particular person.

"But if you're asking about Diana, say, they'll tell you - 'If we're talking about a woman who's rich and separated, with two kids and a big house....' and they're off. And some of them don't even bother with the preface. It's shameless."

An experiment on the phone with the British Psychological Society and a couple of their suggested members confirm this account. "You want to know about mothers-in-law [the Queen] with daughters in debt [Duchess of York]? Sure, no problem."

The psycho-stars themselves present a very different account. Theirs is a mission to explain - a crusade on behalf of their all-too-often maligned or overlooked profession. "We are guardians of the concepts of psychiatry - that's been the driving force behind my involvement in the media," said Dr Raj Persaud. Dr Oliver James enthuses about "consciousness-raising", and Dr Dennis Friedman is earnest about helping "the public understand".

This sincerity does not always translate well into print or soundbite television, indeed at times the punditry can be beyond parody. After the Princess of Wales's Panorama programme, some of the insights seemed startlingly banal - for example, Dr Anthony Clare's "Given what Diana told us about bulimia, she has not been a strong woman all the time", and Dr Friedman's "Fergie gives out gifts to friends and dignatories because she doesn't believe they'll remember her otherwise".

Dr Oliver James knows why Diana has an obsession with telephones: her mother left when she was six, so "most of the time she could only talk to her mother on the telephone".

Jane Lyle read the Princess's body language for the Daily Mirror: "When talking of Andrew Morton's book she was nodding her head a lot, which means she strongly believes she was right to co-operate."

As with many high-profile performers, the pundits can feel a sense of rivalry. Dr Persaud, a consultant psychiatrist in an NHS hospital, dismisses "all those people doing it to try and gild their private practice. I've never even heard of most of the people who describe themselves in the press as psychoanalysts. I find it very worrying."

Dr James can be dismissive of his rivals: "Anthony Clare's success is due entirely to being Irish." He adds, however: "I like Raj. In fact, I got him into this whole game. But I can see why people make a joke of him. Some of what he says is terribly banal."

There is money in all this. Books, columns, television slots and the trappings of celebrity punditry can be a highly lucrative line. "I probably do, at most, 10 per cent of all the work I'm offered. If I gave up my job and did just media work, I would treble my income overnight," says Dr Persaud.

As yet, there is nothing to suggest that demand for their services will abate, and if there is a danger of overload - of devaluing the entire currency of psychology - it is not one which troubles Dr Friedman. "People might be uneasy with me writing about people I've never met, but I don't have a problem with it. I think it's perfectly reasonable. I'm entitled to say what I think about public figures - why would I need to know them?"

Dr Raj Persaud

Dr Persaud's byline has graced the pages of the Guardian, Telegraph, Express and Independent, and our daytime TV screens, through the 1990s, but is to be found most frequently in the Mail. Undisputed king of the media shrink pack.

Dr Anthony Clare

The grand old man of media psychiatry. Radio 4's In The Psychiatrist's Chair has located Dr Clare at the respectable end of the popular psychiatry spectrum. He analysed the Princess's Panorama performance for the Independent.

Dr Oliver James

A clinical psychologist who left behind an NHS mental hospital in south London for the glittering world of celebrity interviews, daytime TV punditry, documentaries, and, most recently, a Sunday Express column.

Beechy Colclough

"Therapist to the stars," according to the Daily Mirror. His regular Therapy Slot on GMTV is supplemented by the usual round of musings in the press; the client list at his Harley Street practice boasts Elton John and Michael Jackson.

Dr Dennis Friedman

Director of a private London psychiatric clinic. Sun readers learned from Dr Friedman last Thursday that the Duchess of York's choice of a keyring as a gift to friends "is particularly poignant. It's almost as if she's inviting people to enter her life".