I forgive you, my Sun

The Sun's initial reports of Frank Bruno's breakdown outraged the charity head Marjorie Wallace. So why did she then accept the paper's money?
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The Independent Online

There was a hurtful blunder in The Sun last week. Its first edition on Tuesday reported Frank Bruno's mental breakdown. The headline was: "Bonkers Bruno Locked Up". I happened to be a guest on Radio 5 Live late on Monday, reviewing the next day's papers. The headline was discussed. I was very unhappy and decided that Sane should challenge The Sun.

We put out a statement on the wires: "Such ignorant reporting does both the media and the public a huge disservice. We call on the newspapers involved to apologise to Mr Bruno and to all those who experience the stigma such attitudes inflame."

The Sun soon realised it had made a mistake. Its final edition had a new headline: "Sad Bruno in Mental Home". (That was better - but "sad" is somewhat patronising; and the idea of being "put in a mental home" revives an out-of-date image of mentally ill people being locked away and forgotten by society.)

Something had clearly happened at Wapping. This became more apparent when, the next day, I received a telephone call from Chris Roycroft-Davis, The Sun's managing editor. They wanted to launch an appeal in Bruno's name to raise funds for Sane, he said, and he wondered if I would write 500 words on the problems of mental illness.

I agreed. Some people might think this a cynical somersault. But Sane has always believed the way forward is not to beat the media over the head when they get it wrong but to work with journalists to get it right - and use the moment when the public's interest is aroused to combat misconception. The Sun's coverage the following day - it asked other high profile people who have suffered depression to describe their experience - further helped to bring the struggles of those fighting against mental illness into the open. The coverage in all the other tabloids, including the Daily Star, expressed the need for understanding.

This is a recent phenomenon. A few years ago, following a dismissive headline involving a person with mental illness, I asked David Yelland, then editor of The Sun, why his paper had to use language such as "nut" and "mad". His reply was brusque: "Find me another three-letter word."

The answer is straightforward. When writing about mentally distressed people we do not need to use the words mad, bad or even sad. The truth is that Frank Bruno was ill and taken to a hospital - not a "mental home" - in much the same way as if he had had a heart attack or had been injured in a road accident. The difference is that if someone is having a mental breakdown they may become so ill that they no longer realise how ill they have become, resist help and may have to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

So why do newspapers - and not just the tabloids - write headlines which are 30 or 50 years out of date and, as The Sun discovered, out of kilter with their readers? The problem is that they have not caught up with their more informed and open-minded readers. From my 20 years as a journalist, I know that such pejorative headlines are not necessarily malicious. They are grabbed by hard-pressed, lazy or inexperienced sub-editors, who have not been out with the reporter to see just how damaging the stereotypes can be.

This week's experience with The Sun suggests things are changing for the better. Newspapers are discovering that resorting to these slack words does not shift copies. "Nutcases" may no longer sell.

Has it taken the breakdown of a folk hero to make the press realise that demeaning words are like verbal tattoos stigmatising not only mentally ill people but further isolating their families and alienating readers?

If this current mood lasts, it will be good news for those of us who have been campaigning for many years to fight the prejudice and cruelty of some previous press coverage. One of the major problems has been that in rare cases mentally ill people have committed acts of violence which, when headlined without an explanation that the violence may be a symptom of the fear and paranoia in their minds, give the impression that anyone with a mental health problem could be dangerous. Violence is not a common feature of mental breakdown and research shows that the majority of people with a serious mental illness are no more violent that the rest of the population. But if you are hearing voices and having delusions you can act in a strange way. For each one of the cases involving an attack on another person, there are many more people whose mental illness turns them on themselves and can lead to them taking their own lives.

There are ways we can use the most tragic cases to inform and stimulate reform. Take the story of Jason Mitchell. Following a series of blunders and neglect from the mental health services, he killed two people near his local church and then his father. the Daily Star wrote: "Cared to Death. Five Innocents Murdered by Nutters Freed Too Soon". Compare that with The Times, which ran: "Lost Evidence That Could Have Saved Three Lives". There were similar differences between a story headlined in the Star as "Evil Psychopath Will Be Locked Up" and the broadsheet coverage report headlined: "How the Patient Who Killed Was Failed by Carers".

We have come a long way since I started in journalism, when mental illness was either misrepresented or ignored by the media. Mental illness was consistently confused with mental handicap. Such was the fear, not only of the media, but society, that when, in late 1985, we ran the Forgotten Illness campaign in The Times, I had to change the names of all the cases and families featured and have their photographs taken only in the shadows.

Times have changed. Recently, The Independent on Sunday, as part of its Mental Health Campaign, ran a six-week appeal for Sane, in which celebrities spoke about their own experiences and most individuals were prepared to be named and photographed for the cause.

We hope that day by day, with the help of the media, the stigma will fade and we will wash away those fixed and fearful attitudes. We salute those newspapers that acknowledge they may have made mistakes in their reporting and try to redress them, and we get mad at those who thoughtlessly repeat them. But the final judges are the readers, and for this we need to ensure that the compassion Frank Bruno's breakdown has evoked extends beyond celebrities to the thousands of unknown mentally ill people left to fight their inner demons neglected and alone.

Marjorie Wallace is chief executive of the mental-health charity Sane