Newsflash: it's time to face up to disfigurement

Five's lunchtime bulletin is to radically test prejudices about the looks of newsreaders, reports Ian Burrell

Channel Five, the broadcaster which famously pays the glamorous Natasha Kaplinsky £1m a year to read the news, will today put before the autocue a man who, to use his own description, has a face made up of "a patchwork quilt of scars".

Fronting the Five News lunchtime bulletin today and throughout this week will be James Partridge, whose face was so horrifically burned in a car accident that he needed five years of surgery to replace it with skin grafted from his back and other parts of his body. Partridge, 57, has had intensive training to be a news anchor – one of the most prestigious roles in broadcasting and one of the most controversial given the apparent obsession of television executives with youthful good looks.

The question, which Partridge himself quickly raises, is whether it's all just a big stunt? "Well, of course it is, in a way, but we don't make any excuses for that," he says. "We see this is as a way of challenging people's perceptions." Partridge has had 39 years since his teenage road crash to deal with the embarrassment of strangers being repulsed by his looks, but still acknowledges that his appearance might cause some viewers to reach for the remote. "The question as to whether people will switch off is interesting," he says. "If it's the case that disfigurement is not seen as 'acceptable' in the role of news reading then we have a long way to go in terms of changing attitudes in Britain."

A former farmer and A-level teacher, Partridge is now chief executive of the charity Changing Places, which represents half a million people in Britain with disfigurements to the face, hands or body caused by birth defects, accidents, disease, war and street violence. He managed to persuade Five News executives Chris Shaw and David Kermode that an experiment in newscasting could be especially powerful in confronting prejudice. "Newsreading was interesting because it's full frontal to the camera, there's no holding back," he says. "Too often, disfigurement is shrouded in negativity and tragedy, presented as something to be hidden away or surgically removed."

He admits to nerves, saying: "I don't want to appear on screen and make a fool of myself. But they have put me through some tough training." The five-minute, 12.30pm news – unlike Kaplinsky's live 5pm bulletin – is pre-recorded just before broadcast, minimising the danger of Partridge making howlers. He has a little broadcasting experience, having once hosted Down On The Farm With James Partridge on Radio Guernsey during his time as a dairy farmer.

Britain's highly paid newscasters might be nervous at the prospect of a newcomer making the job look easy, but Partridge says it is "much harder than I was anticipating". "It's not the reading per se, it's getting the right tone, the right pace, the right emphasis," he says. "There's some considerable skill to it. I will be wearing L plates and I hope it won't show too much."

Kermode, the editor of Five News, produced by BSkyB, says he is confident the audience will not switch off, particularly after commissioning a YouGov survey which found that 84 per cent of viewers said they had no problem with someone with a facial disfigurement presenting a television programme. "We are of the view that it is important to address disability as it relates to the media and to have some balanced representation on and off screen," adds Kermode.

Partridge said it was important that Five committed to the project for a week, rather than just a single bulletin. Before he goes on air, he will be dusted with the air-brush to reduce shine ("we did some screen tests and the lights were unkind") but he will otherwise avoid make-up, unlike his colleagues in the newsreading business. And he's happy to do just the lunchtime bulletin. "It's extraordinary how quickly it goes but it's very concentrated. Doing a half-hour news bulletin, that's a serious challenge."

In the years immediately after his disfigurement, Partridge greatly regretted the loss of the "social anonymity" that comes with being able to walk into a crowded room unnoticed. "Gradually I got used to the idea that being noticeable was something I could handle," he says. "Being in the public eye is something I have decided I need to do in order to make things easier for many other people. That's why I'm doing this."

Newsreaders can find themselves cast aside not just through lack of beauty but for having grown older (witness the treatment of Moira Stuart). That's one thing Partridge seems less worried about. "One of the bonuses of having a face like mine, mostly composed of skin from other parts of my body, is that the ageing process is held back," he comments cheerily. "Because it's tight you don't get very much wrinkle."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent