Newspapers “reinforce ignorance” with simplistic reporting about mental health, the comedian Jo Brand has said as she condemned the current system of press regulation as a “sham”.
The former mental health nurse spoke out on Tuesday about the reporting of suicide, in particular, after recent cases such as the death of actor Robin Williams and that of the 92-year-old woman said to have been “driven to kill herself” by charities bombarding her with requests for donations.
“I know tabloids are the opposite of complex, but I don’t think that should allow them to get away with making big sweeping statements which actually aren’t the reality,” she told the Guardian before giving a speech on the subject.
“It’s not one thing that batters you and makes you kill yourself. It’s a very subtle mix of events and what’s going on inside you, and trying to make it look like it’s one thing is a terrible thing to do. And for someone’s family too, it’s a terrible thing to do.
“It’s misinformation. Lots of people read those papers, hundreds of thousands, and it means their ignorance is reinforced. And secondly, for all those people who do suffer, it’s a punch in the stomach to their dignity.”
Brand, who has previously spoken about her father’s depressive illness, which remained undiagnosed until he was in his 50s, said she first became outraged by reporting of mental health during her 10 years as a nurse. “If you work in any kind of specialism, it’s just surprising how off-kilter tabloid reporting can be,” she said, remembering the headlines in 2003 when the boxer Frank Bruno was admitted to psychiatric hospital.
Other examples of bad practice included the case of the man who shot himself and his ailing wife, reportedly because of unwanted neighbours. Or, in the words of the Express, “Tragedy of couple driven to suicide after battle with Traveller site on their doorstep”.
Giving the annual lecture organised by the press campaign group Hacked Off, Brand said Ipso, the Independent Press Standards Organisation set up 15 months ago, had achieved “the square root of sweet FA” in its first year of operation.
In her speech – entitled The end of 300 years of press freedom? Pull the other one – Brand described Ipso as a “toytown regulator” and called for an independent body to monitor the way press regulation was handled.
Industry self-regulation was risible and there was very little comeback for ordinary members of the public wanting redress, she told the Guardian. “They have sidestepped responsibility to properly apologise for things, putting it on p53 in a tiny paragraph that only Sherlock Holmes could find.”
Press regulation is not working properly, she argues. “Every now and then, there’s an explosion of feeling about something particularly terrible, like Milly Dowler, and people get angry and say this has got to change … Then people forget about it and get on with their lives. Then bad practice creeps back in, hardly being noticed.”
Brand will call on the prime minister, David Cameron, to act on his promise to implement recommendations from the Leveson inquiry into press regulation, warning that the public will “make themselves heard” if there is no further action in January.
“The press is extremely powerful and the only way to challenge that power is by having some kind of comeback,” said Brand. “And that comeback is really weak.”