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So that’s what they mean by online community?

Posted on 8 February 2009 | 12:02pm

When I was first persuaded to go on
Facebook, I couldn’t really get the concept of online friends. But on Friday,
something happened that made it click into place.

I posted a status update about having
just signed off a report I am launching this week for Time to Change, the
anti-discrimination campaign, about famous historical figures who had their own
mental health problems.

Almost instantly, a ‘friend’
I didn’t know – one Robert-John Molloy Tasker – posted a Clarksonesque
offensive response about Gordon Brown and paranoia. I ignored it. But the next
time I looked, some articulate and passionate responses to his remarks had gone
up. Robert-John seemed to be enjoying the reaction. He started to abuse those objecting
to his observation.

After a while I chipped in
and praised the recent speech on mental health in the Commons by Tory MP
Charles Walker
, a big supporter of Time to Change. I said it showed that not
all Tories were complete jerks. 

Later Robert-John started to
change his tune, soften things a little but by now another friend – Lambeth
Labour councillor Mark Bennett – had googled him, discovered he was a Tory
, and threatened to draw attention to his remarks – which went beyond
GB – in the Kingston area where he was elected.

This led to further
softening and eventually a nocturnal email to Mark offering “to provide
references of the Conservatives campaigning over mental health issues in the
Royal Borough” and “a break down (chronological if need be) of where
and how … the Kingston/Richmond Conservatives have campaigned on mental
health issues over the course of the last two years”. He also deleted his
earlier crass remarks, though too late, I suspect, for Kingston Labour and Lib
Dem members not to be on the case.  

On the weekly email I send
out to supporters of Go Fourth, the campaign for a Labour fourth term, I had
set everyone (myself included) the challenge of signing up a new member for the
Labour Party. So when I spotted another friend I didn’t know, Joanne Sheppard,
saying that people like Robert-John made her think about joining the Labour
Party, I urged her to do so. She said she would sleep on it. The next morning
she joined the Party.

Anyone reading this, similarly tempted as they spot what the Tories are really like – by the way, didn’t you
love Cameron’s comments on State schools in yesterday’s Telegraph by the way
… roughly paraphrased ‘Of course my kids ought to go to the top private
schools like I did but I am trying to be PM so I’m going to pretend I’d like to
send them to a comprehensive’ – can join online by visiting the Labour
Party’s websit

Just as I was grateful to my Facebook friends for their handling of Robert-John, so I have been
impressed by all the friendly advice re this website – much of it technical and
way above my head, some of it stylistic, most of it hugely supportive. There
has been a fair bit of criticism too but that’s par for the course.

What has been interesting in
both instances, the attack on GB and the launch of the site, is the sense of
community within communities. I think the most common complaint about the
website has been about the need to use a bar at the side of blog and comments
to scroll down, rather than being able to scroll down on text. I agree, so that’s being
fixed. Also, there are a couple of new vlogs up there but for now they’re
posted on YouTube rather than indicated on this site. I hope that all makes
sense. But thanks for the comments.

Re Charles Walker by the way, I think it
must be the first time a Tory MP has referred to me favourably in a Commons

The report will be published on Tuesday
and provided we have the teething problems sorted, I’ll make sure it goes up
here as well as on the Time to Change campaign site. I’m also due to be on
Newsnight talking about it tomorrow, with a piece about it in the Mirror on
Tuesday, and a stack of radio and TV interviews to hammer home the message that
when it comes to mental health discrimination, and the attitudes of people like
Robert-John, it really is Time to Change.

  • David Stuart

    Hopefully your positive web 2.0 experiences will encourage the effective use of these sites by other party members. Whilst I find it hard to believe that social media will play as big a role in the next general election as it did in the US presidential election, it is definitely an important battleground.

  • Mike Rouse

    Glad it’s “clicked”. I’ve been trying for years to get politicians to understand that in these online spaces you don’t have to delete comments like those by Robert-John as soon as they appear so that you can present a squeeky clean image to the rest of the viewers. As you have demonstrated, by leaving it alone and letting it flow you’ve empowered the other friends to respond to the comments and get involved. As a result you got a new member. Would that have happened if the traditional approach that is still used by a lot of politicians in this online space were followed and the comments nuked? I think not. Congrats.

  • Gabrielle L-P

    Great Blog Alastair…Community has a dynamic even in cyberspace.

  • melanie

    Really good, great way to engage us all. love the Video

  • Liz

    Very interesting blog, can’t wait to read ‘Time to Change’ Report. This subject needs awareness, so much misconception about it. Need more high profile people(like you) discussing these issues. Take it forward Alastair!

  • Mark Bennett

    For those who like completeness I saved the comment altercation as I suspected the Tory’s comments might end up ‘self-censored’ – here is the thread:

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 14:45, on 06 February
    Alastair – do you think paranoia is a mental health issue bearing in mind the current PM’s mental state?

    Rob Newman at 14:51, on 06 February
    File under “Question undeserving of reply”. See also “Clarkson, Jeremy”

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 15:00, on 06 February
    Are you trying to say – wait for it! – that the PM isn’t paranoid?

    Brian Semmens at 15:03, on 06 February
    The PM is not paranoid but a man called “Dave” is definitely after him (in all senses of the word “AFTER”)

    Steve Crump at 15:08, on 06 February
    I’d rather be Fabio Capello at the next World Cup than Gordon Brown at the next General Election!

    Has a PM ever lost their seat in a General Election? Might have to ask Paddy Power for the odds.

    The current Home Secretary losing her seat must be a good each way bet as well!

    Rob Newman at 15:10, on 06 February
    “Are you trying to say – wait for it! – that the PM isn’t paranoid?”

    I’m saying you should do yourself a favour and watch the programme AC did on mental health! 🙂

    Tania Ziegler at 15:11, on 06 February
    Robert-John, isn’t it time you grew up? You would clearly benefit from paying close attention to the ‘Time to Change’ campaign.

    Steve Crump at 15:12, on 06 February
    If Gordon Brown was the manager of Burnley FC would you be calling for his head?

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 15:15, on 06 February
    Calm down, Tania. And its ‘Time FOR Change’. Sounds almost as good as ‘New Labour – New Danger’, don’t you think?

    Rob Newman at 15:17, on 06 February
    I feel I should apologise on behalf of myself and all other people who have the name “Robert John”. This man is not representative of our views.

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 15:19, on 06 February
    ‘Rob’. I completely and utterly agree. Let’s call a general election.

    Rob Newman at 15:20, on 06 February
    OK. I have it on good authority that all Robert Johns who don’t have a hyphen in their name vote Labour.

    Tania Ziegler at 15:24, on 06 February
    Robert- John is a conservative, although a confused one. Why would he want to be friends with Alastair? Bit like me wanting to add say,David Cameron as a friend is it not?

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 15:29, on 06 February
    Tania, what a bizarre argument! Many of my friends are Lib Dem/Green voters, but does that mean I’m not friends with them?? What a sheltered life you must lead…

    Alastair Campbell at 15:36, on 06 February
    Looking at his page, Robert-John describes himself as a “PR guru”. Takes all sorts.

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 15:38, on 06 February
    Would you prefer Spin Doctor, Alastair? I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder, obviously.

    Mark Bennett at 15:51, on 06 February
    Based on what you’ve written above, RJMT, I doubt there’s much danger of that.

    Tania Ziegler at 16:48, on 06 February
    Haha. The truth is, RJMT, we all think you are a bit of a knob and making a joke about paranoia in the context of a mental health campaign is about as funny as making a joke about your hero ,Thatcher’s, dementia. And Labour, Conservative, LibDem and Green voters would all agree.

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 16:55, on 06 February
    I could make a joke about your lack of wit and usage of playground insults but then I’d probably be as bad as you. And I’m sure Labour Party activists have never ever ever ever said a bad word against the good lady and her poor mental health.

    Jane Appleton at 17:25, on 06 February
    Tania certainly speaks for me too – well put!

    Mark Bennett at 17:39, on 06 February
    RJMT – a quick google has shown you are a Conservative councillor in Kingston. I wonder what your constituents would think of your attitudes to mental health. Maybe we should ask people who use local NHS mental health services, or Mind in Kingston?

    Alastair Campbell at 17:57, on 06 February
    I’ve just been sent a copy of the Hansard from yesterday’s adjournment debate in the Commons sponsored by the Tory MP Charles Walker. He speaks eloquently and passionately about mental health issues and strongly supports Time To Change. You see, not all Tories are complete jerks

    Tania Ziegler at 18:00, on 06 February
    Nice one Alastair.

    Robert-John Molloy Tasker at 18:12, on 06 February
    Congratulations on using Google, Mr Bennett! Please, by all means, if you want to contact MIND I’d be more than happy to talk to them as I did a few weeks ago. I could probably give you a suggestion as to who to contact. Actually, include Kingston Independent Living, and also those who have helped me campaign to keep open Tolworth Hospital (for people who suffer from dimentia and alzheimer’s) as well as your suggestion of NHS mental health wards (which my colleagues have campaigned rigerously to keep open for the past year). If you can’t distinguish between a joke about Gordon Brown’s paranoia (which is often written about) and insulting those who suffer from mental illness, then how about not saying anything?

    Alastair – I agree, Charles Walker is excellent on mental health issues. I even think he was consulted on the current ad campaign for London underground recently.

    Mark Bennett at 18:24, on 06 February
    It’s Cllr Bennett actually, Cllr RJMT. Why is it acceptable to joke about paranoia as a mental health issue?

    I’m checking your campaigning claims. Claims are like sins – they’ll find you out.

    Lou Rossati at 19:08, on 06 February
    Alistair: might I suggest that you remove this Tasker idiot from your friends list? He’s not even worth wasting time arguing with.

    And it’s not paranoia if people really ARE out to get you, so there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Gordon’s state of mind.

    Jane Appleton at 19:40, on 06 February
    It’s often been my experience that committed advocates of NHS and voluntary sector mental health services are a little more informed about the correct spelling of dementia. Just a thought.

    Gabrielle Laine-Peters at 20:12, on 06 February
    Hear Hear!

  • james thompson

    Oh for heavens sake – is that it?? Is that the supposed “Clarksoneque offensive response” that kicked off the latest post?

    This strategy of trying to find quotes from Tories/Right Wingers that show them to be “nasty” is in real danger of making Labour look like desperate po-faced killjoys.(eg. Draper on Dale)

    There’s an associated risk. Do you not realise how easy it would be to find offensive quotes from leading Labour luminaries? In fact would you like me to go through the AC Diaries and post a few examples of where they have been more than the tiniest bit rude or offensive about someone, even though in jest?

    And if you really think RJMT was dishing out “abuse” then I’m afraid you’re going to be in for a shock once the real trolls arrive……

  • Mark Bennett

    James Thompson, I wonder whether you would be so dismissive if it was cancer or heart disease being joked about.

    You may think mental health problems are an issue that can be slighted, but I don’t. Three generations of my family have worked at the sharp end of psychiatric nursing, at Broadmoor Hospital and elsewhere. I have worked at Broadmoor myself. So I, and I hope others, won’t allow you to dismiss this debate as you have sought to do.

    My great uncle, Ben, died in what was then called an asylum because of head injuries sustained in the First World War. He was kicked in the head by a horse in the retreat from Mons, and after the war led an increasingly sorry life until his death in 1937. He was barely spoken about after that, such was (and is) the stigma around mental health.

    I could speak about more recent experiences of family and friends, but without their permission I won’t.

    The point is that there must be a sea change in attitudes to mental health. I say that representing a borough (Lambeth) which has one of the highest levels of psychosis in the UK.

    That’s why I support the Time to Change campaign.

    Feel free to trawl through Alastair’s diaries. I’ve edited them so I know how little you’ll find. More importantly, I know he’s committed to Time to Change, and for the reasons set out above, I’m happy to support that cause too.

  • Anton Howes

    Alastair, how do I navigate the blog?
    I can only see the latest blog post, but no other ones.

  • Alina Palimaru

    I am pleased to see prominent people broach this topic. Hopefully this will soon grow into a movement, and I am not sure there is any reason not to be supportive. I am convinced there is every imperative to become open-minded about mental health: moral, social, political, and even economic. So all the market, pro-business fanatics out there, beware, there’s no excuse. Disregarding employees’ mental health and being inflexible about it comes at a huge cost to most firms, including lack of productivity, and hiring and training costs for new staff (after firing individuals who admit to mental health issues).

    On a different note, I would like to caution against adopting the American solution to this challenge: overmedication. Doctors and lawmakers in the U.S. have found it politically and financially expedient to push for an increase in drug prescriptions for those suffering from depression and other disorders. At first, a simple cost-benefit analysis revealed that a bottle of pills was cheaper than a therapy session. However, the true costs of this policy are emerging just now, with a nation of over-medicated children and adults who grapple with the side-effects of misguided prescriptions, and a drug market that is completely out of whack!

    Finally, Alastair, are you going to promote “All in the Mind” in the U.S.? I remember you did the rounds here with The Blair Years, and I hope you come back for this new book. Keep us posted! Thanks!


  • James Thompson

    @Mark B:

    First off I am really, genuinely, sorry to hear about the instances of mental illness in your family.

    My point is not to downplay the awfulness of these conditions, but that the public are not offended by light-hearted references to them, and so this New Moralising will backfire. I’ve got a revelation for you – like it or not, most people found Clarkson’s remarks about Gordon Brown FUNNY. I’m not saying I agree with them, but that if you (Labour, rather than you individually) don’t then you’re out of tune with the electorate.

    I can assure you, though, I would be equally “dismissive” if it were heart disease or cancer. Do you know what – I’ve got a confession – I once saw a fat person and said to a friend – there’s heart-attack material for you. Am I evil?

    In my opinion one of the things that may change attitudes to mental health is people feeling free to make light-hearted jokes about it in the same way as other topics. This new absurdly high moralising standard being applied will only paralyse people from not talking about it for fear of saying something offensive. For me this is getting dangerously close to the whole ‘not calling it brainstorming because that’s offensive to people with epilepsy let’s call it a thought shower’ territory.

  • James Thompson

    & Mark B, again, with apologies for two separate replies.

    AC diaries, 15th June 1995: “….[Blair] was in no doubt Hezza would be bad news for us and wanted me to stoke up the leadership row while at the same time giving the sense we wanted Major dumped. BLAIR HAZZA HEZZA SPAZZA I said, and he laughed…..”

    Is this not offensive to Cerebral Palsy sufferers? If not, but RJMT’s ‘Clarksoneque’ one is, then please explain why – genuinely, help me out please, because I am clearly missing something – and if so, then a charge of hypocrisy can be laid.

    I similarly feel for anyone dealing with this condition but I am not offended in the slightest by the extract. I found it mildly amusing and I remember when I first read it how endearing it was that the closeness of TB and AC’s relationship meant they could have banter like this – like, in fact, normal people do.

    I found that one after literally 2 minutes of randomly thumbing through. I’m sure there are more. And of course that’s just what’s published – heaven forbid AC or anyone else in Labour circles actually say insulting or offensive things in private…..

  • Joanne Sheppard

    @ James Thompson

    I’m the person AC successfully urged to join the Labour Party over the weekend.

    What made me particularly disdainful in response to Robert-John Molloy Tasker’s comments was not so much that they were in poor taste when taken in isolation, but they were in poor taste *in the context in which they were made*. Within that context, they showed a substantial lack of judgement and were generally tedious and attention-seeking. There are so many better, more thought-provoking and more constructive ways to make a point than to make a cheap and tasteless (and more to the point, not even particularly clever or witty) joke about paranoia in the context of the release of a report about mental health discrimination issues.

    Despite having apparently sought out AC’s Facebook profile for the express purpose of attempting not to provoke debate but to childishly to goad AC and the (well over 1,000) people on his Friends list, the Tory in question had nothing of any use or interest to say except to be vaguely insulting, insensitive and indeed inaccurate in all his posts. As well as being boorish and full of his own smug sense of importance, he managed to say absolutely nothing whatsoever of any real substance, and then feebly back-pedalled at the first sign of any robust criticism or analysis.I can only assume he learnt these skills from David Cameron.

  • alastair campbell

    Anton, re navigation of the blog, I’m with you on that one and we’re looking at how to improve that. Alina, All In The Mind is published by Overlook in the States in June. Will keep you posted. Joanne – what can I say? Not only do you join the Labour Party via Facebook but you give a brilliant explanation on the importance of context. By the way I am on Newsnight tonight talking about the mental health report and the Mirror are doing a big piece on it tomorrow.

  • James Thompson


    There’s lots of what you said I can agree with. I didn’t find the original remark particularly witty either. As for being tedious and attention seeking – I think that would apply to 99% of stuff that anyone writes on Facebook so no surprises there either. Perhaps Alastair should only accept Friend Requests from his actual friends in future.

    What sticks in my craw is firstly the crass attempt to infer that the reason he wrote it was because he is “a Tory” and therefore, ergo, nasty, boorish, smug etc. If this fact had not come to light it would never have been worthy of a separate blog post by Alastair. And secondly the hypocrisy – the implication that, of course and by definition, all Labour activists are “nice” who never ever say anything offensive, even in jest.

    I think your point about things only being offensive in certain contexts is dangerous. The context is in the eye of the beholder. Is it OK to be offensive if you are, at the same time, witty and insightful and constructive? What do you think SCOPE made of Alastair’s little joke from his diaries below? Maybe we should ask them…….

    I guess I just hate tribalism of all party political colours that is based on lazy stereotypes and I think Labour (wider than AC) have been particularly guilty of this of late. Firstly all Tories are “toffs” and now they are “nasty”. (I would caveat this by saying that I note Alastair praises Charles Walker, which is great, but then slightly spoils it by the “not all Tories are complete jerks” jibe.) I genuinely don’t think you are going to win back floating voters who are currently in the Tory camp using this strategy because they will think the nasty/”jerk” tag applies to them too, which will offend them.

    However clearly this was not the case with you and I wish you luck as a new member of the nice and fluffy party!

    Fair play (if this gets posted) to Alastair for allowing me the air time on this and I promise not to turn into a rabid obsessive. (Apologies to anyone with a dog with rabies, obviously….)

  • alastair campbell

    James, I fear that dogs with rabies will have more to worry about . But it was nice of you to think of their feelings …

  • Joanne Sheppard

    James, I still think you are missing the point about context, but I don’t see the value in debating that any further. However, of course nobody is suggesting that all Labour activists are nice and all Tories, as individuals, are nasty, boorish, smug etc, and it’s a little disingenuous of you to draw that inference, I think.

    But sometimes, inevitably, one stumbles across an incident that neatly incapsulates or epitomises everything that one already believes to be wrong with a certain institution (rather than the individuals belonging to it; I’m sure you see the distinction). In making my decision to join the Labour Party, I didn’t take this particular incident in isolation, naturally: it was the culmination of a fairly lengthy internal debate and enough to give me the final nudge that I needed.

    I’m interested that you believe 99 per cent of Facebook activity to be tedious and attention-seeking. In fact, Facebook is as much – probably more – about paying attention to others as it as about seeking it. It has many, many uses, from simply keeping in touch with actual friends or family members one might not often see, to networking with people who have similar interests, to campaigning and engaging with people who might otherwise be difficult to reach – and it’s this latter function that is presumably being fulfilled by Alastair accepting Friend Requests from people he doesn’t know (such as me). To write Facebook, Twitter etc off as 99 per cent tedious attention-seeking, is to dismiss their immense potential.

  • kingrichards

    Hi everybody I’m John just introducing myself here to the room ..okay let’s let it rip lol.

  • Pjhardyment

    Here’s what RJ Tasker sent to me when I took him to task about his saying ‘Well the Palestinians drive cars, I can’t see what all the fuss is about’ – I did tell him that as a non car driver I didn’t qualify for his membership of the human race, here is what he said
    Dear Madam,

    I’m not interested in your incoherent, boring, tiresome, tedious and bigoted remarks.

    If you want to go and fly the flag for fascist and middle-east-neo-nazi-esq terror gangs – such as Hizbullah – then please go ahead, but don’t bother me or contact me or waste my time whilst you’re doing this.

    Kind Regards.

    Cllr. Robert-John Tasker

    Conservative Group