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Time to talk about Time to Change on Newsnight

Posted on 9 February 2009 | 10:02pm

I’m on my way to the BBC to
go on Newsnight and talk about the Time to Change report on famous figures in
history who had mental health problems. Jeremy Paxman has a reputation as a
tough interrogator, but on the personal level I have always found him charming
and easy to get on with.  

I certainly don’t lump him into the ‘out and out
cynic’ category into which other well known interviewers have taken themselves.
TB did some really good interviews with Jeremy, including on one occasion when,
during a particularly tough period for the government, they talked long enough
to fill three programmes, one on foreign policy, one domestic, one on TB the

Of my own interviews with Jeremy, I particularly remember the one on the
night the Hutton Report was published. It was a difficult night for the BBC and
he seemed unusually nervous but unlike some on the BBC at the time, he did not
show any pro-BBC bias and did a tough but straight interview.

Then there was
the time I did a discussion about the Blair legacy with, among others, Michael
Howard, who went off on one at me and all the terrible, evil things I had done
to the world
(I suspect these included helping TB to beat him in an election)
– on and on he went until Jeremy had that look on his face. You know the one.

Tonight I think I am on my own, and I
have also done a little set-up film talking about my own experiences of
breakdown and depression, and explaining why I have got involved in the Time to
Change anti discrimination campaign. They did the filming at Queen Mary,
University of London
, where I was talking to history students doing a course on
the Blair government. Never have I seen such well-thumbed copies of my diaries.

A word on the Time to Change report,
which I have co-written with historian Nigel Jones. It is called A World
Without …. It tries to imagine how different the world would be without the
achievements of five giants of history – Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln,
Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie. Why those five? Because
all left a huge mark on the world; also because all of them, at some point in
their lives, had what today would be termed mental illness, mainly depression.

As I watch politicians and other public figures
deal with the pressures of modern leadership, not least dealing with 24 hour
scrutiny by a harsh and often unforgiving media, I sometimes wonder how these
great historic figures would have fared had they been alive today. As I say in Tuesday’s Daily Mirror, would media and public have been understanding about
their conditions, or used them against them?

Let’s say Britain had decided to
reject Churchill on account of his Black Dog and his drinking. Would another
leader have emerged to lead Britain as he did, to the same outcome, victory
over the Nazis? We will never know.

When I read of Darwin’s panic attacks, his
stomach disorders, his palpitations and his bursting into floods of tears, I
can’t help wondering whether he would have survived a live press conference in
the modern age.

‘Well,’ says the 24 hour news anchor ‘Charles Darwin in some
distress there as he tries to explain his controversial theory of evolution,
and it’s hard to see how his theory can gain acceptance if he can’t explain it
without crying. Anyway, send us your texts and e mails and help answer the
question of the day – should celebrity scientists cry in public? For yes press
green, for no press red. Now, more on David Cameron’s new maths czar, Carol

As we’re talking numbers, a few before I
go – one in four of us will suffer mental illness at some point in our lives.
Nine out of ten people with mental health problems say they have experienced
discrimination. Four out of ten employers say they would consider taking on someone
with a history of mental illness. That leaves six out of ten who would not. Six
out of ten who cannot see that someone with a history of mental illness just
might have something to offer.

  • Alina Palimaru

    “Never have I seen such well-thumbed copies of my diaries.”

    Well, that’s because you have never seen my copy! 🙂 Hope the interview went well!

  • Nick Maher

    How refreshing, to see openess and honesty about your personal experience of mental illness.

    At the age of 25, I had a work-related breakdown, but managed to pick myself up and start my own business. 14 years on I’m still at it and can now openly admit my illness. Good luck with one Time to Change agenda.

  • ben

    i prefer to talk about my black shadow. sometimes its behind me othertimes it beats me. One in four? More like one in two I would suggest!

  • Alina Palimaru


    I just saw a recording of Newsnight. What can I say… disarmingly honest! I have always been of the view that the more we reveal about our intimate issues, the more vulnerable we make ourselves. So I commend you for going all out… although as you note, you didn’t have much of a choice.

    I also remarked your approach to the historical study, namely that Darwin et al. would have had mental health problems “by our modern definitions.” You seem to subscribe to Foucault’s philosophy: that our reality is being constructed for us by the ‘fourth face of power.’ We are (and therefore we live in accordance with) whatever the norms, labels, definitions, social compartments prescribe for us. It’s time for a reality check about how volatile, random and ultimately meaningless these definitions really are.

    Finally, two thumbs down for the BBC for not making the online version of Cracking Up available outside the UK!


  • Alastair Campbell

    Thanks for the feedback on Newsnight. Got a lovely phone call from Hazel Blears, who is great. And it was nice to see JP and Pauline in the green room. JP on top form on the bankers, and I enjoyed his heckling of Paxman when he was reading out the headlines. (John was celebrating the role of Hull City in Chelski’s demise) I’ve had a few calls asking what my heckle of Paxman was when he was reading out the front pages. It was when he got to the Mail’s Four Million Pounds for Failure (about the banks I guess). I said ‘and that’s just for the editor.’ Not accurate, I fear. The loathsome Paul Dacre has earned a lot more than four million from his daily vileness.

  • Com Care

    Hi Alastair

    Agreed on the Mail. What’s your view on The Sun? We’ve launched a petition calling on it to end its scapegoating of social workers at


  • J.L.K.

    Alistair, I quickly caught your interview on GMTV this morning – A very brave move and so I wanted to post on your blog …
    Depression is not a sign of “madness” but a sign that your soul is trying to talk to you. When we feel low and depressed it is usually by those who feel lost, and who seem to think they have little purpose in life. I know this because I too was diagnosed with post natal depression in 1989, in 2001 I was told that I was suffering with clinical depression and was put on drugs and given counselling from my local G.P.’s therapist. Sadly, the drugs made me worse but the therapist tracing it all back to my childhood made me realise there was more to this than she could explain. So my soul searching journey began from there and thankfully I am now aware that I was misdiagnosed! And what I was doing was simply searching for my soul…..
    Once we get control of our conscious mind and ego we can listen to those little voices and begin to trust their guidance. Everyone gets gut feelings and these are what guide us, these come from deep within, the universe works in mysterious ways and when we stop and listen to what its saying we begin to live with inner peace. Get to inner peace and the madness goes!
    Having spent the last 8 years researching and finding myself I now live a very happy and positive life. If only the Government would listen to our Homeopathic Therapists and allow the population to take the natural route to wellness!
    warm smiles

  • Michael Hoar

    Great work Alistair.

    In future I’d really like to see a substantial piece about your experience of mental illness – along the lines of your documentary last year, or maybe something more substantial on others. I think there would is a big market/appetite for it.

  • Charlie

    As a piece of forensic jounalism, George Monbiot’s article on Hazel Blears in todays Guardian is very hard to beat.

    Published today it has already attracted 468 comments, the vast majority seem to concur with George Monbiot’s observations. This is not always the case.

  • Alina Palimaru

    For Michael Hoar

    Did you see this piece?

    Pretty insightful…and moving account. And then I always recommend the Diaries for the “big picture” of it all.

  • Alastair Campbell

    Com Care – I agree with you about the media treatment of social workers. Like any walk of life, some are good, some are bad, some are indifferent. But the good are rarely acknowledged and the bad are pilloried, and sometimes the not so bad too. The result – is it any wonder people don’t want to be social workers. I heard a Tory spokesman on the radio recently talking about a crisis in recruitment and saying they had to be paid more (another unaffordable pledge by Dave and Co) and they had to be respected more. I agree with the last bit in particular. Respect from politicians and media would be a good start

  • Rachel Bramble

    Hi Alistair
    I have been trying to get MP’s interested in us social workers for years.
    You should have watched Waterloo Rd on 4 Feb where in the last few mins a social worker and police went to snatch some kids into care. What a load of tosh and the systems created by laming have just made things worse.
    With all of your contacts you could have helped us get something decent on TV
    Billions is being wasted on daft systems that don’t work
    Come and visit me at Wolgarston High School and see how we are trying to support kids and give them a sense of purpose on peanuts.I have a fantastic headteacher supporting me who would welcome you.
    Tim Loughton came.
    You know it is practically impossible to get money as a social care innovator.
    Best wishes
    The Nameless social worker
    ps would be great to see you always found you an interesting figure

  • Wyrdtimes

    Mr Campbell

    Do you think we could improve mental health in England if the Barnett Formula was scrapped and we got similar funding per person from central government as say the Scots or Northern Irish?

    Wouldn’t the extra money being made available to the English NHS be a massive boost for research and services supporting mental health issues? Not to mention every other area where English services fall behind those of other home nations.


  • Portia Barrett

    Many of those becoming social workers are from the least well educated, unlike Norway.

    55% have been themselves as children, so they see all parents as abusers.

    Many social workers project their own unresolved issues onto service users.

    I know many social workers in training, and many are leaving now, because they say they are being brainwashed into becoming like SS stormtroopers, and they refuse to do the dirty work for leaders who are graduates of CP.

    I do know social workers who use military style mental torture on children and parents.

    I know social workers doing drugs,others unable to cope mentally, because they have never experienced real life in their cosy homes as children.

    And the most notable aspect of many social workers is their arrogance and lack of emoton and feeling and boasting- calling themselves Queens of Removals and Terminators.


    Dear Alastair, I am currently a 1st year Social Work Student
    and have seen a general rise in un-popularity within this field. I agree with your comment regarding Social Workers need respect from the media and politicians alike. I am currently writing an assignment on the attitudes and values with regards to Social workers and how this can impact in a negative way in society and the views of the service we provide. I can rest assure the negative feedback i have read here regarding how we are trained and treat service users is unjust and incorrect.The selection process, exams,and coursework reflect a professional approach to the service and how we should treat individuals.Discrimination and anti-oppressive values are high on the course agenda…promoting equality and fairness to all.I am on placement in Finland from March 20th to June 5th 2009 to compare how the system there is working. Yes i agree with you that there are BAD social workers and Indifferent ones too..Legislations are a requirement of Social work practice and we must adhere to them too..Some aspects of Legislation i have found as a new Social Work Student are Contradictory though..Regarding Confidentiality of past criminal records towards those in Foster Care and H.I.V notification to family members. The case in the News recently for example:A teenager in foster care who raped the foster parents daughter..The foster parents were not told of his past convictions..Why not? Legislation needs adjusting here. We help a service user in 1 instance and ruin a life in another..Also more interpersonal and inter professional communication needs to be addressed in the transfer of information amongst professions.It was good to see that you have supported the petition to end poor media coverage by The Sun newpaper. Thankyou on behalf of students.There needs to be more emphasis though on Social Workers getting out into the community..from my shadowing experience with social workers they are currently spending 85% of their time at the P.C writing reports.Like the Police we need more time within society doing Social Work..I would suggest that Social work administrators are required to free up time for the Social workers to intergrate more freely and address problems. I will keep in touch with progress and any concerns regarding future debates within the course. Yours faithfully