Expertise as Attribution – Towards a Solution to the Post-Fact World

The following is the text of a talk I gave at a symposium entitled The Politics of Expertise in Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University on the 30th November 2016. The references I used in constructing this text are available on request – reach me on Twitter @timsquirrell.

Expertise as Attribution

Tim Squirrell

PhD Candidate in Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies

University of Edinburgh

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts” – Michael Gove MP

“Experts, soothsayers, astrologers, are all in much the same category” – Jacob Rees Mogg MP

“Well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?” – Stewart Lee

A truly tremendous quantity of ink has been spilled over the past year over the problem of expertise. “Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. The consensus seems to be that publics in Western liberal democracies have lost their trust in experts and expertise. The questions of when, why, and how this happened, and how the expert class can possibly hope to redeem itself are perpetually mooted in hand-wringing think-pieces in The Guardian and The Spectator alike.

In this talk, I’m going to do three things. First, I’ll problematise the existing, hidden consensus that experts just exist, and that it is our choice whether to listen to them or not. Second, I’ll propose an alternative view that conceptualises expertise as something which doesn’t exist a priori, but is attributed by particular audiences to particular individuals, groups and institutions in order to solve particular problems. Third, I’ll show why, far from being a simple redefinition which makes no practical difference, there are some specific advantages of taking this viewpoint, centring around (i) the way we ask those who would claim expert status to present themselves, and (ii) our ability to dismiss specific actors, rather than the concept of expertise as a whole.

The question that nobody seems to be asking is “What do we mean by ‘experts’?”. It’s taken as a given that when we say the word ‘expert’, we know of whom we speak: late middle-aged white men in suits and glasses, staring out at us from a television screen, speaking on behalf of a university, or an organisation with some acronym nobody can remember. IFS, IEA, ECB, CPS: they might as well all work for the same company, for all the scrutiny we give their credentials. We can identify who counts as an expert a priori: they speak for established institutions, they have qualifications and credentials and letters after their names, and they have experience to back up their authoritative-sounding words.

There are a couple of major issues with this. First, it allows individuals (and whole communities) to dismiss the entirety of what has come to be known as the “expert class”, without having to engage with their statements or arguments. When these experts make predictions about the economy, or elections, or the climate, they inherently stake (to some degree) their reputation on the veracity of their predictions. The problem is, if we link all experts together, when someone (or a group of people – say, psephologists) gets something wrong, then they harm not just their own reputation but the reputation of everyone linked to them through the label ‘expert’. When we bind people together with a particular label, we allow other people to use that label to have blanket beliefs about that whole group (experts) rather than making decisions about smaller, more appropriate, sub-divisions (psephologists, or Nate Silver, or the Huffington Post pollsters).

Second, it facilitates the complacency of the aforementioned expert class. If they speak, and nobody listens, they can throw up their hands and say, “Well, we gave them the facts and they refused to accept them. We can’t help it if the public are stupid and mistrustful.” There’s nothing they could have done to foresee this, and now that the epistemic gates are open and the horse of trust has bolted, there’s very little they can do to steer that horse back into the stable and regain the confidence of the public. Clearly, the solution is simply to end democracy and delegate all authority to the expert class, because the people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions when presented with the objective facts.

These problems alone should probably give us serious pause: is this view productive? Is it something we want to keep with us in this brave new post-fact world? When combined with some of the more conceptual issues I’m going to outline as we go on, I’m convinced we should wholeheartedly reject the view of expertise which says “these are the experts, believe them or not”.

“But what, pray, is the alternative?” I hear you cry, “We can’t allow just anyone to call themselves an expert. That way charlatanism lies!” Well, little strawman that I just made up, you’re halfway there. The alternative is as follows.

We could, if we so chose, decide to carve up the word conceptually and acquire knowledge purely through the mediation of our own senses. But our senses are unreliable, and there’s not enough time or money to allow us to imbibe the knowledge of every discipline under the sun. So for most of us, most of the time, we delegate our epistemic authority to others: we allow them to tell us what’s true, and we decide how to act upon it. As children we listen to parents and teachers; as adults we read news publications and books, listen to particular individuals we find compelling or inspiring, heed the advice of our doctors regarding our health, and broadly take for granted that we aren’t being lied to or misled.

There are certain ways in which we try to tell the difference between those experts we ought to trust and those who are incompetent, misleading or just plain wrong. We can examine how they argue: how well do they present their arguments, are they quick to produce defeaters or counter-defeaters for the arguments of others? We can look at their track record of making good predictions, we can try to examine any potential biases or vested interests they might have, we can scrutinise their credentials, or we can look at how many other putative experts agree with them.

There are numerous problems with each of these metrics which render it very difficult to tell between ‘good’ experts and ‘bad’ experts. Often those who know the most aren’t necessarily the best at arguing their side of a debate (a problem I will attempt to solve with my view later on). Moreover, it is almost impossible for us to assess the claims of experts on a technical basis, because the very reason we are listening to them is that the knowledge they are articulating is esoteric and epistemically inaccessible. Similarly, what makes a “good prediction” is up for debate, so track records are difficult to assess. Most individuals in a given industry or field likely have some biasing factors behind the things they are saying, because nobody is objective and anyone who says otherwise is lying or deluded. Finally, if we’re relying on the agreement of other potential experts, then we just defer the problem of identifying “good experts” one step down the line.

Most of our actions, then, rely upon trust in others. When we decide to believe what someone says, we don’t usually do so based on pure logical reasoning. Instead, we listen to them based on a function of whether we trust them (qua friend, or parent, or expert, or politician) and whether what they are saying sounds intuitively plausible. Crucially, intuitive plausibility itself is contingent on our prior beliefs. If what someone is telling us conflicts with a deeply-held belief – they’re telling me the Earth is flat when I’ve been informed my entire life that it is round, for instance – then it’s unlikely I’m going to abandon my prior belief in favour of what they’re now telling me. That’s important, because it provides further fuel to the pyre of the realist view of expertise: if I have a prior disposition not to believe people we call ‘experts’, because I perceive them to have been mistaken before, then it’s unlikely that their telling me something is going to have a large positive impact upon my propensity to believe it.

Delegating our epistemic authority – our ability to carve up the world conceptually – is incredibly common. When we give that authority to a particular person, group, or institution, and we do so for the purpose of solving a particular problem or class of problems, I call those actors ‘experts’. We delegate our authority on matters astrophysical to astrophysicists; we listen to oncologists about cancer; we heed the words of the weather forecaster on meteorological matters. They are our experts on those things. Crucially, this means that they do not already have expert status, putting the burden upon individuals and communities to decide whether or not to validate that status. Rather, we grant them that status when they are able to provide information that is useful for the resolution of particular kinds of problems. Expertise doesn’t exist independent of an audience to grant the status of expert.

What are the implications of this? The little straw-man from earlier might say that now anyone can be an expert, and that this will only speed our civilisation’s inevitable decline into chaos. On the contrary, tiny straw-man. The realist view means that those we designate as experts are never required to learn how to communicate effectively: they’re told that all they have to do is say the facts, and the public will listen – and if they don’t, more fool them. When we switch to an attributionalist view, we are able to place the onus upon those who wish to be considered experts to step up their dialectical game. It’s no longer enough just to sit back on a throne made of credentials and qualifications. Charlatans, hustlers and liars will always be able to peddle nonsense smoothly. We have to trust that those who know what they are talking about will be able to engage with them and show why they are incorrect. We have to trust that, when presented with equal rhetorical skill, truth will be vivified by its collision with error.

Further, and I think potentially even more importantly, when we refuse to engage in a system which identifies and protects a particular “expert class”, we afford ourselves the ability to avoid future situations like the one in which we find ourselves today. By recognising that expertise is a status rather than a trait, we head off at the pass any attempts to tar all ‘experts’ with the same brush. Instead of fetishizing credentials as the sole means by which people can enter the expert class, we should allow anyone to call themselves an expert, and then to have that claim tested through argument. Instead of dismissing an entirely disparate group of people who happen to have been lumped together we enable ourselves to dismiss individuals who make bad judgements, or institutions which have a reputation for making bad calls.

This is incredibly freeing. An economist makes a bad forecast? Be hesitant about trusting them in future. All economists fail to predict and prevent some financial catastrophe? Be incredibly wary of them, unless particular individuals or institutions show themselves to be worthy of a second chance. The failures of pollsters shouldn’t be used to render untrustworthy the predictions of political pundits; likewise, the success of one technocratic elite shouldn’t be seen as validation for other, unrelated people who happen to have a few degrees under their belts.

Expertise as a concept has to endure, and for this it has to be flexible enough to allow audiences to attribute it where they see fit. If they choose some charlatan with the “best words” and clever one-liners, we have to be prepared to fight them (discursively, of course) with equal levels of rhetorical polish. But crucially, those who actually do have knowledge, or skill, or predictive or explanatory powers, should be able to win out against those who do not, provided that they too are good at arguing and presenting their ideas clearly and simply to those who are not familiar with their fields.

If we do all of this, then maybe those who know what they are talking about have a chance of coming back from this anti-intellectual, anti-expert moment we find ourselves in. But if we don’t, then we’re doomed to repeat the technocratic mistakes of the past. We shouldn’t ever again have to hear that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I hope that we don’t.

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What Rights does a Platform give you?

In the first part of what I hope will be an interesting series on freedom of speech and what I’ve decided to call ‘Platform Theory’, I talked a bit about what a platform is: something which can be used to amplify, legitimise and endorse others’ voices. In this post I want to cover what kind of rights you have with respect to platforms that you control.

I’m going to take two plausible claims about the rights which come with ownership of a platform, one negative and one positive:

The positive claim, let’s call it P1, goes: The owner of a platform may use that platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse any people or views that they wish.

The negative claimP2, goes: Nobody can force the owner of a platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse people or views which they do not wish to amplify, legitimate or endorse.

At first blush both of these claims, which I would call ‘libertarian platform theory’, seem fairly reasonable. I think there are some fairly fundamental problems with both of them, which I’ll deal with in turn.

First, let’s talk about P1. The immediate problem with this claim is that there are certain views which it is literally illegal to espouse. In the USA, these are restricted to libel and some incitements to violence, although the latter are extremely limited in scope. In the UK and EU, we are more willing to trade off freedom of speech against other values, such as social harmony and security, and as such there are restrictions not only on libel, slander and incitement to violence, but also incitement to hatred of various kinds and, in some cases, blasphemy.

It’s nigh impossible to proscribe the actual speech act – without instating a version of the Thought Police that Orwell could only have dreamt of, straight out of Minority Report, we cannot physically prevent people from saying things. Instead, the state can make certain speech acts costly to perform, as illustrated in the first section of the SEP article on Freedom of Speech*. The way that this is framed in economic language is interesting, but probably a subject for another time.

Costly Speech

Essentially, making a speech act costly means imposing some kind of sanction on people who either espouse or amplify particular views. This can be done by the state, constituting an incursion into legal freedom of speech. However, the notion of costly speech is particularly interesting when it’s cashed out in social terms. We can make the amplification, promotion or legitimation of a particular view more costly through social approbrium. For example, if someone within a friendship group continually makes racist remarks, they may risk being ostracised by the group, or at least find themselves on the receiving end of a verbal beatdown. That doesn’t mean that their freedom of speech is being infringed (and the interface between platform theory and debates about freedom of speech is a topic I’ll be covering in the near future), but it’s a clear example of how speech can be made costly in social terms.

An interesting case study here is the recent Dapper Laughs controversy. Daniel O’Reilly made rape jokes at gigs, as well as spouting homophobia and sexism in his ‘comedy’ on a regular basis. Rather than saying that he should be prosecuted – because he had done nothing illegal – activists put pressure on those who bankrolled him: ITV, who had given him a TV series; the various places which had agreed to host him on his tour; and the tour promoter, SJM. The argument they made was that by sponsoring O’Reilly’s work, they endorsed the things he said, many of which were irresponsible and misogynistic. Eventually, his TV show was not renewed for a second series and his live tour was pulled. Whilst there was never any legal pressure, the social action in terms of the sheer number of people who mobilised against him, as well as the targets they chose, resulted in his platforms being stripped from him. I would argue that in platforming O’Reilly, organisations were not necessarily endorsing his views, but they certainly legitimated them in some of the ways I talked about in the first post on this topic.

Revising the Positive Claim: Can you say what you like?

With this in mind, we can see that P1 needs some revision. We know that there are some speech acts which it is illegal to platform, and so we need to caveat these out. We also know that there are some speech acts which, whilst strictly speaking legal to platform, will almost certainly result in social pressure which may result in social and/or financial costs if you choose to platform them.

A revised P1*: The owner of a platform may use that platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse any view or person they wish, so long as it does not contravene the laws of the country this platforming occurs in. In addition, they may face costly backlash if they amplify, legitimate or endorse views which are socially unpopular.

This seems a fairly reasonable claim to make with regard to the positive rights one has to use their platform as they wish. I’ll cover the responsibilities which may come as the corollaries to these rights in another post soon.

The Negative Claim: Can you make me give you a platform?

The negative claim as I framed it earlier is P2: Nobody can force the owner of a platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse people or views which they do not wish to amplify, legitimate or endorse.

First, I’ll illustrate what this means in practice. Once there’s a framework in place for the simple cases, I’ll move on to what happens when the control of a space is contested, as was the case in the aborted (heh) Oxford abortion debate last year, or in the case of the Charlie Hebdo comics, or the BBC.

Prima facie it seems reasonable that nobody can force me to give them or their views a platform which I am in control of. If somebody sends me a tweet reading ‘Pls RT this important message about EVIL GM broad beans #fuckmonsanto’, I am within my rights to ignore them, refuse, or send them back a tweet reading ‘just wait until you hear about the pumpkin conspiracy’ and gleefully imagine the look of sheer panic in their eyes.

Similarly, if I were the comment editor of the Daily Mail and somebody sent me an opinion piece which talked about how great the modern world is and how it’s fantastic that there are lots of people working towards gender equality and maybe we should stop valuing women purely on the basis of their physical appearance and hey let’s get rid of the sidebar of shame and stop blaming all of our problems on hordes of immigrants who mysteriously manage to steal our jobs at the same time as lazing around collecting benefits, I would be within my rights to reject it. The Daily Mail has an editorial policy of only publishing articles which are either inane or pure evil, and the editors, who control the various platforms which constitute the overall paper, have the right to reject articles which do not fit in with this ethos. Except when they are legally obliged to print particular things – for example, when they’re forced to print a retraction which clarifies that 4 out of 5 new nurses are not, in fact, foreign – they cannot be forced to amplify, legitimate or endorse views which they don’t want to.

Contested platforms – or, should we debate abortion culture, republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and platform UKIP?

So far, so simple. Whoever has control of a platform gets to choose who gets to take advantage of that platform. But what about cases where control is unclear, or is contested? I think there are three main kinds of case like this. In the first, there is a conflict between different stakeholders who all have some degree of control over a platform. In the second, there is a conflict between the views of those who control the platform and those who do not control it, but have some stake or vested interest in what is platformed. In the third, there are legal regulations which may force the platform controller to act in certain ways.

The Aborted Oxford Abortion Debate

The first case can be illustrated by the Oxford abortion debate. Towards the end of 2014, the student society Oxford Students for Life (OSFL) had planned to hold a debate on abortion. It was entitled “This House believes that Britain’s abortion culture harms us all”. There were to be two speakers: Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill. The debate was to be held in Christ Church college, Oxford. In response to this, a group on Facebook was set up entitled “What the fuck is abortion culture?”, where around 300 people planned to protest the event. The debate was eventually cancelled because OSFL had booked the room too late, and the college Censors said that there was not enough time to assess the security concerns before the time of the event.  OSFL tried and failed to find an alternative venue for the debate, and so it did not go ahead. It is worthy of note that they could have chosen to hold the debate in one of their bedrooms, or the street – however, they chose not to do this.

The popular interpretation of events was that pro-choice students had got the debate shut down. For sake of argument, let’s pretend that’s true. This is a case of a contested platform. First, let’s make a small but important distinction: in many instances, the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ are interchangeable. In the context of Oxford and Cambridge, however, they are not. The ‘university’ is the institution at which one studies, with lecture halls etc spread out across the space of the town. The ‘college’ is the place where students live, eat and socialise. This means that the above debate was due to take place in a space where students lived, and the conflict is thus one between two or more sets of students who are stakeholders in the platform that is the college. One set of students, presumably including some of OSFL, wanted the debate to go ahead. Another set did not. How should these cases be decided? Could the students of OSFL force the debate to happen against the wishes of the pro-choice students?

The answer probably lies in democracy. There are three ways of deciding it: elected representatives, majority rule, or through stakeholder analysis. In this instance, the democratically elected representatives of the student body, the JCR, said that they did not want the debate to go ahead. If they’d wanted to, students of the college could probably have called an Open Meeting to decide whether the debate should go ahead, and then there would be majority rule. This would likely be problematic because most people wouldn’t actually turn up to the meeting, and so it collapses into de facto stakeholder analysis. Under stakeholder analysis, the people who have the most interest in whether the debate goes ahead or not get to decide whether it does. In this instance the biggest stakeholders are OSFL and students who strongly feel that their college should not be host to a pro-life organisation’s debate on abortion. In an Open Meeting, these are the most likely groups to turn out in numbers, and so the vote would likely be decided by which of these groups could get the most support.

A stakeholder analysis could go one of two ways. One could argue that the harm done to residents of the college through the debate taking place there supersedes the utility that OSFL get through the debate happening. Conversely, one could argue that the harm done to OSFL members in not being able to have this platform to hold their debate is worth the emotional or mental cost to those students who did not want it to happen.

In reality, all of this analysis is somewhat unnecessary because the debate was cancelled for bureaucratic reasons (as is so often the case in this kind of controversy). However, it does serve to illuminate the issues that arise when the use of a platform is contested. Who gets to decide whether a view or person or debate should get the use of that platform? If some of the stakeholders don’t want it, should they get their way or just suck it up? It’s an interesting conundrum.

Should Newspapers Republish the Charlie Hebdo Cartoons?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, in which a number of people, including cartoonists from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, were killed by Islamist extremists, there has been a profound pressure on the British press to republish cartoons from the magazine.

To be clear, the magazine satirised most groups in society, but the pressure in this instance is to republish specifically those cartoons which satirise Islam and Muslims, particularly comics which depict the Prophet Mohammed.

There are a number of reasons why papers might not wish to republish these cartoons. They might be worried about putting their own staff at risk of reprisal from extremists. They might be concerned about the racialised (and arguably racist) depictions of Muslims in the cartoons. They might not want to further vilify and victimise Muslim populations at a time when attacks on Muslims and their places of worship have seen a sharp uptick. They might just not want to republish the cartoons.

However, a lot of these papers’ readers really want them to republish the cartoons. Some of them have gone so far as to abuse and even threaten those papers which do not publish them. Leaving aside the irony of sending threats to people for refusing to publish cartoons in the name of freedom of press, let’s look at the conflict of values here. In this instance, the clash is between the wishes of those who control the platforms – the editors of papers and TV channels – and some members of their audiences. Should these particularly vocal audience members be able to force press outlets to publish the cartoons?

My feeling on this is that they shouldn’t, because the editors have control of the platforms for a reason, and if they start to publish offensive cartoons purely because some people want them to in order to make a point, the entire purpose of freedom of press is somewhat compromised. If readers are so appalled by this display of what they perceive as moral cowardice that they decide to take their business elsewhere, then there may be financial implications for the papers and they may wish to reconsider in future. However, this form of economic disincentive excepted, I cannot see a decent reason for allowing the pressure of public opinion to force individual press outlets to publish the cartoons. It may be good, on the whole, if one or two outlets do choose to do so, but no individual paper should be forced into it. They should maintain control over whose voices they amplify, legitimate and endorse.

Must the BBC platform UKIP?

The short answer to the question above is ‘sadly, yes’. Even if the controller of the BBC didn’t want to have Nigel Farage on Question Time ever again, the guidelines of the corporation oblige them to give representation to parties who have a certain degree of electoral support. This is a fairly cut-and-dry instantiation of legal or contractual obligations forcing those who control a platform to provide particular people or groups with access to that platform, regardless of their wishes.

Revising the Negative Claim

In light of the examples above, we need to revise P2 accordingly. There are clearly circumstances in which people who (partially) control a platform can be forced to give it to others against their own wishes. So:

P2*: Nothing, save legal or contractual obligations, can force the owner of a platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse people or views which they do not wish to amplify, legitimate or endorse. In cases where there are multiple people who claim to control the platform, they must decide between themselves whether a view or person should be given that platform.

Conclusions

In this post I’ve tried to elucidate the rights that come with the ownership or control of a platform. I don’t think there’s anything overly contentious in here, though some may disagree with me that the ‘libertarian’ principles I proposed at the beginning need any revision whatsoever, and doubtless there will be some who disagree (wrongly) with my insinuation that the Daily Mail is the physical embodiment of the Platonic ideal of evil. However, I think – and I hope you agree – that Platform Theory gives us a number of useful tools with which to analyse the various problems that arise with regard to speech in society today. That’s clear from the way that it can be applied to a number of recent controversies without issue. I’m sure there is a great deal more analysis that could be done of the specific cases I’ve talked about. For example, does providing the Charlie Hebdo comics with a platform legitimate or endorse the views of the authors? Are there are further issues in the way that the Oxford debate was dealt with in regard to whether providing Brendan O’Neill in particular with a platform meant that OSFL legitimated not only his views on the issue at hand but also on, for example, trans people? I’m not certain in either of these cases, and I’d welcome comments on these issues as well as the framework as a whole.

*On a side note, the SEP Freedom of Speech article is a fairly lucid exposition of the problems associated with free speech as they relate to principles in philosophy. It primarily covers John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle and how it relates to harmful speech in contrast to merely offensive speech, and seeks to understand whether free speech can be legally restricted on the basis of offence alone, finding few strong arguments in favour.

Everything Wrong with the Media’s Reporting of Robin Williams’ Death

Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the depths to which the British tabloid press will sink for a story. They’ve long made a living out of making others miserable. Hounding grieving families, demonising minorities, doggedly pursuing juicy morsels of gossip and exposing celebrities’ innermost secrets through any means available are their bread and butter, and for some reason the public seem to be broadly okay with that.

That’s why it’s unlikely there will be a public outcry over the irresponsible and dangerous way in which Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported in the press. ‘TORTURED’, says the Daily Mirror. ‘HE WAS FACING BANKRUPTCY’, screams the Daily Mail. ‘ROBIN: HIS FINAL HOURS’, bellows The Sun. Sensationalising suicide and revealing minute details, taking all-too-obvious pleasure in laying bare the exact circumstances of his death. All in the public interest.

It’s obviously far too much to expect the media to respect the privacy of Williams’ grieving family and friends. That went out the window when the ABC decided to do aerial shots of his house – as if there were anything to see. In the public interest, you understand.

What we ought to worry about is the effect this kind of reporting will have on people who are already suffering from depression, who may already be considering suicide, who may have gotten close to trying it once or twice. There’s a proven link between reporting of a celebrity’s suicide and an increase in the suicide rate. No matter what the media does, it’s likely we’ll see an uptick in suicides for the next few weeks. Being optimistic, that will hopefully be offset by the huge surge in articles about mental health spurred by Robin Williams’ death. Hopefully. But it does mean that the media have to be incredibly careful to make sure that their coverage is as sensitive as possible, lest they nudge already vulnerable people towards the point where they make an attempt on their own lives.

To that effect, Samaritans have a set of guidelines for media outlets reporting on suicides, available by taking five seconds to google them. Here they are:

1. Think about the impact of the coverage on your audience – this means providing information on how to find help if individuals find the article distressing. I haven’t yet had a chance to read the inside of the papers concerned, but I’m willing to bet that one or more of them haven’t done this.

2. Exercise caution when referring to the methods and context of a suicide – in essence, don’t provide too much detail, particularly if the methods are easy to replicate. Sounds like it should be simple enough.

‘Hanged on bedroom chair, knife and blood by body’, says the Sun. ‘He went to bed alone, slashed wrists then hanged himself’, the front page of the Metro tells us.

3. Avoid over-simplification – don’t talk about simple triggers, like losing a job, or money troubles, as the ‘cause’ of suicide. It’s not that simple. But that’s fine, because the papers surely understand that suicide is a symptom of complex underlying problems.

‘Did money troubles tip comedy genius Robin Williams over the edge?’ asks the Mail, nodding suggestively at the reader. ‘Visit to AA before suicide’, says the Sun, winking.

4. Steer away from melodramatic depictions of suicide or its aftermath – fairly self-explanatory and easy to follow.

‘Haunting details of his final night’ – the Daily Mail.

‘Hanged on bedroom chair, knife and blood by body’ – The Sun.

‘Agony of his final hours revealed’ – the Metro.

5. Aim for sensitive, nonsensationalising coverage – I’m not even going to touch this one.

6. Consider carefully the placement and illustration of reports – make sure they’re not in a place which could unduly influence vulnerable people.

If you’re beginning to get the feeling that the staff of the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Sun and the Mirror have never even glanced at these guidelines, you’re not alone.

There’s no easy way to report on suicide, particularly when the victim is someone so well-known and well-loved. There’s a delicate balance to strike between informing the public and protecting the vulnerable. The problem is that these papers don’t seem to have given vulnerable people a single thought in their publication of stories which will likely lead to further, easily preventable, misery. Instead, they’ve sensationalised a tragedy in the most tasteless way possible. It’s sickening. As a member of the public, it’s certainly not in my interest.

If you’re angry too, and you don’t want this defended on the grounds that it’s in your interest, you can write to the PCC to complain here: http://www.pcc.org.uk/advice/editorials-detail.html?article=NTU4MQ%3D%3D

The World’s Maddest Job Interview

The World’s Maddest Job Interview is something like a cross between The Apprentice and a mental health documentary. It charts a week-long interview process in which three employers involved in business both big and small attempt to find the best three candidates for an unspecified job. The catch is that some of the candidates suffer, or have suffered, from mental health conditions including depression, OCD and eating disorders. The employers do not know who has had a mental illness, and to add some extra interest there are also two professionals who work with mental health – Alessandra Lemma, a psychoanalyst, and Dr Gareth Smith, a consultant psychiatrist – attempting to divine the psychiatric background of each of the interviewees.

‘One in five people who disclose a mental health condition to their employer say it has cost them their job’, the show says. In this vein, interviews with the three employers display two out of three of them to be profoundly inflexible in their attitudes towards potential employees suffering from mental health conditions, saying that they simply would not hire them. They cite concerns with potential financial losses, as well as a perceived lack of reliability. The direction in which the show is going to go is clear from the start – they’re going to prove them wrong.

The participants succeed in several major goals. First, they show that most people, on the face of it, cannot tell the difference between someone with and someone without a mental health condition. Second, they prove that having a mental illness doesn’t necessarily disadvantage you; indeed, the candidates who had the most stand-out skills, who were the most noticeable, were always those who were suffering or who had suffered in the past. Ben, a participant who had suffered with OCD in the past to the point where he had been sectioned and sedated in a psychiatric unit, said explicitly that he had managed to put his obsessive tendencies to work when utilising his impressive memory, as well as in methodical, logical thinking. It raises the question of whether mental illness may sometimes be the price we pay for cognitive adaptations which are otherwise advantageous. It’s an odd notion, and one that could do with a good deal of exploration, but it doesn’t seem totally groundless.

Finally, the programme manages to show that the main barrier to understanding mental illness is simply lack of familiarity. The one employer who displays willing to employ someone with a mental illness from the very beginning has had extensive experience with her employees having had nervous breakdowns and various other conditions. The other two employers are only swayed after three out of three of their top choices for employees reveal that they have had mental health issues. They realise that their previous stigmas were unfounded, and profess that they are even more impressed with the candidates on the grounds that they have come out on top even after struggling with mental health conditions.

It’s a show which sets out from the beginning to confront a mainstream audience with their preconceptions about people with mental illness, and it does so in a way that is, if not subtle, then at least very effective. It tends to slightly gloss over the details of the suffering of the various people involved, and this is potentially problematic in the way that it may risk audiences thinking that mental illness isn’t as difficult as it often is. However, this doesn’t detract from the overall effect of challenging prejudices and combating the all too common stigmas attached to mental health. It shouldn’t be the case that disclosing a problem and being honest about your issues to an employer makes them less likely to employ you – this kind of culture encourages the shaming of people with mental health conditions, who are then more likely to hide them away, not talk to anyone, not get the help they need, and find themselves at greater risk of serious, even fatal complications of their conditions.