Sunday 24 November 2013

Trauma and the Press

One of the problems of dealing with the aftermath of disasters is figuring out how to deal with the press. Handled properly, sympathetic journalists can provide sensitive descriptions of what it is like to be traumatised, and how to seek treatment. Handled badly, they can be a nuisance and get in the way of patient recovery.

As a relatively new clinic in 1987 with a de facto national referral status, we worked out a protocol. When the media rang up, breathlessly asking for a trauma patient to take part in a program, we put them through a standard process. They were asked to write to us saying what sort of program it was (documentary, studio discussion, extended interview) and telling us what other work they had done, to see if they were responsible journalists. Then we would present the most reasonable of those requests to therapists at the weekly ward round saying “Another media enquiry, which seems OK. If you have any patient you think might be interested, and who might benefit from it, the secretary has the details”. Some patients took up the option at the end of treatment, and sometimes found it very helpful. They “showed the world” what it was like to suffer extreme anxiety, and that they had got through it. Other patients, particularly those who were called to studio discussions and interviews sometimes got messed around. They would ready themselves for the interview, and then be told they had been dropped, thus implicitly being classified as not sufficiently newsworthy. Not a good experience. Most patients avoided such enquiries. They had seen the Great British Press in full ravening frenzy all too often.

As the years went by, and trauma reactions became much better understood, although we went through the motions of vetting journalists, making them explain themselves and being kept at a distance, we usually defaulted to saying “We don’t do that at our clinic”. When patients asked about how to reply to media enquiries we replied “Up to you, but why not wait till at least 3 months after the end of treatment?” Three months to a journalist is about three decades too long.

These reflections were engendered by the London Slaves story, about which I was promising to say nothing as long ago as yesterday. The charity who launched the story are now asking the press to respect the privacy of the women who have been released from the house where they lived with the couple they accuse of abusing them. The charity and the police are reminding the press that they may bring charges against the couple, who are currently on bail, so they cannot give explanatory details.

Then the Police started giving details, saying that the inhabitants of the house were probably originally members of a political group living in a commune, and that the couple had been interviewed decades before, for some undisclosed reason. The Police then crawled over a London street, interviewing the locals, thus confirming the location. Enterprising journalists have contacted neighbours (as predicted in this blog) and have found a man who claims to have been pursued by the youngest woman (now 30) over a seven year period, saying that on her frequent outings with the couple she posted 500 or so love letters to him through his letter box, including 7 photos, one of which the paper helpfully publishes, with some pixilation over the face, saying she was of Indian appearance, lest we not work out what sort of person the press desperately want to interview. Since the house in question seems of recent construction the press are asking the local authority what they knew about the inhabitants, and where they lived beforehand.

We now have two press campaign. One is about slavery; “tip of the iceberg” calculations about London sweatshops and slaves and national scandal and “modern slavery is all around us”; the intricacies of immigration law; and a Modern Slavery Bill which, curiously enough, the Government says it is just about to introduce in Parliament. The other campaign is to find three women who are living somewhere, trying to avoid the press. The leader of the charity, while requesting privacy for the women, has revealed their first requests on leaving the original house. It has all the appearance of a cynical mess.

Now, consider another scenario. You get an anguished telephone call for help from someone who appears to be held against their will in a house. It is a complicated situation, and they cannot give a clear account. They are frightened and want to leave, but cannot bring themselves to escape from psychological oppression and dependency. You manage to get them out, take them somewhere else, and slowly let them tell their story, while the Police investigate the accused couple, and see if they can bring a prosecution. Enquiries can be made in the street in question, and in other relevant places, under some cover story without arousing too much interest in this particular household. Armed with the story obtained over many months of patient interviewing, and with corroborative evidence from the Police investigation there is a court prosecution, the case is proved, and the oppressors go to jail. Later, if they want to, the three abused women tell their story, in the company of supportive helpers. I think that the second approach is the professional way to do things, and is most likely to obtain a successful prosecution. As it stands now, if the case gets to Court,this couple now have a sparkling defence: the whole country knows that they are slave masters, and a fair trial is not possible, etc.


By convention, as established in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, the psychologist comes on last, after all the horror, to give the final convincing explanation as to why the ghastly events took place. So over two days I have been listening on the end of a phone as all other parties do their bit on the radio programs, until they finally come to me. So far I have sat patiently through many an impassioned declamation as to what needs to be done in legal, moral and international terms, but the prize goes to the speaker for the charity, who in one sentence about the women’s condition mentioned her charity at the beginning of the sentence, the middle of the sentence, and the end of the sentence. Apparently they are getting many, many calls, and may have to take on new staff.

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