One-off phenomenon or major breakthrough?

What a week that was!

I had intended to ‘report’ on how my Five News reading was going as the week progressed but so strong and extra-ordinary were the reactions that I did not have the time – and the weekend was full too as my ‘appearances’ continued to be news and attract comment (see below). Far from being a stunt, as some might have branded it at the start, it turned out even better than we had hoped, as a serious trigger for public discussion and debate.

Three things stand out from the week for me: First, reading the news was very challenging at the start (getting the tone, speed and feel of the bulletins right) but eventually, was something I really enjoyed. Being in a newsroom was fascinating and I was very impressed by the tenacity, integrity and accuracy of the Five News team.

Second, public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive – over 45,000 people viewed my Tuesday broadcast on YouTube with barely one negative reaction – and I hope that all broadcasters will now see that there is nothing to fear in putting people with disfigurements in everyday, on-screen roles – as long as they have the skills and expertise to do the job.

Third, I hope my performance will convince anyone with a facial disfigurement, especially a young person, who might have thought such roles were out of reach (because there were no such role models on TV) that they can aspire to play them – do the training and make the application!

Looking ahead and answering the title question, I am unsure whether I will be asked to read the news again but I am certain others will be – fine by me!

Major breakthrough? Yes, potentially – what I have to ensure is that the momentum of the week is carried forward – that we find the money and resources to make the most of the opportunities that come…

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/mediatechnologyandtelecoms/media/6615767/News-reader-with-facial-disfigurement-is-broadcasting-phenomenon.html http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1229774/Disfigured-Five-newsreader-hit-public-trial-break-stereotypes.html http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/22/james-partridge-tv-newsreader

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Breaking the mould?

In the final stages of preparing for my first bulletin on Five News – a little like being on the first tee of a golf course, I’ll be very pleased to ‘get the first shot away’. Doing it all through the week will not only be exciting – because it is such a different world in the TV newsroom – but also hopefully, challenging… Delighted with the coverage to date – on Five, the BBC website (where apparently it was a very popular page over the weekend), and The Independent today (despite the use of ‘horrifically burned’ and a few typos!).

Two points I hope to make strongly in the week ahead:

First, that there are so many different causes of ‘facial disfigurement’ – though I suspect that the words at the moment conjure up scarring, burns and facial asymmetry (please note that I am avoiding using ‘deformity’). I need to stress that over 500,000 people in Britain are estimated to have a ‘psychologically or socially significant’ facial disfigurement. Many have facial birthmarks, cleft lips and palates and other cranio-facial conditions, skin conditions like psoriasis and acne, facial paralysis like Bell’s Palsy or after a stroke, and after surgery to treat skin or head and neck cancer. Medicine and surgery can be superb (as they were for me) but can rarely remove all trace.

When I start to explain this to people who have not really thought about disfigurement before, I can often see nodding, recognition and dawning understanding – “oh I see… yes, I know someone who has a… and they have sometimes said…”.

Not every one of the 500,000 would want to read the news but every single one should have opportunity to play such visible, everyday roles in today’s society.

Second, in so many media interviews and positions, we are expected to describe ‘the worst thing that has happened’ – and inevitably, it’s the staring, the excluding, the name-calling and bullying, the intrusive curiosity, the patronisation and low expectations that we have to describe. But reaction to someone’s disfigurement is often much subtler, more profound and unconscious – not only in the mind of the people doing the meeting but in the mind of the person themselves. Are we all hard-wired to turn away, avert eyes, fear the worst? I think not – and research confirms this. Instead, to avoid embarrassment, we reach, like a reflex, for simplistic stereotypical explanations about what it must be like to have a disfigurement and how to behave.

I am hoping that by being the face of Five News for 5 minutes each day this week, I will be able to challenge people to become aware of their culturally-determined reflexes and thereby, if not break the mould, at least start the mould-breaking – be more informed, less quick to recoil – and ultimately, challenge ‘face value judgements’.

Let’s see what happens!

A time to remember

We went to a superb performance of John Rutter’s Requiem this morning, to mark Remembrance Day – full of pain, depth and the power of love. The Two Minutes’ Silence was very poignant honouring the courage and service of the Armed Forces and the resoluteness of families bereaved or shaken by devastating casualty. I couldn’t help thinking of, and feeling again, deep distaste at the insults thrown at some of the returning warriors with facial and bodily injuries – see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/somerset/8309714.stm.

I was reminded too that my face is a monument to soldiers and airman of the two World Wars whose facial injuries and burns brought the best out of the surgeons of the day – Harold Gillies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Gillies) who trained my surgeon, Jim Evans, and Archie McIndoe.

Such a day resonates profound thoughts but in the last week I have been equally touched, in different ways, by the Girl Guides’ research on how many young girls (46% between 11 and 16) say they would like cosmetic surgery to make themselves prettier or thinner, by the new reported cultural trend for ‘deracialisation’ and by the apparent acceptance of so-called satire to mock people’s looks. Much needs to be challenged in pursuit of face equality…