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!