Last month the Press Complaints Commission made a judgement in a case involving discriminatory comments on a newspaper article. The case highlighted the issue of journalism on mental health and how it is treated by publishers alongside similar considerations such as sexuality, gender, religion and ethnicity. The complaint also led to a change in The Guardian’s moderation rules.
In a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog the person who brought that case, Beatrice Bray, writes about her experiences of comment abuse, and the role she feels publishers should take in dealing both with comments relating to mental health, as well as writers with mental health issues.
Last April I wrote a rallying cry for the Guardian for all who have endured taunts about mental ill health. In my reply article Cartoonists should be careful how they portray mental health (23/4/10) I reclaimed the word “psychotic”. Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson had used the word to abuse Mrs Thatcher. I put him right.
I am a long-standing reader of the Guardian newspaper but I did not know the website audience. Being a proud campaigner I told Guardian readers that I had bipolar disorder and had experienced psychosis.
I expected a civil hearing. Newspaper readers did oblige but many online readers were foul.
The Guardian’s managing editor Chris Elliott did not warn me about the impending abuse. That was a mistake. I think Mr Elliott knew I would face hostility but I do not think he realised how badly I would be hurt.
Those insults made me physically sick. My head was sore for many weeks. This was all so pointless. If Mr Elliott had given me a chance to discuss the risks involved we both could have taken precautions. Instead there was a row.
Guardian staff gave me an apology but told me to grow a “thick skin”. That jibe spurned me into going to the Press Complaints Commission. It is free. It is also less adversarial and less costly than a disability tribunal.
I was not asking for anything unprecedented. The BBC has guidelines on working with vulnerable people. We need to extend this to new media.
Working with vulnerable people
For example when dealing with discussion sites moderators need to deal swiftly with abuse. They also must facilitate discussions so that they do not turn nasty.
Staff should appreciate the reasons for this action. This is not prima donna treatment. This action is necessary because the writer and many of the readers share a common disability. They all have mental health problems.
Section 2 of the PCC Editors’ code promised fairness to complainants. I thought it only fair to ask for warning of abuse but in my PCC ruling the Guardian and the PCC disagreed with me. The PCC did not say why.
However, I did score other points.
Before the PCC ruling the Guardian at my request did add the word “disability” to its moderation rules.
The PCC and the Guardian and did apologise with regard to the abuse.
Guardian online readers called me, amongst other things, a “nutter” and a “retard”. Unfortunately both the Guardian and PCC refused to accept that this was discrimination as defined by the terms of section 12 of the Editor’s code of the PCC.
This is not just semantics. To me the word “discrimination” is a word with power. It holds the abuser responsible but the PCC fights shy of doing that online.
I now know that you can only complain to the PCC if a staff member makes a discriminatory remark about you. Comments made by non-staff members do not fall within the PCC’s remit. My abusers were not Guardian staff.
It is a shame. By being discrimination deniers both the Guardian and the PCC cut themselves off from a store of knowledge on handling disability and mental health in particular.