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Pyjama Girl on paparazzi press intrusion

17th February 2008

So the media pursuit of Britney Spears is officially 'A Bad Thing'. The photos are now offensive, the jokes are no longer funny, and even the celebrity websites are backing off. Why?
It's not because we're sick of seeing the pictures, reading the salacious stories or laughing at the jokes. Nor that the photos are more intrusive now than they were two weeks ago, or because Britney's mental state is any more fragile. No, the sudden change of heart is all because a photographer called Nick Stern woke up one day and decided he felt ill at ease with his career, and resigned from the photo agency that employed him in protest at the hounding of Ms Spears.
Close-up image of a paparazzi photographer
One minute Holy Moly, a celebrity website, was broadcasting Britney Spear's release from detention in a psychiatric hospital by calling out: "Ding Ding! Roll up, roll up for the circus is back in town." A few days later it was announcing in an official statement that those same ringside tickets had been withdrawn from sale:
"When one of the biggest names in paparazzi jacks it in due to ethics and morals and the world's biggest pop star gets her knickers photographed by 30 people an hour after being released from a mental institute, you know there's a problem on the shop floor."

The film director Mike Nichols wasn't far behind. He asked former Monty Python star Eric Idle to change a joke about Britney in his Broadway production of Spamalot. Idle agreed: "We don't laugh at sad people," he said, as the song Diva's Lament found itself a new target - Victoria Beckham.

As the media faces up to its guilt, the pictures are rolled out once more in order to fuel the debate about whether they should ever have been used in the first place. My position is straightforward: they should never have been seen. The hounding of Britney has clearly added to her mental health problems, making her even more manic. We've seen things that we never needed to see about her; we've read things we didn't need to know.

But I'm also going to put up my hand here, and say that I wasn't just a passive bystander. I saw the pictures, I read the articles, and I Googled Britney on more than one occasion to see just how grim things were getting.
Three paparazzi photographers snapping away at a celebrity
I'm not alone, either. I have spoken to people with experience of mental health problems, their family members and friends, health workers, as well as people who have nothing whatsoever to do with mental health. All of them agreed that the coverage was horrendous, yet - with the exception of only one person - they still went on to tell me further salacious details.

I had a chat with a couple of friends with mental health problems to see what they thought. We all agreed that the unravelling of Britney probably was a news story, but what is unclear is to what extent that was self perpetuating. My friend Mickyla said the press pack resembled "hyenas gathering around a dying beast. There's a point where you have to say: we're not reporting here, we're actually creating something to report."

But another friend, Beck, who has bipolar disorder, had more mixed feelings. "The really weird thing - and I am not comfortable saying this but it's how I feel - is that there was something reassuring in seeing someone famous do all the things that I do. The bizarre behaviour, the lack of personal hygiene, the spending ... even being carted off to hospital in an ambulance," said Beck. "It was intrusive, and wrong on so many levels, but it also showed mania like it is."

My own thoughts encompass both those views. I have wanted to see what would happen to Britney. I became a spectator of the tabloid circus. Perhaps by writing this I am cashing in still further on the whole debacle. But I do think we have to step back and ask what on earth is going on.

Are we really learning lessons from this, or is the media about-turn just a fresh angle on a story that was getting stale? I had a look at Holy Moly to see if it really had changed its ways after its announcement about ditching paparazzi pics. The site continues to summarise Britney as "Pop moppet turned sex kitten turned bald, chubby loon" (and far worse that I'm not going to repeat). They may be taking the high moral ground on the photos, but we are still left with some very ugly reporting. A quick Google search of last Friday's news found more than 500 international reports, including many about her mental health.
A paparazzi photographer obscured by his camera
At the root of all of this seems to be the idea that it's okay to hound a person with a mental health problem, and then speculate about its nature. For example, at some point during the Britney saga, Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow was admitted overnight to a US hospital, presumably with a physical rather than mental problem. There was a single photo of her in a wheelchair, and plenty of hints that the media knew the details of the story but weren't letting on. But there was no such privacy for another US actor, Owen Wilson, whose recent suicide attempt was played out in public, complete with published transcripts of the emergency call and the toxicology report.

Reporting on mental health is complicated. There has to be some balance between lifting the veil of silence whilst also maintaining respect. Shift, the Government's anti-stigma campaign, has recently published a media handbook for journalists and editors, containing personal accounts from Tony Blair's former communications director, Alastair Campbell, talk show host Trisha Goddard and Sunday Express editor Martin Townsend about how mental health problems have affected them and their families. A simple guidebook doesn't hold the answers, but it may help journalists and editors to think about coverage.

In the end, I'm left feeling that it's no good sitting back and blaming the media. As fascinating as it was, surely we should have all called time on the Britney story long before she ended up sectioned? Yes, she probably would have been sectioned anyway - but did we really need to know?
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