The Elephant In The Studio – Britain Occasionally Does Lack Talent…and This Time It’s Was One of the Judges

Suicide. A big, loud, noisy and inexorable elephant in the room.

The biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK – a trend seen across all counties – and over 800,000 global suicides every year. It is also on the rise across women and accounts for approaching 7,000 deaths in the UK annually.  It is also sadly likely underreported due to issues of certification on death. Moreover, one in five people have considered suicide or had suicidal thoughts in their life. And let’s be clear: suicide and self-harm are not just mental health problems themselves, but they are linked with mental distress.  In short, we have another pandemic: it is called suicide.  And sadly, we have been putting the societal head in the sand and acting out Professor Einstein’s definition of insanity pretty much ever since The Garden of Eden: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Indeed, historical analysis shows this human pandemic has been ongoing for centuries and been hidden, incorrectly reported and tucked under the world’s fickle carpet.

So when Piers Morgan recently chose to vituperate Megan Markle over her comments of having suffered suicidal thoughts, a big, clear red line was crossed. Why? One simple, thumping reason. Because in doing so, and seemingly with copious amounts of roast beef against the subject, Morgan traduced the issue of suicide and the importance of people speaking up, speaking out and critically seeking help. Regardless of Morgan’s motives, for such a supposedly experienced communicator and “comms man”, his misplaced and inane remarks grimly mangled personal toxicity between himself and a former friend, and the truly vital imperative of suicide, awareness and sending a message of “it’s okay not to be okay” and “we are all in this together”.  There was nothing clever or valid about his remarks, but that is the problem when vile and bile seemingly lead the way. That is unacceptable, abominable and beyond reprehensible. You could say it was a royal cock up, but alas it appeared much more calculated. That is even more disturbing.In the face of a global suicide pandemic and indeed a global Covid-19 pandemic, which is also delivering its own mental health sequelae and a wide range of complications, doing anything that might deter anyone from speaking up and getting help is catastrophic. It was Sir Steve Redgrave who once said, do whatever you need “to make the boat go faster” even if that means changing your pants to gain an extra one hundredth of second. That might be the difference between bagging gold or settling for silver.  Morgan’s comments only serve to make the boat go slower and, for those vulnerable, distressed and confused, enough to reinforce regressive thoughts that “no one understands” so as to capsize or submerge the boat with an ocean of withdrawal, embarrassment and reservation. The only waves and ripples we should be seeking to splash around are those of positivity, acceptance, openness and conveying there is always a way and never be ashamed or think there is no way forward.  Speaking up matters.  Talking about how you feel is brave and a sign of leadership. Like Sir Winston Churchill once said, no virtue has any meaning without courage and courage and virtue is embodied in openness, awareness and togetherness.
This critical issue, and moreover for vulnerable people experiencing a private hell, a range of mental health challenges or a personal torment, is way more important than Morgan’s need to once again rashly hoy public polemic around like superficial confetti at a wedding party.  If you chose to park your tank on the lawn of mental health, my word you need to do it with an appropriateness, well thought through articulation and positive perspective; not verbose weapons of vitriol that conflate a personal grudge with the issue in hand. Going into a news studio for an early morning rant with swaggering brazen and gushing hyperbole is far from useful.  It is actually rather sad.The purpose of this missive is not to focus in on the veracity of Meghan Markle and create some peep show scorecard of the interview itself. Also, to be clear I am not writing these thoughts as a Prince Harry and Meghan Markle defender or advocate; indeed, there are questions to ponder on their decision to move away from their public duties and a debate that will rumble on.  In short, I am distinctly neutral on the Royal Family chasm. Yet when someone talks about suicide or suicidal thoughts, we must always take it seriously, be compassionate and never seek to undermine the issue in hand.  It does not matter if you are a Duchess or an ordinary gadgie. It is totally irrelevant. Anyone can be afflicted and affected with mental health challenges at any time and in any way.

Imagine if we said to someone “just get over” cancer. Just imagine the scenes of public opprobrium and condemnation – and rightly so. So why is mental health treated and viewed so differently? What sort of world are we living in if the first thought and reference point is distrust and dismay particularly on an issue this serious?We have laws of the land, enshrined in Magna Carta and towers of parliamentary legislation, that demands the old aphorism of “innocent until proven guilty”.  Indeed, lest we forget people have died for these inalienable rights and none of us should forget that fact. Just a couple of summers ago, I travelled to Crete with my Father to retrace my late Grandfather’s (a legend of a man) footsteps in the Second World War given he was stationed on the Greek island for a significant part of the war undertaking signals and intelligence on the front line as a recently trained electrician and “spark man”.  To feel first hand the devastation and unspeakable scenes a 19 year old lad must have gone through to protect our precious rights, so vividly exemplified by the lines of graves and tombstones in those mountainous fields, was all too compelling. Why do we jump to conclusions and seek to trash these rights through the grim modern phenomenon of “trial by media”?  In other words, Meghan Markle has nothing to prove when discussing her feelings on such a vital issue and certainly should not be assumed “guilty until proven innocent”.
We could focus in on Morgan himself and his own veracity: sacked as editor of the Mirror for printing hoax and fake pictures of British Troops allegedly torturing prisoners of the Iraq War; befriending Donald Trump and then throwing him under the bus following election defeat; egregious comments about Sir Alistair Cook in an apparent campaign over his mercurial friend Kevin Pietersen; and telling people to “man up” over mental health.  Morgan has also cited the timing of the interview when Prince Philip was is hospital and damage to the monarchy as a justification for his contentious comments.  That is a classic case of caca de cheval as they would say in Paris.  Remarkable for a man who has been the editor of papers that have egregiously pursued the Royal Family for years with murky undercover investigations and sensational headlines. I struggle to see how Morgan can now claim personal concern for the Duke of Edinburgh and Her Majesty given past obtrusions and lurid paper copy. And this before we get to Morgan’s doubtful performance at the Levensen Inquiry over phone hacking and bombastic contributions on Britain’s Got Talent. The fact he also supports Arsenal too…only joking.

Yet I wish to waste no more ink on this person’s doubtful attributes yet to say even if Morgan did have a valid point to make on veracity, he is not the one to do it.  That would be like the Hunchback of Norte-Dame telling someone to sit up straight.Moreover, let’s be clear. The ongoing problems between Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the Royal Family are private matters and, despite their public fame and global reach, it is not for us or anyone else to seek to plonk our hooters into their private affairs. How can any of us judge?  What do any of us really know?  Think to your own family experiences or friendships circles. Nothing tends to be as black and white as the stripes of my beloved Newcastle United – and for those who follow The Toon’s rollercoaster ways will know even the club that sports black and white stripes, the reality is a kaleidoscope of shades of grey and so much more!  Similarly, the wisdom and virtue of conducting a full-on interview with Oprah is prima facie questionable and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet again, none of us know the full nine yards.The fact some have joined in with Morgan’s seditious and wild comments, with social media once again disgracing itself with remarks such as “just toughen up” and “get over it”, shows how big this elephant remains and the roaring sound of a disturbed societal animal. In fact, social media continues to far too frequently be a network of excrement and mudslinging with cyber bullying, abuse and harassment firm fixtures and fittings in the ecosystem of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. We frankly cannot detract from the inescapable fact that social media platforms and Internet providers continue to fail in their ethical responsibilities to regulate their own backyard.  The CEOs of our social media companies continue to misplace their backbones somewhere amidst the digital sphere as profits trump doing the right thing and stopping hate crimes. In addition, the tabloid media remains as vicious and voracious as it has ever been bingeing itself on a gluttonous appetite of celebrity guff and solipsistic endeavour.  I am all for a free press.  It is vital and a cornerstone of a liberal democracy, but any hope the phone hacking disgrace, which we should not forget included the indescribably disgusting hacking of Milly Dowly’s mobile phone, would reset the dial and bring some form of ethics to reporting is nothing but a distant pipe dream.  The need for Levenson hangs above the gloomy and grim landscape of parts of our voyeuristic press and the shady methods of those holding the pen and bashing up the keyboard.

Yet there is another elephant not just in the room, but society more generally. Many people feed the beast that is the tabloid press by buying the product whether in paper or electronic form. I have steadfastly refused to buy any tabloid paper since the age of 18 having researched so many cases of defamatory, toxic and grisly misreporting as part of a university assignment for my Politics and Economics degree.  I would not even use the tabloid papers in my cat Winston’s litter tray. The press ain’t fit to smoke my boots –  or indeed that of many people – and certainly not fit to touch Winston’s majestic paws. Yet despite my own protestations, society does have to hold a mirror up to itself. The press machine supplies and survives – actually prospers big time – because of public demand. Of course, many parts of our media are responsible and professional, with some superb examples of investigatory journalism upholding critical public accountability and asking the tough but critical questions of those in power, but there is no denying the tabloid press is too often a dark stain on our democracy and society.  The recent tragedy of Caroline Flack only reinforces my point and particularly on the concentric issues of mental health and suicide.

Thus, Morgan was clearly out of line and transgressed badly, but one person’s polemical remarks is frankly a symptom of a bigger disease. That disease is the way the tabloid press chooses to cover these issues and the ongoing haranguing, badgering and targeting of people, particularly famous people at any cost. I am no fan of the celebrity culture and some celebrities would be high on my lament list, but mental health and suicide are bigger than any press tittle tattle and voyeurism. So alas ladies and gents, another big, thumping and grisly elephant in the room is the tabloid press and any of us who happen to keep feeding it. Time to think. Time for many of us to think about our media diet.  Time to enforce the change.  For without it, the tragedy won’t be just one press polemicist’s grim remarks but the ongoing pandemic that is people taking their own lives.

With thanks to Sharron Moffatt for being a legend, reviewing and inspiring these sentiments and Steve Phillip for his ongoing encouragement, inspiration and willingness to share.

Stuart Carroll is currently a Expert Policy Adviser in the UK Vaccines Taskforce and is a senior health economist and epidemiologist specialising in infectious diseases, vaccines and public health.   Stuart has worked in the area of public policy and has published widely across the public health space in peer review journals and international scientific conferences as well as through political think tanks and Members of Parliament. 
Stuart is also a dynamic mental health advocate and impassioned campaigner. He suffers from severe clinical depression and has been open about the need to eradicate stigma, increase awareness and ensure greater prevention and early years education.  He is a regular public speaker and also spoken openly about the need for so-called “elephants in the room” to be removed including suicide, workplace mental health, domestic abuse, and corporate bullying and harassment.  
Emanating from the North-East, Stuart is a passionate Newcastle United fan, lover of sports and music including songwriter and recording and fronting his band Stuart Carroll’s Black and White Stripes, and lives with his legendary cat Winston who has become world famous for his regular appearances on virtual meetings.