Imagine a successful young chap in his thirties. He’s flying up the ranks at work, and he and his partner are starting a family. Then he’s diagnosed with a serious illness.
It’s a happy ending. He makes a full recovery. He fulfils his childhood ambition of becoming an MP, and, with his previous professional expertise behind him, rises quickly to Ministerial status, with a particular responsibility for libraries.
He’s speaking, one day, to a national newspaper, about his departmental brief; in particular, the challenges posed to traditional book lending by new technologies. The conversation strays to his well-known work with charities supporting those affected by the same illness which struck him. He talks about his own experiences, how he personally had struggled, and about the wider ways in which families and society are affected by the financial, emotional and physical problems it brings, especially where there are young children involved.
The piece is printed and shared on social media.
“Minister blames violent crime and homelessness on illness among fathers”.
He protests that he was deliberately misrepresented, that he never made such a claim. The headline stands.
So far, so whimsical, except that the story actually ran in yesterday’s Telegraph.
When I first clicked on the link, courtesy of @drlangtrygirl, I was ready to fume against Andrea Leadsom, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who, according to the paper, blamed postnatal depression for violent crime and homelessness, for a crass and dangerous attack with no basis in evidence.
When I read the piece, though, it didn’t stack up. It was apparently contradictory, true (she inferred that her PND may have been contributed to by her employer’s refusal to countenance part time work, while going on to say that work had “sorted her out”), but at the same time she spoke with a deep understanding both of the gravity of postnatal mental health issues, and the importance of decent support and early intervention to help women – and families – affected. She spoke, too, of the wide range of circumstances which can negatively impact on a child’s start in life.
What she didn’t do was blame women for society’s ills by virtue of the simple crime of illness. She didn’t say it, and, reading more about her, it sounds as though she never would.
Miss Leadsom has herself, on Twitter, stated that the article misrepresented what she said. I am angry on her behalf, and I trust that she will receive an apology.
But there will be no apology for the deliberately cynical headline which will have deeply hurt many women, already struggling with ante-, peri- and/or postnatal health issues. There will be no counterweight to the terror they already feel and which has now been increased, that by suffering from an illness, they are somehow doing harm to their child. There will be no reassurance, from the Telegraph, at least, as they lie awake haunted by dread and groundless guilt.
I am not, it goes without saying, a Minister in Her Majesty’s Government. I am not suffering postnatal depression. Perhaps, you will say, it is therefore none of my business. By twisting the words of one woman, though, and by using them to attack many others, ensuring that as many as possible will see it by putting it within the “Women” section, the Telegraph has made it my business.
Moreover, it’s nothing new. Papers and TV programmes refer daily to other interviews, research, think pieces – usually balanced, reasoned and nuanced, but presented every time through the prism of the ways in which it’s all our fault. Mothers’ age. Mothers’ health. Mothers’ financial status. Mothers’ work or lack of it.
I don’t think we’d see a story like the one above about testicular cancer. We shouldn’t see it when it’s a “woman’s” issue, either. The Telegraph chose not to use the interview to highlight and support the cause of support for maternal mental health, and instead to take a prominent woman’s cause of a serious issue and twist it into lazy clickbait. We need to ask ourselves why.