We’ve all done it: casually thrown around as insults terms related to mental illness. This evening, Jon Snow, Channel 4’s lead news anchor, posted a blog in which he used the term “lunatic” as an insult in the tragic Philpott case. When picked up on it, Snow swiftly apologised and earned brownie points for doing so. At present, however, Snow’s blog post still contains the term.
The problem with calling someone convicted of manslaughter a lunatic is that lunacy is a synonym for insanity, a legal defence to murder; its use in relation to the Philpott case is sloppy and inaccurate. And the trouble with casually using terms related to mental illness to insult people is that it turns mental illness into an insult.
As background, Snow’s blog post was in reference to distasteful and misleading political posturing reported during the day. Various pundits and politicians (in particular the Chancellor, George Osborne, later endorsed by the Prime Minster, David Campbell) sought to capitalise on the sentencing of the Philpotts and their friend for the manslaughter of 6 children. (Take a look at the links at the foot of this page to explore the subject further.) To take one example of the coverage, the Telegraph newspaper said:
“The Chancellor has questioned why British taxpayers should be “subsidising lifestyles” such as those of Mick Philpott, who was today sentenced to life in prison for killing six children. Mr Osborne made the controversial comments during a visit to Derby shortly after Philpott and his wife Mairead were handed their sentences for intentionally setting fire to their home. Asked whether the Philpotts were a product of Britain’s benefit system, Mr Osborne said: “It’s right we ask questions as a Government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like these.”
Jon Snow has, in addition to his platform on a national broadcaster, nearly 300,000 twitter followers. He also introduced Channel 4’s 4 Goes Mad mental health season. He’s influential. Earlier this evening, I saw a tweet of his containing a link to a post on his Snow Blog about the tragic Philpott case. Snow’s post was titled: Can abnormal behaviour affect the welfare policy debate?
Snow, in a strongly worded rebuttal, asked whether there really was a case for regarding Mick Philpott’s behaviour as a valid ground for reforming welfare policy. He referenced, amongst others, statistics showing there were just 50 families in the UK with the same number of children as the Philpotts.
Philpott is not representative of people who are currently in need of the state safety net due to ill health, lack of private pension or inability to find paid work. And of course it is highly distasteful to use the tragedy of the deaths of 6 children for political purposes. Snow’s blog was robust and well-written, apart from this, which caught my eye:
“The idea that an entire system should be re-jigged to cope with a lunatic who burnt to death half the children he’d fathered seems questionable at the least.”
Here, Snow uses the word “lunatic” as an insult, in order very deliberately to convey the deepest disapproval. The trouble with using terms related to mental illness as insults – especially when it’s done by a figure as prominent as Snow – is that it’s just this sort of casual stigma that adds to the big fat stigma pie we’re being served extra helpings of at the moment.
As I then tweeted:
Snow swiftly responded:
I apologise..that was sloppy of me.
And, in a response to another tweep, Snow tweeted:
I’m sorry the word ‘lunatic’ was very absuive [sic] usage..thoughtless..I should know better
I tweeted in response:
Credit to @jonsnowC4 for apologising so quickly for calling Philpott a lunatic. (Wish I was so good at apologising when I stuff up.)
Snow received plaudits for his quick apology, as my Storify of tweets shows. His fans hold him in even more affection now. For example, Rich Humphrey (@RichMHumphrey) tweeted:
“completely agree! Few in the media would hold their hands up like that. Even more respect for him now”
Finally, I also asked Snow:
Could you tweak the blog to remove the reference to lunatic? That’d be good.
At present, the blog has yet to be revised. Fingers crossed. There are so many expressive insults in the English language that there’s really no need to resort to using references to mental health as insults.
- My Storify of tweets, including comments from Jon Snow – Using mental illness as an insult (4th April)
- Snow Blog, Jon Snow’s blog – Can abnormal behaviour affect the welfare policy debate? (4th April)
- BBC news – Derby fire deaths: Philpotts and Mosley jailed (4th April)
- BBC News magazine, Washington, US – How offensive is the word ‘lunatic’? ( 9th May 2012)
- Links to guidance on the use of language & reporting mental illness
- Guardian newspaper (2012) – Crazy talk: The language of mental illness stigma – “Terms used to denote mental illness are so common in modern language they regularly pass without comment.” David Steele
Links on the debate about what (if anything) the Philpott case tells us about welfare benefits, in light of the notorious Daily Mail headline (pictured below right) and George Osborne’s subsequent comments:
Firstly, coverage on 4th April:
- BBC news – Osborne’s Philpott remarks spark row
- Guardian newspaper – Osborne ‘cynical’ to link Philpott deaths with welfare cuts, says Ed Balls
- Not So Big Society blog – The Philpott Case – A Lesson from History
- Telegraph newspaper – George Osborne criticises Philpott’s benefit ‘lifestyle’
Coverage from later dates (added to this blog subsequently):
- Guardian newspaper – Mick Philpott: if welfare’s to blame, so is the army, prison, feminism, TV etc – “Calls for benefit reform in the wake of Philpott’s conviction for manslaughter are predictable but troubling. Can one man’s sick psyche really be a political issue?” (5th April)
- Independent – Mrs Justice Thirlwall: The one woman Philpott couldn’t defeat (5th April)
- ITV (TV) – Debate: Is Mick Philpott a product of the welfare state? – with Owen Jones (Independent newspaper) & Paul Staines (Sun Columnist and editor of the Guido Fawkes blog ) (5th April)
- Sky News (TV) – Owen Jones & Harry Cole debate whether Philpott says anything about the welfare system (an example of the worst sort of taunting & point scoring) (5th April)
- Blog by Mark Thompson – The Daily Mail front page you’ll never see (6th April)