Have you ever been an “escaped prisoner”? Or, to be more specific, have you ever been in a mental health hospital and been more than half an hour late back from leave? I’ve done the latter. And, according to last night’s BBC London News lead story, these two are the same thing.
Yesterday, as I was working on the computer, I had the BBC on in the background. My ears pricked up when I heard that a story on a mental health unit would lead the news that night. But not for a good reason. Of course, it was a story about mental health and violent crime. I tuned into the news bulletin on iPlayer later on. And it was worse than I thought.
The story was about patients at the John Howard Centre, a mental health hospital in London. A request under the Freedom of Information Act had revealed that patients had been recorded as being over 30 minutes late back from leave over 200 times in the past 13 years. Patients coming back late to their ward? Not that interesting a story, you’d think.
That is until you replace the words “late back” with “escaped” and “patients” with “prisoners”. BBC journalist Jean MacKenzie had translated that into a report that over two hundred prisoners had escaped.
For extra frisson, MacKenzie delivered her piece to camera outside the high chain link fence surrounding the centre (a medium secure unit), and the story was illustrated with the unsmiling photograph of one such “escaped prisoner”, who had been convicted of murder. The message to the public? Behind these high security fences is a seething mass of unpredictable and potentially dangerous prisoners; and two hundred violent, deranged prisoners have escaped and are loose on the streets of London.
Somewhat different to the picture revealed by the Freedom of Information Act request. But far more lively for the evening news audiences, playing, as it did, to stereotypes and prejudices linking mental health and violent crime.
The way this story was reported, I would once have been recorded as an “escaped prisoner”. Who’d have thought it? When I was sectioned, I was once late back from leave. Why? Because I’d been at the funfair with my neighbour and her children (one in a pushchair) having been told by one nurse before we’d left for my two hours leave that I had half an hour’s leeway so long as I rang to let them know. We spent a wonderful time on the dodgems and other fairground rides and still had tokens left to spend when I noticed the time and realised I’d be back late unless we left immediately. I rang the ward right away, as I’d been told to do. This time, unfortunately, I got through to another nurse – the ward’s enforcer – who said no, I had to be back on time or I’d be reported to the consultant. I looked at my neighbour, she looked at me, we grabbed the children and ran all the way to the hospital. The elder child was dragged, howling with disappointment and hunger; the younger one pushed at high speed in the pushchair. I was delivered back to the ward just after the 30 minutes leeway had expired. Some “escaped prisoner”.
Here are some of the responses of the lovely twitter people:
Clairus (@Hellsbell) tweeted BBC London News to say:
“Why did Jean MacKenzie call mental health patients late back from leave “prisoners” who’d “escaped”?” apology needed!
Doris (@isthismental) did the same, but added more detail:
“Shocking repeated error BBC London News. Patients at John Howard Centre and any mental health hospital are patients not prisoners. If I’m 35 minutes late back from leave from hospital, it is right that this is recorded as AWOL [absent without leave]. It would be neglectful not to. Usually I’m late because my bus was late and [there is] only 1 irregular bus [that] actually goes to the hospital (that screams of stigma). All your report has done is whip up misguided fears and stigma about mental health and given Majorie Wallace a platform. I’ve been late back from hospital leave so I can get a take away. H&S [Health & Safety] rules say hot food can’t be kept so it’s take away or starve. Once I was technically AWOL from a ward, but on site. I ‘refused’ to return to the ward until homophobic abuse was sorted.”
Earlier today, I (and several others) received the following response from Antony Dore, Editor, BBC London TV News weekdays:
“You’re right – we shouldn’t have used ‘prisoners’. Have discussed this issue with those involved.”
To which I responded:
“Thank you. Will there be a correction broadcast in the same news bulletins tonight?”
Several others raised the same point, which is that, if a prominent report is incorrect – and the story lead the 6:30pm bulletin and was story 2 of 2 in the 10:30pm bulletin – a correction should be issued with equal prominence. The incorrect impression given must be corrected.
It’s stories like these – presenting mental health problems and mental health units purely in the context of violent crime and escaped prisoners – which help to perpetuate ignorance, prejudice and discrimination against people like me. Stories like these create shame and stigma. Stories like these belong to the past. It seems the John Howard Centre is portrayed in stories like this as almost equivalent to a Broadmoor in the heart of residential London.
I’ll be watching the news tonight to see BBC London News does broadcast a correction.
There was no correction on the evening’s news bulletin.
- Collated twitter comments from yesterday and today (Storify story)
- Time to Change
- Information about the John Howard Centre, a medium secure mental health hospital – not a prison
- BBC – Make a complaint (online, by phone or by post)
More coverage of the story:
The BBC is not alone in the way it reported the story:
- Shocking number of escapees from Homerton mental health unit revealed – Hackney Gazette newspaper
- Over 200 absconders from Hackney’s John Howard Centre in last 13 years – Hackney Citizen newspaper