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Presenting GMB helped me remember why the media matters

Thursday 13 May 2021

Television still has tremendous reach – and, when it comes to issues like mental health, it’s using that reach for good


There were several reasons I thought long and hard before agreeing to do even three days presenting ITV’s Good Morning Britain: the inevitable “next Piers Morgan” headlines; sleep deprivation, with an alarm set for 4 am; missing my daily 7 am cold water swim, which has helped keep me vaguely sane in lockdown; the feeling that it was going back in time, having been a BBC Breakfast regular in the early 1990s, in talks about becoming a presenter when Labour leader John Smith died and my life took a new turn towards working for Tony Blair in 1994; and, perhaps most importantly, my wondering whether – amid the fast changing media landscape of the tech revolution – breakfast television, and television more broadly, still carries the weight and relevance that it once did.

Then again, I worried that lockdown had trapped me in a comfort zone, that I was even becoming slightly agoraphobic, so getting a new challenge in my 64th year had its excitements. I clearly have a desire still to have a platform, or else why, other than as therapeutic venting, was I writing a weekly column for The New European, or doing my daily Instagram Live rambles as I walked the dog, raging at the iniquities of the Johnson regime? The few thousand regulars who watch my Hampstead Heath tirades would be dwarfed by the millions who watch GMB over three days. Added to which, though I take politics seriously, my journalistic instincts were always tabloid in the better sense – make big complex issues accessible – and GMB has an interesting mix of light and heavy.

The clinchers were that ITV did not want me to commit beyond the three days, to see if I liked it, then see what happened, and that the three days were in Mental Health Awareness Week, and coinciding with the aftermath of important elections in England, Scotland and Wales.

Writing this having done my three days, I feel an exhaustion perhaps only exceeded by times on the election campaign trail, an experience which Bill Clinton once described to me as “the only activity on earth that makes everyone look like their passport photo”. Though the alarm was set for 4am, I never reached that time, constantly waking with the subconscious fear I would sleep in. A sports and performance psychologist friend, Andy McCann, gave me great tips about food and drink intake, how to adapt to an abundance of artificial light early in the day, and a 20-minute “non-sleep deep rest” exercise, which helped on Days 1 and 2.

By Day 3, however, I was so tired that I ended up doing something that many moons ago was a treasonable offence – leading to my first instant on air apology. “I think people knew what you meant,” sympathised co-presenter Susanna Reid after I pontificated on “the recent death of the Queen” in a conversation with footballer turned film star Vinnie Jones… I never imagined I would ever write that sentence before the GMB call came!

Christ, what if someone woke up at that time, turned on, and they were the first words they heard… “death of the Queen”? What if it were the Queen? It is not too fanciful that she tunes in. This is a woman who, when travelling the world, asks for a full set of all the papers, broadsheets, tabloids and all. She stays informed!

I am an energy person, but keeping your energy levels high for two and a half hours, after hours of frenetic briefing and preparation, is not easy. “Eyes and teeth, eyes and teeth,” director Erron Gordon said into the earpiece as the titles rolled, or the ad break ended, “…we go again.”

I have been on the other side of the desk hundreds – thousands – of times as an interviewee. This was a totally different experience, which increased my respect for those who do it well. There are so many moving parts, the earpiece traffic signalling what is happening on screen, what is coming up, how long left for the segment, countdown to the next, where to look, tone to take, how to fill time as a late guest fiddles with their Zoom, ideas for comments and questions, instructions to clarify when you kill off the Queen… all I can say is thank God I was in the hands of pros.

At one point, talking about a football fight I once had with pop star Tom Parker of The Wanted, as Susanna spoke directly to me, her lips closed, it was clear she had reached the end of the sentence and I realised I hadn’t been listening because Erron was talking to me about how I was muffling the mic sound when I leaned on the desk. I busked it, and haven’t dared to look again to see if it made sense.

So what about the TV weight and relevance issue? That is not easy to measure, but if social and media reaction is anything to go by, heavens, it still matters. At one point, I was trending on Twitter with various different versions of my oft mis-spelled name. Tabloids, in particular, seemed able to get a story out of literally anything… my Queen apology was online in several UK papers in minutes, and abroad by lunchtime! More importantly, the political interviews were getting good pick up, and though an appearance by my old boss Tony Blair attracted the usual online hate, there was a lot of interest in what he actually said with, again, coverage abroad too. I know that Twitter should not be confused with the real world, but John Bercow trending all day also suggested that his trenchant critique of the government and Boris Johnson’s tenuous hold on truth cut through.

Susanna and I enjoyed predicting the papers’ headlines. “GMB viewers turn off in droves as Campbell sits in for Morgan…” was my favourite, Mail Online’s take an hour or so into Monday’s show. Though most went with “Campbell divides opinion,” the Express and the Mail took no time to find a few malcontents on Twitter – one had literally zero followers! – to justify any headline they wanted. Spiky and humorous exchanges between me and Susanna became “vicious spats,” in which I was variously “skewered… snubbed… shown up…” They clearly love the letter S. Matt Hancock “swiped” at me. Ulrika Jonsson “squirmed” when I reminded her I had introduced her to one of her more famous lovers, Sven Goran Erikson.

And when Tony Blair complained that his recent haircut had had more coverage than his work on Covid vaccines, Susanna, whose hair and clothes seem to attract an avalanche of comments, suggested he “join the club.”

But when I look for positives in the media, the state of the mental health debate is right up there. TV and the media more generally have played a massive role in shifting the dial on mental health, and the sheer volume of debate we had will hopefully have helped shift it further. On all three days, we had several items at least partly about mental health, including interviews with Health Secretary Matt Hancock and mental health minister Nadine Dorries. Goldie Hawn, talking about her worldwide charity helping improve the mental well-being of children, was a highlight. Yet the mental health input, I hope, felt neither forced to fit the hashtag of the week, nor over the top.

Perhaps the stand-out moment of the week was Tuesday’s interview with Ian Russell, father of Molly, the 14-year-old who took her own life and whose family believe social media giants played a big part in her death. As he spoke, the studio was totally silent and still, and technicians used to “just doing a job” listened intently. Even Erron stopped talking in my ear. It was profoundly affecting, and at one point – exhaustion no doubt partly to blame – as I recalled the suicide of my cousin Lachie 21 years ago, I could feel myself struggling to hold back tears.

Two days later, by pure coincidence, I was due to attend a virtual meeting organised by Tory MP Owen Paterson, who last year lost his wife Rose to suicide, and chaired by DCMS minister Caroline Dineage, on the draft Online Safety Bill. I have struck up a good relationship with Owen, with whom I disagree on most political issues, and we have spoken regularly since his wife’s death by hanging, the investigation of which established she had been searching suicide sites online for some time. They are all too easily accessible – and horrific.

The minister hosted and led a really good discussion, attended by Department of Health senior officials, leading charities like Mind and the Samaritans, and the Labour MP Richard Burgon, who has taken a close interest in the issue. Ian Russell will hopefully be joining us for the next one. Thanks for the introduction, GMB!

Media is fundamental to making change happen. ITV’s “Britain Get Talking” campaign has been a big part of the shifts that have happened so far. The BBC has played a huge and positive role, not least in the portrayal of mental health in their leading soap operas and dramas, or in the work of Comic and Sport Relief. BBC2 commissioned the documentary on my depression which led to my book, Living Better, which has now led to the idea of another film about depression inspired by the chapter written by my partner, Fiona Millar, on what depression is like for those who have to live with it in others. Her contribution has had more reader response than any other part of the book, suggesting a huge gap out there in terms of support services, and she has started an online support group for people in a similar position.

By Thursday evening, I had another Mental Health Awareness Week event, at the BBC, this time not for broadcast but for staff. Like most employers, they have noticed an uptick in mental health issues among the workforce, not helped by the BBC being so high profile, under sustained political attack, and massive funding issues which are leading to job cuts and the anxiety that goes with that.

I told the story of another event I did recently, an all-staff call with the Bank of Ireland, whose CEO Francesca McDonagh told her 3,000 employees: “We have learned so much in the pandemic, not least that our mental health matters. And one thing I can tell you is that from today, the mental health and well-being of staff has to be the Bank’s No.1 Priority, ahead of anything else we do.” That is quite a statement. It is also leadership.

We are getting ever closer to a tipping point, towards the goal of genuine parity between physical and mental health. Ultimately, it is politics and political decision makers which will decide whether and how we reach it. But they are – even this government with its populist and worryingly authoritarian streak – influenced by public opinion, which in turn is both reflected and created by media debate.

My short stint in the GMB chair was fun – and sped by. But it also reawakened, after years spent in combat mode with much of the media, the understanding that first led me to become a journalist in the first place: that it really matters, and today it is under real pressure, not least from technological change but also from governments around the world.

Heavens, I even found myself holding up a front page of the Mail, as they lambasted the Queen’s Speech for its lack of a plan for delivering on Boris Johnson’s promise to fix social care 22 months ago. This was quite a moment, given I haven’t spoken to the paper for 20 years, nor touched it other than when taking to the bin free copies of the paper given out at airports, and I’ve told my children they can bring anyone home they like, unless they work for the Mail.

Don’t worry, I’m not going soft. As I told the DCMS minister’s group, if ex-Mail editor Paul Dacre is made the head of Ofcom, it will be a staggeringly bad and cynical appointment by Johnson, which will do enormous damage to the media landscape at a time when the best in broadcasting needs support.

Alastair Campbell’s latest book, Living Better: How I learned to survive depression (John Murray Books) is out in paperback, Kindle and ebook now.