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You want a piece of me?

January 28th, 2008

Dr Petra

If you’re a regular of this blog you’ll know one of my major bugbears is psychologists who talk about celebrities in the media.

Journalists are catching on to the fact we can’t comment directly about celebs, but many are using sneaky tactics to get you to in effect still comment directly on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Basically they now ask you to put in a disclaimer implying you’re not talking about the famous person, but then give you a whole load of questions to answer about the behaviour of said celeb which means you end up just talking about the star.

Confused? Well don’t be. To show you this dodgy journalism in practice here’s an example invitation I had today to comment on.

The email came from a young women’s glossy magazine, concerning a piece they are writing on “britney’s latest catalogue of strange behaviour”.

“It would be great to have some comments about each example”
they enthused. They then showed they knew we’re not supposed to discuss celebs with “obviously it will be stressed that you have no direct knowledge of Britney and you would not need to refer to her directly, but more along the lines of ‘in cases like these, it may be caused by/manifestations of…’ or ‘this type of behaviour often indicates….’”.

So far, so good. Perhaps this would be an opportunity to talk about wider mental health issues.

Ummmm, no.

Here were the ‘examples’ they wanted a psychologist to comment on:

“1. exhibitionism – her repeated flashing of her genitals/coming out of changing rooms naked/not wearing knickers
2. her ‘secret’ adult play room at home / plus she also leaves sex toys lying all over the place
3. her obsession with cinderella ¬ costumes etc ¬ old video to her song ‘lucky’
4. rambling and talking to herself / talking about herself in third person (‘britney wants to live’) / talking in strange faux english accent even when she was stretchered into hospital last month
5. talking about angel guardians and then seeming to talk TO them
6. referrring to heath ledger’s death and saying (in english accent) ‘he’s still here. no-one ever really dies’
7. parking outside children’s school and mumbling to herself and then saying she was there to pick up her kids…then someone else¹s kids…then talking to a complete stranger and saying she doesn¹t have any friends, before driving off”.

Now with a list like this there are no general issues to talk around. What’s required is most definitely to speculate on someone famous. And given most of these questions are based around media folklore and hearsay we don’t even know if any of them are true. So how can you analyse something if it probably isn’t accurate to begin with?

In joining in with a feature like this you’re not just being asked to gossip on a star, you’re being asked to join countless other media pundits in casting judgement on the behaviour of someone you know nothing about – and nor do they.

Worse still, by answering the questions in the way they’re phrased by the magazine you can see how female behaviour is problematised – particularly anything sexual. Note the ‘plus she also leaves sex toys lying all over the place’. Well we don’t know if this is true, but frankly if it is – so what? The magazine isn’t just encouraging us to speculate on someone’s mental distress here, they’re encouraging us to brand them a whore into the bargain.

So perhaps unsurprisingly I refused to comment on this story. I explained to the magazine how it wasn’t an opportunity to talk around general issues, but would involve judging a celebrity directly. And that definitely breaches ethical codes of conduct for psychologists.

But more than that the whole time psychologists, magazines, gossip columns, and websites continue with speculation and judgement of this kind, the more there will be a demand to harass and torment celebrities during times of crisis.

As someone working within a discipline that’s concerned with psychological wellbeing it is not just ethically remiss of me to join in with such speculations. It’s profiteering in the worst possible way from someone’s unhappiness just so I can have my name mentioned in a newspaper or magazine.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m writing to the British Psychological Society and I’m going to list the various ways journalists have tried to get me to talk about celebrities recently. I’m going to draw attention to the number of psychologists who are breaching ethical guidelines, and I’m going to request that the society takes a much clearer stand on those who breach said guidelines. I’ll also recommend that magazines and newspapers are clearly alerted to the fact that we can’t comment on celebrities with the suggestion if they’re that bothered about the problems of famous folk that they’ll leave the poor souls alone.

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