Newsflash: it’s time to face up to disfigurement

Fronting the Five News lunchtime bulletin today and throughout this week will
be James Partridge, whose face was so horrifically burned in a car accident
that he needed five years of surgery to replace it with skin grafted from
his back and other parts of his body. Partridge, 57, has had intensive
training to be a news anchor ? one of the most prestigious roles in
broadcasting and one of the most controversial given the apparent obsession
of television executives with youthful good looks.

The question, which Partridge himself quickly raises, is whether it’s all just
a big stunt? “Well, of course it is, in a way, but we don’t make any excuses
for that,” he says. “We see this is as a way of challenging people’s
perceptions.” Partridge has had 39 years since his teenage road crash to
deal with the embarrassment of strangers being repulsed by his looks, but
still acknowledges that his appearance might cause some viewers to reach for
the remote. “The question as to whether people will switch off is
interesting,” he says. “If it’s the case that disfigurement is not seen as
‘acceptable’ in the role of news reading then we have a long way to go in
terms of changing attitudes in Britain.”

A former farmer and A-level teacher, Partridge is now chief executive of the
charity Changing Places, which represents half a million people in Britain
with disfigurements to the face, hands or body caused by birth defects,
accidents, disease, war and street violence. He managed to persuade Five
News executives Chris Shaw and David Kermode that an experiment in
newscasting could be especially powerful in confronting prejudice.
“Newsreading was interesting because it’s full frontal to the camera,
there’s no holding back,” he says. “Too often, disfigurement is shrouded in
negativity and tragedy, presented as something to be hidden away or
surgically removed.”

He admits to nerves, saying: “I don’t want to appear on screen and make a fool
of myself. But they have put me through some tough training.” The
five-minute, 12.30pm news ? unlike Kaplinsky’s live 5pm bulletin ? is
pre-recorded just before broadcast, minimising the danger of Partridge
making howlers. He has a little broadcasting experience, having once hosted
Down On The Farm With James Partridge on Radio Guernsey during his time as a
dairy farmer.

Britain’s highly paid newscasters might be nervous at the prospect of a
newcomer making the job look easy, but Partridge says it is “much harder
than I was anticipating”. “It’s not the reading per se, it’s getting the
right tone, the right pace, the right emphasis,” he says. “There’s some
considerable skill to it. I will be wearing L plates and I hope it won’t
show too much.”

Kermode, the editor of Five News, produced by BSkyB, says he is confident the
audience will not switch off, particularly after commissioning a YouGov
survey which found that 84 per cent of viewers said they had no problem with
someone with a facial disfigurement presenting a television programme. “We
are of the view that it is important to address disability as it relates to
the media and to have some balanced representation on and off screen,” adds
Kermode.

Partridge said it was important that Five committed to the project for a week,
rather than just a single bulletin. Before he goes on air, he will be dusted
with the air-brush to reduce shine (“we did some screen tests and the lights
were unkind”) but he will otherwise avoid make-up, unlike his colleagues in
the newsreading business. And he’s happy to do just the lunchtime bulletin.
“It’s extraordinary how quickly it goes but it’s very concentrated. Doing a
half-hour news bulletin, that’s a serious challenge.”

In the years immediately after his disfigurement, Partridge greatly regretted
the loss of the “social anonymity” that comes with being able to walk into a
crowded room unnoticed. “Gradually I got used to the idea that being
noticeable was something I could handle,” he says. “Being in the public eye
is something I have decided I need to do in order to make things easier for
many other people. That’s why I’m doing this.”

Newsreaders can find themselves cast aside not just through lack of beauty but
for having grown older (witness the treatment of Moira Stuart). That’s one
thing Partridge seems less worried about. “One of the bonuses of having a
face like mine, mostly composed of skin from other parts of my body, is that
the ageing process is held back,” he comments cheerily. “Because it’s tight
you don’t get very much wrinkle.”

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