Through the Airgates: AsylumNO

Through the Airgates is a new series of articles in which we explore our most popular stories in greater detail. For the first time, readers will have unprecedented access to full interview logs and will discover more about the process of uncovering and developing the story.

The e-mail that started it all

After noticing a campaign on Twitter that accused Thorpe Park’s Asylum maze of stigmatising vulnerable individuals, I contacted the individual who appeared to be at the forefront of the campaign – a prolific mental health blogger and tweeter known as Sectioned (@Sectioned_).

I sent this e-mail:

 My name is Michael, and I write for a website (Airgates.co.uk) about the UK theme park industry.

I’ve noticed your campaign to remove the Asylum maze from Thorpe Park: it seems like something we’d like to report on, particularly seeing as there’s been a recent controversy over Halloween costumes themed as mental health patients.

Did you initiate this campaign? In your opinion, what is wrong with Asylum? We’re looking to write a piece entitled (something to the effect of) ‘Is it okay to base horror mazes on mental health?’.

I’m looking for a quote from you about why Asylum is not okay, the effect it has on mental health patients, and how charities such as the ones you mentioned are helping to defeat the stigma.

She produced a succinct and brilliant statement capturing the beliefs of the campaigners under pressure from me (I was under pressure to get the story out as quickly as possible: the campaign was mounting and it wouldn’t be long before the nationals noticed the story). She added:

“And by the way, you are exactly right to want to be in at the start of this. If you’re not familiar with the changes that have been taking place in mental health activism, the tide has been turning for a couple of years and some big breakthroughs are happening. It’s an important breaking story, of which theme parks is one aspect, and you should be proud of your foresight as a journalist to be taking a lead.”

Sectioned was also able to put me in contact with spokespeople for mental health charities, and proved to be a vital source in our coverage of the AsylumNO campaign.

Sectioned would later congratulate Airgates and me personally on the story:

“Well done for breaking the story in the industry. Yours was the first journalistic coverage I’ve seen.”
“I’m very impressed with your story: lots of sources, balanced reporting, no needless sensationalising, no stigmatising language. Clearly you were being modest when you said you didn’t know much about mental health reporting. Well done!”
 And, of course, the Airgates team were very supportive.
True Stories
While gathering sources for this story, I spoke to a range of people with stories about how they were indirectly affected by the Asylum maze. It was impossible to quote them all.
For the first time, here is one such story:

I don’t want my name in any article. I have experienced mental health issues in the past and felt, first hand, the stigma that they invoke. Part of that stigma prevents people from seeking help. It prevented me. Until I attempted to commit suicide. Twice. I shared the opinion that people in mental hospitals were “nuts” but they were me and I was them. I was not “nuts”. I was ill. There is a huge difference.

Mental health sufferers have been increasingly stigmatised over recent years in a way that immigrants and benefit claimants are now the target du jour for the press and politicians. What mental health services need is a boost in funding so that they can provide adequate care. What is happening however is that services are being cut and then mental health sufferers are further vicitimised by society.

You ask how this has escaped attention for 8 years. That’s a good question. I think it’s because the work done by Rethink has gone someway to remove that stigma and by doing so they’ve made ordinary people realise that stigmatising mentally ill people is frankly as wrong as racism, homophobia, antisemitism and any form of intolerance towards a minority. I do think it’s a case that the time is right to say No.

It’s not a huge step to imagine that an organisation the size of Merlin has staff who have experienced mental health issues within its ranks.

You have to question how they’re demonstrating their duty of care they owe to their own employees if they make it harder for them to seek help if they have mental health needs.

The story goes on
Committed to covering every complex angle of this story, I kept contact with the key players in the debate and did my best to maintain an awareness of the twists and turns. The most notable was, of course, the decision by Dr Nuwan Dissanayaka, a psychiatrist, to take matters to the police: accusing Thorpe Park’s Asylum maze of being a ‘hate crime’.
He received a response.
He said that the letter from Surrey Police said they had spoken to Thorpe Park – and that Thorpe Park had backed down and agreed to change the name.
But Thorpe Park denied these claims:
Hi Michael
We’ve had no contact from the police who I understand are stating there is no case to answer.
As you know the attraction has now closed and, as we’ve clearly said, we have taken on board everyone’s feedback from all sides which will be taken into account during any 2014 planning.
Many thanks,

Zoe
Determined to get to the bottom of this, I contacted Dr Dissanayaka to ask for a copy of the letter. He agreed to share a picture with me.
…. However, this picture raised more issues than it resolved: was it a real letter from Surrey police? Did Surrey police really speak with Thorpe Park (if they did, why would Thorpe Park deny it?) and should Airgates publish the letter?
Dr Nuyan said that he had no issue with Airgates publishing the letter: but nonetheless the tough editorial decision had to be taken.

We judged that the letter was in the public interest. I typed it up word for word (including spelling mistakes) and made clear that its authenticity was not confirmed.

At the time, the decision was made not to publish the picture of the letter. For the first time, in a Through the Airgates exclusive, here is the original letter:

WP_000847
FIRST: Airgates publish the image of the letter for the first time.

The next stage was to set about trying to confirm the authenticity: starting with a call to Surrey Police, who confirmed:

On Sunday, 27 October Surrey Police received a report from a member of the public expressing concern about an attraction at Thorpe Park in Chertsey.

Runnymede neighbourhood officers have conducted enquiries into the report and have liaised with partner agencies and staff at Thorpe Park and have subsequently updated the individual who made the report.

This confirmed that Surrey Police had, indeed, contacted Thorpe Park. They went on to confirm the authenticity of the letter:

Surrey Police has been in contact with the person who reported this matter but any questions around changing the name of the attraction would have to be directed to Thorpe Park.

Many people disagreed with the decision to publish follow-up reports on Dr Nuwan’s letter: saying we were beating a dead horse. Of course, we valued this feedback –

PR Shutdown

Following these events, many were unhappy at the way Thorpe Park’s PR department handled the complaints and requests from journalists.

I have published, unedited* and in full, the e-mails I received from Zoe – who was Thorpe Park’s Head of Integrated Comms.

Hi Michael

We received the petition in person from #ASYLUMNO yesterday.  Here’s our statement – we’re not ignoring anyone, and have listened throughout to the debate it has provoked.

“This year’s THORPE PARK Fright Nights ends this Sunday and we want to assure everyone that has been in touch that we have listened to the debate it has provoked and do understand the depth of feeling that has arisen on both sides.    For us this has always been about a particular context – the Asylum maze forms just a small part of a larger adult aimed Halloween event and no offence was ever intended.    The petition was delivered to us this afternoon.   We will not be renaming the attraction this year but we do take their concerns and level of expertise seriously and will consider all the points raised when planning future events for 2014.”

Kind regards

Zoe

 

Hi Michael
Our Online team have just passed your details on.  Apologies for not getting back to you yesterday evening but I thought you had our response, and indeed that our PR company had been in touch.  Anyway, let me know how we can help.
All the best,
I asked Zoe for a response to the following questions:
1) Does TP [Thorpe Park] think Asylum attaches negative stigma to people with mental health problems? Why or why not?
2) What is stopping TP from retheming or removing the maze? Is it less easy than campaigners are making out?
3) How is TP acting on criticism, and are they considering changes?
Hi Michael,
Apologies you’ve had to chase.  Here’s our statement on The Asylum.
“We have listened to the feedback and respect the opinions of everyone who has been in touch.    However, these comments are not universally representative either of many of our guests who have given us very positive feedback, or of others working within the mental health sector.    This is primarily a matter of context.   Unlike the other examples (you give) the maze is not something you happen upon when out shopping.   It is set within a single closed environment and is a very small element of an event aimed at adult visitors – all of whom chose to visit, and have paid for entry to the overall event.    This maze is also in its 8th year of operation and is an obviously extreme and  simulated experience which draws on classic horror film content.   It is not intended, nor is it deemed to be by those who have actually experienced it, to be in any way offensive or to be a realistic portrayal of a mental health or indeed any other institution.”
All the best,

Zoe
People are saying Thorpe Park could ‘easily retheme the maze‘ in a few days.
Would this be as easy to do as they are suggesting?
Michael
Hi Michael,
It doesn’t come down to how easy this would be.  We just don’t believe that our guests find it offensive, so we’re not looking to change it.
Hope that helps,
Zoe

What can we learn from this story?

The best stories are well-sourced and impartial. Thorpe Park’s online team praised Airgates report, calling it “un-biased and objective”.

Mental health reporting is easy when you work with charities and affected individuals. I found sites such as Time to Change helpful: they always have a section with support for journalists.

Above all: maintaining the basic principles of accuracy, honestly, impartiality, sensitivity and opportunity to reply. We have published our code of practice here.

Notes

Prior to publishing, I sought permission from Dr Nuyan and Sectioned to publish private e-mails and messages and resurface this old story.

I did not seek permission from Thorpe Park.

* In order to prevent any individual attacks against staff at Thorpe Park, I have not included the full name of Thorpe Park’s head of Integrated Comms.

The statements from Surrey Police were crafted and sent to be published in 2013.

Next Week in Through the Airgates

‘Boltgate’: how we covered The Smiler’s bolt incident and the consequences of the story. Plus, the never-before-seen full interview with an ex-Oakwood employee who claims he and colleagues used to drop bolts to scare guests.