Sunrise controversy: Did the hosts mock mental illness?

At 6.26am this morning, the hosts of Sunrise made flippant, mocking remarks about mental illness on national television. They should have known better. They should have chosen their words more carefully. They should have upheld their social responsibility to report on mental illness with integrity and sensitivity.

Because there is simply no excuse for speaking about something so important, so casually. With hundreds of thousands of people watching.

Here’s the backstory:

Yesterday, The Australian printed a series of leaked emails from 2011. In those emails, the former boss of Sunrise, Adam Boland, strongly suggested that David Koch, news reporter Natalie Barr and former co-host Melissa Doyle lose their jobs. He thought they should be replaced by Matt White and Kylie Gillies. The emails were addressed to then head of news and current affairs, Peter Meakin, and several other Channel Seven executives.

The item was picked up by many news organisations, including A Current Affair who did a follow-up story on it last night, noting that Mel Doyle did indeed lose her job last year, to be replaced by Samantha Armytage, but Natalie Barr and David Koch managed to keep theirs.

Obviously, this didn’t go down well with Koch, who devoted a segment to discussing it this morning. The video has since been circulated online by Sunrise, called ‘Kochie responds to axing claims’. You can watch it here.

At around the 1 minute mark, Koch explains that the emails in question came from a man who no longer worked for the show, which is true. Boland was not working directly on Sunrise at the time he sent those emails. He is, however, the man who made Sunrise a hit. He revolutionised breakfast TV and gave the Sunrise team their fame in the first place. He is widely credited with creating the ‘phenomenon’ that was Mel and Kochie.

At this point, Samantha Armytage rolls her eyes and says, “I cannot believe that we have given this [story] more airtime. It’s such a big steaming pile of poo.”

But “big steaming pile of poo” is not the worst sentence uttered during this segment.

This is: “That email was in 2011 from a bloke who had moved on and saner heads prevailed,” Koch said.

Armytage and Barr agreed in chorus: “Much more sane minds stepped in,” added Barr. “Of course they were more sane,” chimed in Armytage.

Huh? Clearly the use of that word was pointed. And mocking. What were the hosts trying to say?

Adam Boland.

Adam Boland has lived with bipolar disorder for many years. In last night’s episode of Australian Story on the ABC, Boland spoke openly about his behind-the-scenes suffering, his suicide attempt, and the times in his career that he’s been admitted to psychiatric care, including as recently as January this year. The show featured brave, poignant interviews from Boland, his mother, his partner, and several former colleagues – all of whom agree that Boland is a spectacular, if troubled, talent.


This is not the first time Boland has talked about his mental illness. The Sunrise hosts all know about his diagnosis and they’ve worked closely with him for almost a decade. In fact, Koch owes a great deal of his success to Boland.

And yet this morning, they each chose to insult Boland in a very personal way – by mocking his mental illness. They sat on that velvet grey sofa together, looked down the barrel of the camera, and implied that the people who took over from Boland were “more sane” and had “saner minds”.

The only redeeming part of this story is that since the segment aired, they seem to have realised they got it wrong.

Koch and Armytage have both publicly apologised for their slip-up via Twitter. Armytage even revealed that her grandfather lives with bipolar disorder.

The current executive producer of Sunrise, Michael Pell, told me this morning: “We’re sorry for the unfortunate turn of phrase. It was totally unintentional. We would never make light of mental illness. We have a responsibility to cover issues like this with sensitivity and we do not take that responsibility lightly.”

Yes, Michael Pell, you do have a responsibility to cover issues like this with sensitivity. A responsibility the hosts of Sunrise shirked this morning, and that’s shameful. To imply that Adam Boland’s sanity was not intact when he worked at Channel Seven – the morning after his deeply personal Australian Story aired – is inexcusable. No matter how many apologies you issue.

When it comes to mental illness, language is everything. Journalists are trained to cover mental illness with extreme caution and integrity. It’s not hard to do. Speaking about mental illness in the right terms is a professional requirement in the media. And if you’ve been working on morning television for years, like these hosts have, then you do not simply make these mistakes.

The wink-wink-nudge-nudge emphasis each of the hosts placed on the words “sane” and “sanity” was no accident.

Choose your words better next time, Sunrise team. And be leaders when it comes to talking about issues surrounding mental illness.