When Channel 4’s Lonely Planet travel series was sold off to the US, presenter Neil Gibson found himself considering what to do next. Social work didn’t seem the obvious choice, but… Vern Pitt reports
“In Peru we were doing a bit of filming when these red laser dots appeared on the crew, like gun sights. That was quite scary,” recalls travel TV presenter turned adult protection social worker Neil Gibson. So what’s more dangerous, filming in the dark corners of developing nations or social work in Aberdeenshire? “It’s about 50/50,” he says. “The situations I have been [more] uncomfortable in have been related to social work, not travelling.”
Gibson’s conclusion echoes the findings of research published by Community Care earlier this month which revealed nine out of 10 social workers had experienced violence or abuse while on duty. “In social work you have got to be aware of the situations you are putting yourself in,” he says. In that respect social work is just like making documentaries in the jungles of Nicaragua or the mountains of Pakistan, he adds.
Gibson presented five episodes of Channel 4’s Lonely Planet before the franchise was sold to a TV company in the US which used its own team to produce it. He describes his time on the show as a dream job and say it was a shock when it finished. “For the first three years after that I was searching for what my role was,” he says.
Uninterested in presenting game shows, he looked for a new career. His father was a lecturer in social work but had never really promoted the career. But when Gibson expressed an interest his father suggested he speak to some social workers.
“I talked to a couple of people in child care social work and they really enjoyed it. Children’s social work is always sold in the media as the hard end of the job and I was meeting people who were enthused about it,” he says.
Having worked in the media Gibson says he’s well aware of how superficial, and often negative, portrayals of the profession come about. “One of the crew that I worked with used to call making the TV show ‘stealing souls’. You would go in, get what you need, and leave,” he says. The media treat social work in a similar way, he adds, turning up to write about scandal without researching the complexities of the problems.
Other experiences from his travelling have also informed his social work practice. “The first programme I did for Lonely Planet was in Pakistan and we went to a leper hospital which was run by a German nun,” he recalls.
“The attitude of the crew filming was that they didn’t want to touch the lepers. She was reassuring us it was fine and that you can shake hands with a leper without catching leprosy and so I wasn’t afraid. That experience stuck with me. It taught me to use the knowledge I’m given from the experts in that field.” This includes listening to fellow professionals such as doctors and lawyers, he adds.
Gibson says he is lucky to have been able to combine his new career with his love of travelling and completed a placement in Belgium working with asylum seekers when qualifying as a social worker. He says from his experience that the UK is ahead of other countries in many areas but feels there’s a lot of red tape to navigate and this can stifle creative problem-solving.
Today, after four years in the profession, Gibson heads Aberdeenshire’s adult protection team. He says adult protection is 10 years behind its counterpart in children’s services, but says progress has been steady.
Making those improvements may be tougher than trekking through jungles, and no less dangerous, but Gibson has no regrets that he has made the right choice. “I’m happier now I’m a social worker than I was when I was a TV presenter,” he says.
Neil Gibson’s worst moment in social work
“I was working with a drug user who was supposed to be paying his father’s care home fees, but he wasn’t. He asked me to help put this money in a safe until he took it down to the bank to pay the fees. When I went round to his flat there was another drug user there and I felt really uncomfortable about being alone in this house with these two men and a pile of money. There was the potential for accusations I was stealing. I just had to leave.”
This article is published in the 27 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading From TV presenter to adult care team leader