Media: I've decided to kill myself. Well, not really, I'm only joking

Is a `spoof' column about suicide in The Observer a breach of good taste?
  • @davidlister1
Suicide, it seems, is good for a laugh. Not since the mock solemn harmonies of the M*A*S*H theme tune informed us that it was painless has the act of taking one's own life been deemed the stuff of humour.

This time it is an in-joke, and in the most unlikely of places. The Observer, the paper in which the late Ruth Picardie poignantly chronicled her own last months before her death from cancer, now appears to have another columnist writing about death.

Two Sundays ago in a new column entitled "Time to go", columnist Richard Geefe started to explain from his hospital bed the pressures that had led him to attempt suicide. One pressure he did not name was that of anonymity. But this must have weighed heavily on Geefe, for despite being "an Observer columnist", no one could remember ever having come across him or anything he had ever written. Perhaps it says something about the superfluity of columnists that even people working in the media fail to be surprised at reading one they have never heard of before.

At first sight, the column looks genuine. At the top is a picture of Geefe, looking not at all suicidal, but well-groomed and a little like John Travolta. Below the picture by-line was a note to readers from Observer editor, Roger Alton (right). It said: "Last week, The Observer learnt that columnist Richard Geefe had attempted to take his own life. Despite his need for rest and medication, he insists that he continues writing and I have, after much thought, agreed. We will, of course, review the situation continually, in line with Richard's true interests. For The Observer, prurience is and will always be inexcusable. We have also agreed not to alter his work in any way, however uncomfortable it makes us feel."

It was not only Geefe's almost non-existent profile until his suicide attempt that cast doubt on the sincerity of the suicide confessional. There was also something about his prose. Far from being emotionally raw and depressive, it was a much too studied attempt at a Nick Hornby-style self-deprecatory humour, combined with a dubious linguistic prowess:

"For days, I lay in a waking paralytic hell. The ansamachine quacked with calls I would never return. I remember being vaguely intrigued by this since I'd chucked it in the fish tank to shut it up. Such destructive acts often rise from extreme paranoia - the drivelling sweaty foreman of bipolar disorder. But experts say I am categorically unipolar...

"I'd phoned my 12-year-old son for the first time in eight years in order to say goodbye. I was surprised to recognise his voice. `It's Dad,' I told him. After a short pause, he simply said: `Go away' and hung up."

The column is indeed a fake. The attempted suicide is an invention. The writer does not exist, though Roger Alton gave him a few weeks' worth of published articles before the suicide column to endow the idea with some authenticity. That failed to placate his own staff, however. A delegation wrote to Alton saying the column "violated the trust between the paper and its readers".

Yesterday, Alton, far from being deflected in his purpose, defended the "spoof" (he rejects that description) as a complex satire on confessional journalism and newspaper attitudes to it, as well as offering satirical observations on attitudes to suicide. It was, he said, in the tradition of Swift.

"People here get agitated because it's dealing with a harder core subject. I think that among the things Geefe is doing is taking an angle on confessional journalism, on relationships, on the media's ravenous hunger for confessional journalism and emotional extremities. Personally, as a commissioner of copy, I have always ruthlessly used that sort of material. I often find myself with horror saying to friends and acquaintances who have either got divorced or bereaved or had an accident or been in a plane crash or suffered any form of extreme experience: `Oh that's terrible, but don't forget, if you want to write about it give me a call.' Why shouldn't I have the piss taken out of me for that?"

Writing a column under a false name, and indeed creating a fake persona, is not unknown. The Independent launched the most famous, and eventually, most lucrative of them all when novelist Helen Fielding created her alter ago Bridget Jones. The bumptious Wallace Arnold in The Independent on Sunday was the work of humourist Craig Brown. And Brown was also responsible for The Guardian's chattering classes handwringer, Bel Littlejohn.

None of these could be said to have crossed the good taste threshold into an area that many readers would find painful, especially if they had considered suicide themselves or had a friend or family member who had taken their own life. "Time to go", written not by Craig Brown but by a much-respected leading writer, according to Alton, raises the hoary question of whether there should be any boundaries for humour. But in its very presentation it obscures that debate as the column is not presented as humourous, and the joke is to some extent played by the paper on its readers.

Suicide and all the reactions it provokes are ripe for a newspaper satire, Alton maintains: "Without wishing to sound too much like a pretentious twat, really good satire, good art, good journalism, can and should be disturbing. Swift's Modest Proposal, Byron's Don Juan, Look Back In Anger, even Gulliver's Travels, all got people as angry as heck. Why should anything be off-limits now? Or you have to think very carefully if you are going to put something off-limits. We are an intelligent paper, we can take an intelligent view on even the most difficult subjects. Suicide is a harsh subject, but there's no reason why it shouldn't have an angle taken on it. You could argue that suicide is one of the most cruelly aggressive acts around, devastating the lives of everybody left, though as I say, I do not believe that suicide is the main target of the pieces."

Then there is the most glaring irony of all. The Observer was the paper that carried the most touching and true examples of confessional journalism yet - Ruth Picardie's accounts of her last months alive. Alton bridles at the comparison: "This is absolutely not to do with Ruth Picardie or John Diamond. That is beautiful stuff. That is writing about death. This is writing about newspapers."

It is an argument that may prove a subtlety too far. In last Sunday's column, "Geefe" explained that he has vowed to take his life successfully in November. A cannier journalist with an agent would probably have decided that such a momentous decision needed to be pondered in print well into the next millennium.

But the likelihood is that "Geefe" will not even have until November to end it all. A reluctant mercy killing by his editor may take place well before the autumn.