The guidelines issued by the Samaritans say that media coverage of suicide should be "discreet and sensitive". The Times and the London Evening Standard last week published a photograph of a woman, Katherine Ward, in mid-fall to her death from a London hotel window ledge. The evidence points to it being a carefully planned suicide. Whatever might be said for and against publication of the photograph, discretion and sensitivity could hardly be the appropriate words to describe an image running from the top to the bottom of the Times news page.
The Sun ran a small version of the picture. The Daily Express published a picture of Ward on the hotel window ledge before jumping, but not the mid-air image.
A reader's letter to The Times published on Friday, one of 40 or so the paper received, said: "What possible public interest can be served by the publication of the disturbing photographs of Katherine Ward's suicide? Will they provide comfort to her family and friends? Will they assist those who witnessed the horror of the event?" The reader clearly thought not.
The Standard, which put the story on the front page in some late editions (earlier it was on page 19) also received many complaints, and the Press Complaints Commission received a few. Ward's family and friends were understandably upset by the photograph. The PCC code of practice states: "In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively."
There were no "approaches" in this case; we are considering whether publication was "handled sensitively". Had you known Katherine Ward, been a friend of hers, let alone a relation, how would you have reacted to seeing her in the newspaper, not many metres, a second or two, away from death? I think that if I came into neither of those categories, which is the case, I would still feel very disquieted by the picture.
The dead woman was a 52-year-old American-born lawyer who worked for Rolls-Royce. Colleagues were surprised and perplexed at the thought of her taking her own life. While she was preparing to jump, a photographer, Jon Bushell, joined the small group of watchers on the ground and took a series of pictures. These were made available to newspapers. The pictures were distributed by, and credited to, the Matrix picture agency. Whether Bushell had been a professional photographer or an amateur "citizen" photographer with some knowledge of how things work, the pictures would have reached newspapers. It is the decisions taken there, not by the takers or providers of the pictures, that matter, and are in the spotlight here.
The Times stresses that long discussion at a senior level preceded the decision to publish, which was not taken lightly. The picture editor, night editor and the editor himself were involved. The paper drew my attention to the fact that the mid-air picture was printed on a black and white left-hand page; indication of conscious restraint? The paper commissioned a feature on suicide - published the day after the mid-air picture - from a writer, Tim Lott, who had himself stood on a high ledge ready to jump but who had not gone through with the suicide. The feature spread over two pages, one of which was almost wholly taken up with the picture, this time in colour on a right-hand page, of Ward on the ledge before jumping.
Was the feature prepared as justification for publishing the picture, in the knowledge that there would be negative reaction? The early paragraphs - "image of Ward leaping to her death ... profoundly shocking ... a rarely captured moment of preserved and exhibited despair" - suggest justification of the editor's Wednesday decision. The paper talks of the importance of the issue of suicide and the need for discussion. That can take place without voyeuristic illustration.
Other papers decided not to publish the photograph, on grounds of taste and sensitivity. Personally, I have no problem with occasional lapses of taste in newspapers; sometimes it can be justified in terms of impact, reminding readers that the world is not always as we would want it. A deliberate decision to shock can be a useful part of the editorial armoury.
I worry, though, when there can be no convincing rationale for shocking or intruding, when providing the images represents no more than ghoulish entertainment. Contrived justification after the event only adds to those feelings of unease.
After the second impact by a second aircraft on the second tower of the World Trade Center had taken place, and been shown repeatedly on television, there was an interval, and then people high up the skyscraper starting jumping to their deaths, rather than die in the building. At the time decisions were taken by some broadcasters, such as the BBC, not to show these suicide pictures. It was a question of taste.
When al-Qa'ida bombed the railway station in Madrid, horrendous images were recorded by the cameras. Interestingly, severed limbs and mutilated bodies appeared on Spanish television. These images were not shown in Britain. Culture too determines what is permissible.
As so-called citizen journalism develops, with digital technologies allowing reasonable quality sounds and pictures to be captured by light, portable and cheap equipment used by any member of the public, then more "real life" (and "real death") images will be available to the media.
More decisions will have to be taken about what should be used. Those taking them should be driven by some basic standards, rather than the ability to think up some spurious post hoc justification. We have got used to, and they have got away with, tabloid public-interest defence for stories about the affairs and misdemeanours of the well-known and powerful. We all know these stories are there because they sell, and the "public interest" is no more than some of the public are interested. I cannot get too worked up about this branch of entertainment.
But intrusion, uninvited, into the personal agony or despair of someone with no public position or profile is disturbing. Is it to be permissible if it is "clean"? We would not consider publishing a picture of a mangled corpse after a motor accident; but it is acceptable to show the clothed and unbroken body dropping through the air to its death? Are there "wholesome" images and those that are not? The pile of washed-up drowned bodies on the beach after the tsunami? The still from the beheading video of a hostage? One form of death defensible to be set in front of our readers, but not another?
I do not seek rules about this sort of thing; we have enough of those. I simply hope that the people who take the decisions are sensitive about the impact on friends and relations and the wider public, and consider the dignity of the victims.
MediaWise, an organisation that campaigns for higher media standards, wants the PCC to harden its code in the area of reporting suicide. Suicide reporting is not a conventional part of journalism training, it says, but it should be dealt with.
MediaWise wants a specific clause in the PCC code and clear in-house policies on responsible coverage. I think the latter is much more important. Newspapers set their own standards; they do not need the PCC to do it for them. Or should not.
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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