Joan Smith: An individual tragedy, but spare us the pictures

The anguish of anyone who knew Katherine Ward is not difficult to imagine
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The Independent Online

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Icarus ignores the advice of his father, Daedalus, and flies too close to the sun on wings made of feather and wax. The wax melts and Icarus plunges to his death in the Aegean Sea, inspiring generations of painters and sculptors - Pieter Brueghel, Rubens and Rodin among them - who have interpreted the myth either as a symbol of humanity's soaring aspirations or its propensity to over-reach itself.

As far as I know, no artist was on hand three days ago when a woman jumped to her death from the fourth floor of a London hotel, but this tragic and decidedly non-mythic event was captured by a passing photographer. Some of the pictures have appeared in newspapers over the past couple of days, although images of the "distraught" woman balancing on a narrow ledge and leaping to her death seem to have been considered too disturbing for the front page.

This is a very fine distinction. Two newspapers, the London Evening Standard and The Times, treated the story identically, publishing a colour picture of the woman, very much alive, on page one, while photographs of her suicide appeared inside without any warning to readers. The anguish of anyone who knew Katherine Ward, on being confronted with these horrifying pictures of her final moments, is not difficult to imagine.

In the age of Hello! and Big Brother, very few areas of life continue to be regarded as private. Two days ago, TV and radio news bulletins contrasted the jubilation of families in West Virginia who believed that their relatives had survived a mining disaster with footage of the same people, only hours later, responding to the news that all but one of the trapped miners had died. Grief has become a public spectacle, with news organisations making little distinction between the vicarious distress of crowds mourning the death of Princess Diana or Pope John Paul II and that of people who are genuinely bereaved.

In a voyeuristic culture, the few lines that continue to be drawn are inconsistent and arbitrary. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, newspapers were criticised for printing pictures of people falling to their deaths from the Twin Towers, even though most were blurred and unrecognisable.

The published pictures of Ms Ward were of good quality and showed her at a moment when she was "clearly seen to be distressed", according to one account. No newspaper went as far as publishing a photograph of her dead body, although it could hardly have been more upsetting than the images deemed suitable for publication.

After terrorist atrocities we are usually shielded from pictures of the dead, which is understandable when they might distress friends and relatives, as was the case after the 7 July bombings in London. I'm not so sure that we should be protected from exposure to the consequences of terrorist bombings in Iraq or Israel, both of which (disgracefully in my view) have armchair apologists in this country.

Suicide, however, is a special case. The Press Complaints Commission does not offer specific advice on reporting suicide but it is a subject that has been extensively addressed in recent years because of the risk of copycat attempts. The Department of Health's national suicide prevention strategy, published in 2002, highlights the need to "reduce sensationalism", while the Samaritans' guidance to journalists warns that recent research "strongly indicates that media representation can and does lead to copycat behaviour". It calls for editors to avoid "the use of dramatic photographs or images".

None of these guidelines is legally binding and editors are free to drive a coach and horses through them, as some did earlier this week. That doesn't relieve editors of moral responsibility, especially when most reported Ms Ward's death briefly and unsensationally. The fact that some newspapers apparently perceived a moral in Ms Ward's death is a very different matter, although it seems to have been behind the most tasteless coverage.

The clues are in the headlines. One asked starkly: "At 12.02pm this successful career woman jumped to her death in London. Why?" The only surprise is that they weren't joined by the Daily Mail, which has been telling women for years that they can't have it all.

As a divorced corporate lawyer, 52-year-old Ms Ward had the former but not the latter, confirming a host of prejudices about successful single women; she was vivacious, talented and wealthy, a high-achiever who literally fell from a great height. That doesn't alter the fact that she was a real person, not a character from myth, and I don't think we should be forced to become unwilling spectators of such individual tragedies by voyeuristic news values.