Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Sensitive reporting can be a matter of life and death
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The Independent Online

It's one of the most poignant yet compelling stories of the year. Fourteen young people have died, apparently committing suicide, in the small and unremarkable South Wales district of Bridgend. The latest case was last week, when Angie Fuller, an 18-year-old bride-to-be, was found dead at her home. You need hardly be surprised that newsdesks have not allowed facts to get in the way of a good story – and many have been busy concocting lurid theories of their own. One favourite is that the deaths are linked to a cult promoted through the internet chat site Bebo. "'Suicide cult' may have claimed a new victim", said 'The Daily Telegraph'; "14th suicide in death town Bridgend", reported the 'Mirror'. 'The Mail' declared: "14th teenager found hanged in suicide town".

Headlines such as these have enraged the local MP, Madeleine Moon, who says that media coverage of the deaths is exploiting young people and creating a "copycat effect". She's furious at descriptions of Bridgend as a "death town" or "suicide town". "Talking about 'suicide cults' is disgraceful," she says, "and creates an additional risk for young people." But at least Wednesday's sober headline in 'The Independent' – "Suicide not linked to teenage deaths" – was spot on for accuracy. Police have made it clear that they think the deaths are not related, and the Bridgend coroner has described them as "purely coincidental". An earlier 'IoS' report included details of helplines, including the Samaritans.

But isn't the MP overstating her case? It's unrealistic to expect newspapers not to be interested in what is undoubtedly a very unusual phenomenon. Surely it is their job to raise questions about influences on young people that parents may not understand? And does the label "suicide town" differ from any other tag?

The Press Complaints Commission thinks it does. It recently tightened up its rules on reporting suicide, arguing that it raises special issues for journalists. It became concerned after a Wigan newspaper reported on an inquest into the death of a local teacher who had electrocuted himself. His wife argued successfully that it could influence his pupils to do the same.

The Editor's Code of Practice now has a new clause prohibiting the use of "excessive detail" in reporting suicides, influenced by a major study from the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University which looked at media reporting in 20 countries. It found that "copycat" cases after newspaper reports of suicide are a huge, international phenomenon. Most alarmingly, romanticised portrayals of suicide as a "tragic or heroic act by someone who has everything to live for" are specially likely to encourage imitators.

Louis Appleby, the Government's mental health czar, says: "Simply reporting on suicides can lead other people who are already suicidal to take their own lives. How you choose to report it can potentially save people. Suicide is complex, so it is misleading to suggest a simple cause-and-effect explanation."

Instead of fretting about suicide cults and chatroom death pacts, we journalists should look at our own influence on the tragic events in Bridgend.

Message Board: Has the Conway affair damaged Parliament?

The downfall of MP Derek Conway engaged readers in an online debate of their own about the state of the House of Commons:

Les Corrin

The problem with Mr Conway and other MPs is that they see Parliament purely as a career. Politicians today do not have the underlying emotional altruism which makes a great politician, one who is there to benefit his country.

Paul James

In this era of celebrity there seems to be an obsessional appetite by the media to turn even those with the most appalling behaviour, for example, Derek Conway and his family, into experts and celebrities of some description.

Frank Bolton

Mr Conway was well aware of the salary payable to an MP when he stood for Parliament. No one is obliged to stand as an MP. His option was, and remains, to get a job that pays more.

John Dunion

This man typifies every sneak thief. After a while they begin to think that they can get away with anything and eventually they come to believe that what they are doing is OK.

William Alexander

In the not too distant future a CEO of a city bank or insurance company, not up on the ethical way to do business in the city, will require an adviser. Step forward one Mr (possibly Sir) Derek Conway... Honourable Gentleman.

Ian

I think it's time our political system was scrapped and we started again. I'd scrap all MPs and move towards a Citizens' Parliament, all taking turns to represent our communities for four years or so. It works for juries.

Ray Cobbett

It's time to ask what MPs are for. With the entire state apparatus run by ministers and civil servants, the only real role is advocacy on behalf of the people who elected them.

James Hilton

The old adage about paying peanuts and getting monkeys is all too true, as one glance at the benches shows. The solution? Pay serious money and attract serious talent. UK plc would benefit.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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