Deborah Orr: When the subject is suicide, reporting on it requires the utmost sensitivity

Saturday 26 January 2008 01:00

There has been a great deal of reporting about suicide in the press this week. There has been speculation about the tragic death of the actor Heath Ledger. There have been background reports about the trial of John Hogan, who jumped, with his two children in his arms, from a hotel balcony in Crete, killing his son. Most disturbingly, there has been fanciful elaboration about a cluster of suicides among young people in Bridgend, South Wales, including lurid suggestions that they may have been part of an "internet suicide cult". Yet what seems to have been lost this week is awareness that the reporting of suicide is a very sensitive business in itself.

The MediaWise Trust, which promotes responsible journalism, offers good advice on how suicide can be reported carefully. It is important to do so, because it is well documented that, unless it is assembled with caution, media coverage of suicide can itself promote fatal self-harm. For example, there were 22 suicides on the Vienna underground after a single case was exhaustively and sensationally covered in 1986. The figures fell dramatically after the press voluntarily agreed to limit coverage.

The trust advises that "sensational headlines, images and language" should be avoided in the coverage of suicide, not only out of respect for grieving relatives, who tend to find the invasion of their privacy deeply unhelpful, but also out of an understanding that imitation is a genuine hazard. The suicides of a shocking number of young people in a brief period of time in one location may be newsworthy. But it is pretty paradoxical that the internet is being openly discussed as a trigger for the spate, when any form of communication that brings suicide to wide prominence, can usher in the same results. Weird "spikes" in suicide patterns are not rare. A tiny village in Northern Ireland suffered the suicides of three teenage boys in 2007, while a Staffordshire village with a population of 5,000 also recently lost six people to suicide in a year.

Such spikes, more than anything else, stand testament to the insidious suggestibility of hearing about a suicide. The suicide of a friend or of a family member is well understood to be one of the most major triggers for attempted suicide, alongside, mental illness, drug or alcohol dependence and a record of previous attempts.

Widespread reporting of, and speculation about, a cluster of suicides is understandable. The subject is grotesquely fascinating and, of course, we are likely to be drawn towards reports of suicides by people we do not know, and feel sympathy but not real grief for. In the case of Hogan, there has been a lot of talk about his situation and background, some of it extremely dubious and even spiteful.

MediaWise advises that "prominent figures are entitled to privacy, even if they kill themselves", and says that speculation about the cause of a death or the events leading up to it should not be entered into. In Ledger's case, that guidance has most certainly not been followed, even though a big story about a single suicide can have disturbing consequences. In Australia, a 1995 study found rates of male suicide increased after a suicide was reported, with attempts peaking three days after the first report.

In both the US and Britain, young male suicide has been on the increase for many years, and doubled between 1971 and 1998. Men make up 75 per cent of suicides, and suicides among young men are still increasing. Interestingly, the US and Britain are almost the only countries to have recorded a strong disparity between genders, with the suicide rate almost halving for women over the same period that it almost doubled for men.

It is tempting to attribute such figures to the huge changes in gender roles, especially as the men most vulnerable to suicide tend, statistically, to be working in low-skilled employment or not working at all. Yet even these figures don't respond well to glib analysis. Many more women attempt suicide but tend to opt for "unreliable" methods such as overdoses. Men are more likely to choose a method that is more violent and more decisive. All of this is worth bearing in mind as we absorb speculative coverage of suicide reports of all kinds.

* In Norway, which has a low suicide rate but has experienced a rise in male suicide that prompts comparison with Britain and the US, the media is forbidden from reporting on suicide at all.

This is an extreme measure, as reporting on suicide, responsibly undertaken, can be positive. All those who champion the freedom of the press need to keep this under consideration.

Incompetence is reason enough to quit

It is a very good thing that Peter Hain has bowed to the inevitable and resigned from his post as Work and Pensions Secretary. I am not sure if he is going to be able to "clear his name", though, even if he does prove that he entered into no deliberate conspiracy to hide donations to his Labour deputy leadership campaign. One aspect of the case I have found worthy of note is the huge emphasis that has been placed on his integrity and the small emphasis that has been placed on his efficiency.

I am not saying that the former is not important. But, intentionally or unintentionally, Mr Hain was so profligate with money that was given to him that he didn't even know he was spending huge amounts to little effect. I cannot help thinking that this should be considered as much of a hindrance to high office as dishonesty. The evidence of the past 10 years is that, if there's no sleaze involved, you can spend as much as you like, as unwisely as you like. Yes, politicians ought to be clean. But surely we can find a few who are good at running things too.

* I'm a little confused about the playwright Alan Bennett's declaration that "the fact that you can buy advantage for your children seems to be wrong". As a champion of grammar schools, he should understand they tend to have the same negative effect on other schools in the areas in which they still exist as the private schools he wants rid of, whether money changes hands or not.

But I am also worried about where such directives end. Is it now wrong to send your tiny daughter to the crushingly inevitable but usually short-lived ballet class? Is it now wrong to let your son have guitar lessons? Are you a bad parent if you buy swimming instruction at the local pool instead of waiting for their primary to book a term of lessons in Year 4? Is it immoral to instruct them on natural history at a zoo? Is it wrong to press The Alan Bennett Diaries on them? We need guidance.

Bond and reality don't mix

I admit I'm excited already. The name of the next Bond film has been announced, and it is A Quantum Of Solace. The title is pleasingly elaborate and refers to a phrase used by a dinner companion of Bond's, who explains to him that a couple's relationship is over when there is no longer "a quantum of solace" to be had from the union.

The conversation alerts Bond to the awful realisation that not a person in the world ever offers a quantum of solace to him, and a crisis of confidence is unleashed. Daniel Craig's own mission, of adding seriousness and psychological depth to the Bond character, is clearly going to be advanced by some way in the new film. That is a good thing because he is a gifted enough actor to be able to do it with real conviction.

But one does have the sneaking worry that there is no going back for a secret agent when he has suffered such a piercing blow of a revelation, which is a shame, since Craig's Bond is intriguing enough to go on for a few movies yet. But what will be the title of the Bond film after this? Retraining As A Prison Officer? I'm not sure the Bond Brand can bear quite this much reality.

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