Press standards, privacy and libel - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by PAPYRUS

  PAPYRUS, the national UK charity committed to the prevention of young suicide actively engages media to communicate suicide prevention messages to many audiences. Working within recommended guidelines, we view all communication with media as an opportunity to encourage sensitive reporting.

Since its inception in 1997 the charity has been concerned about some aspects of media reporting of suicide namely:

    —  the fear of imitative suicides; and

    —  the intolerable intrusion into privacy which can result from inappropriate reporting of suicide in the media.

  Our concerns are based on:

    —  anecdotal evidence from PAPYRUS members;

    —  academic research and the views of academics;

    —  PAPYRUS press office experience dealing with media;

    —  evidence from other organisations; and

    —  the increasing use of the internet as a media outlet giving world-wide access for a greatly extended period of time.

  These areas of concern were reinforced during the intense period of media communication during the publicity given to a number of suicides in the Bridgend area of South Wales in 2008. As media coverage gathered momentum there were increasing examples of irresponsible reporting that both sensationalised and romanticised suicide.

  The media strategy put in place by the charity in the first three weeks following the disclosure included a call for cessation of media reporting, action by the press office to inform and educate journalists of the risks associated with inappropriate reporting and directing them to further guidance from within the industry.

  The charity felt morally bound to call for a cessation of media reporting as there were real fears that further suicides would ensue. Similar calls were made by South Wales Police and the Deputy Children's Commissioner for Wales. The phenomenon of suicidal contagion is well known and PAPYRUS felt that the cumulative effect of the ever escalating frenzy of reporting by all media—press and broadcast—could be counter productive to the prevention of suicide.


  In a review of its experience following this period of dealing with media, PAPYRUS acknowledged that there were positive examples of responsible reporting. However:

    —  where cases of attractive young girls were reported, the size of published photographs was substantially increased;

    —  reporting became increasingly "tabloid" in style across many newspapers—national and regional;

    —  the "Bridgend" story maintained prominence day after day—front page, bold headlines, minute details of method, photographs of suicide sites;

    —  many newspapers kept the story "alive" over a period of days, even when there was no "new" news;

    —  photographs and details of young men who had died in the preceding months were published over and over again;

    —  often storylines were speculative, especially regarding a connection between all the suicides and the internet;

    —  the word "Bridgend" was associated with the apparent suicides even though some of the victims did not live in Bridgend itself; and

    —  further apparent suicides occurred shortly after a peak of media frenzy, bereaved parents and police suggesting a direct link between media coverage and these deaths.

  In media discussions it was evident that:

    —  some journalists were unaware of the need to work within established media guidelines as recommended by the National Suicide Prevention Strategies for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland;

    —  several journalists said they had not considered the implications and expressed understanding and concern;

    —  in many media minds the interpretation of "excessive" detail was miles apart from what the charity believes is excessive;

    —  there was a lack of understanding that incessant coverage could contribute to more suicide attempts;

    —  the majority of journalists considered publication of photographs, method of suicide—and indeed location—essential to the story;

    —  judgement by many journalists was based on their personal reaction to news, revealing a lack of understanding that vulnerable young people could become severely distressed, suicidal even, by reading that another young person had killed themselves; and

    —  there was a lack of understanding by many of the importance of including sources of help for vulnerable readers, or those concerned about them.


  In 2006 the Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice Committee introduced a new sub-clause requiring that care be taken, when reporting suicide, "to avoid excessive detail about the method used".

Whilst acknowledging that this was an important move in the right direction we do not believe it is sufficient. Copycat suicide does not happen solely as a result of publicising detail of method.

  Following the "Bridgend" experience PAPYRUS met with both the PCC and the Secretary to the Code of Practice Committee. During these discussions we have called for the following to be considered and implemented.


  1.  "reporting suicide" be an entirely separate and new clause in the Code of Practice as distinct from Intrusion into grief and shock;

  2.  the current wording be replaced by: When reporting suicide care should be taken to avoid any detail that may contribute to copycat suicide, such as detail of method or location;

  3.  this statement be supported by detailed guidance notes for editors on the reporting of suicide—guidance notes similar to those already in place on reporting mental health issues (2006); and

  4.  the word "excessive" should be removed from the current clause and not incorporated into any future clause.

  We believe that a general statement—item 2 above—encompasses all the scenarios that may contribute to copycat suicide. The reference to "detail" in the statement could be defined/clarified in the guidance notes.


  We do not believe it is possible to adjudicate on what may be considered "excessive" in this context. For example: what may not be deemed to be "excessive" in itself—for instance the single word "hanging"—can be considered excessive if it appears in a prominent front page position, repeatedly over successive days.

We also believe that members of the Code Committee and PCC would benefit from expert advice when adjudicating on "excessive" detail. This could take several forms: specific guidance notes, the availability of expert advice during an adjudication and/or a training/briefing session for members.

  PAPYRUS has brought to the attention of the Code Committee two new areas of concern; namely a possible greater incidence of suicide in:

    —  children; and

    —  parents who murder their children before killing themselves.

  To date we have only anecdotal evidence, but PAPYRUS is concerned that these may be further examples of copycat suicides.

  Our proposed changes to the wording of the Code would ensure that these issues are covered.

  Similarly there has been concern regarding potential reporting in the UK of the burning of barbecue charcoal as a suicide method. Reporting in the Far East—where it first occurred—resulted in a massive increase in suicide using this method. Simply mentioning the method would be giving "excessive" detail in this instance.


  PAPYRUS is in the unique position of representing parents and other family members who have lost a young person to suicide. Their stories are always tragic, often harrowing. Time and time again they speak of intrusive media behaviour both at the time of the death and/or when the inquest took place.

Often, caught off guard, they divulge details which, further into their bereavement journey, they would not have disclosed. Sometimes these surface again as journalists report further incidents. They are bewildered by the fact that their child's photo is published—no permission has been sought. The photograph may appear at some future date attached to another story. Photographs of grieving parents, for example attending inquests, may compound the grieving process.

  No-one who has not experienced the loss of someone to suicide can fully understand the repercussions to families of insensitive reporting.

  In principle the Press Complaints Committee's mission to encourage and educate journalists to report sensitively is commendable and it is effective to a degree.

  However it is unrealistic to believe that self regulation within the industry alone can achieve the goal we all desire.

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Prepared 23 February 2010