by Michelle Gribbon
Leading mental health charities, Mind and the Samaritans, were quick to voice their criticism of the lurid headlines in some of Wednesday’s newspapers following the suicide of Robin Williams.
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said:
“We’re disappointed by reporting and headlines in many of today’s newspapers which contravene good practice set out by Samaritans guidance and Mind’s own advice”.
Sophie Borromeo, Director of Communications at Samaritans said:
“The media has come a long way over the past few years in terms of sensitively reporting suicide, which is why we are concerned to see that there have been a large number of articles detailing unnecessary information about the nature of Robin Williams’ death. We are taking steps to address our concerns.”
Both organisations had sent out media briefings ‘strongly advising’ all news desks to follow their guidelines on the responsible reporting of suicide. Based on their own extensive research and experience of how suicide coverage can impact on vulnerable people, they specifically asked newspapers to:
– Be mindful that celebrity suicides have a higher risk of encouraging copycat behaviour,
– Avoid explicit details of the suicide method
This advice was entirely in line with the Editor’s code of practice which is supposed to bind all newspapers. Clause 5 states that any intrusion into grief or shock should be handled sensitively and that ‘when reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used’. Both the Code and the specific advice circulated on the day were ignored by The Daily Star, The Sun, The Daily Mirror, Metro, Daily Mail and Daily Express.
Few would object to the factual reporting of his means of death by hanging. But the graphic descriptions in those newspapers, their front page prominence and the speculation about reasons for his suicide were clearly in breach of the Code. Public anger was evident on Twitter, in blogs, and in comments below newspaper articles.
This grossly insensitive approach is particularly ironic given that the PCC introduced the sub-clause which was flouted, following a particularly gratuitous and graphic portrayal of suicide in The Sun and Evening Standard in 2006.
In the press release issued at the time by the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, its chairman Les Hinton (then Executive Chairman of News International) said:
“During our annual review, we received convincing evidence, from the Samaritans and others, that media reporting of suicide often prompted copycat cases. It is an international phenomenon….We have attempted to minimise that risk – while maintaining the public’s right to know – by emphasising the need for care to avoid excessive detail, unless it is in the wider public interest to give the information.”
To emphasise maximum awareness, he promised that the Society of Editors would print and distribute 30,000 copies of the new Code, in wallet-size format, to Britain’s journalists.
Perhaps those 30,000 copies got lost in the post. Two years later the PCC was back in the spotlight following coverage of a spate of suicides in and around Bridgend, South Wales, involving people aged under 27. Numerous complaints were made to the PCC about the accuracy of reporting, the extensive and repeated use of the victims’ photographs, the headlines, the descriptions given of the suicide methods used and the various attempts to link the suicides in a ‘death cult’. The PCC acknowledged the distress caused, but found no newspaper at fault. It was subsequently criticised by a House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry which stated that:
“The PCC Code provides suitable guidance on suicide reporting, but in our view the PCC should be tougher in ensuring that journalists abide by it. The experience of Bridgend shows the damage that can be caused if irresponsible reporting is allowed to continue unchecked; the PCC needs to monitor the conduct of the journalists and the standard of coverage in such cases.” (Paragraph 396)
In response to the Select Committee recommendations, the Code Committee’s Chair – Paul Dacre – published a briefing in the 2011/12 editors code handbook (three years after the irresponsible coverage of the Bridgend suicide reporting). In his foreword to the Codebook, Dacre wrote:
“..though [the Bridgend tragedy] was a legitimate subject to address, issues of insensitivity arose. We have addressed those here in the Codebook, with important new guidance that highlights press activities that can cause unintentional distress and shows how editors can avoid this not just by following the Code but by discretionary measures, too.”
Paul Dacre is still the Chair of the Editor’s Code Committee and is still the Editor of the Daily Mail, the newspaper which receives more complaints than any other via the PCC. Looking at the Daily Mail’s coverage of Robin Williams’s death, it does not appear that Paul Dacre is willing to follow his own advice. No helpline numbers appeared in the newspaper edition.
It is even more astonishing that Bob Satchwell, Executive Director of the Society Of Editors, did not see any failings in press coverage.
On Radio 4’s Media Show on Wednesday, he claimed to see no evidence of excessive reporting:
“Over the years we have worked very closely with the Samaritans mental health charities and accept all those points… ‘I went through the Samaritans media guidelines and ticked off where issues might have been and found no real specific detail…I can detect in the tabloids I’ve looked at that they’ve looked at this, very, very carefully, in a very positive way.”