The BBC3 documentary that broke all the rules on reporting suicide

Stacey Dooley's programme was ill-judged and offensive, says Chris Atkins.

One of the things you learn very quickly in documentaries, and in media as a whole, is that by covering a problem you can make it worse. “Car jacking” didn’t exist in the USA until the The Detroit News gave it that name after a single incident in 1991, after which it spread like wildfire. The reporting of mass killings can sometimes spark copycat incidents, especially if the news focuses too much on the killer and the gory details, rather than the victims. The tabloids gleefully labelling the alleged Aurora suspect “The Batman Killer” is a case in point. But the area where misreporting can do the most damage is suicide. In 2010 the police asked the media to stop covering the suicides in Bridgend as they (and others) believed that the coverage by the national tabloids was making things worse.

To address this problem the Samaritans have drawn up very simple media guidelines on the dos and don’ts of reporting suicide. The introduction makes it clear that:

Inappropriate reporting or depiction can lead to “copycat suicides” particularly amongst younger or more vulnerable audiences. Reporting details that can seem inconsequential and merely factual to some audiences can have a profoundly negative effect on others who might be more emotionally vulnerable.

Given this was written by one of the most respected journalists at the BBC, Jeremy Paxman, it may surprise some to learn that a recent BBC3 documentary seemed to break most of the guidelines in a single five-minute scene. The programme in question is called Japan, Fall of the Rising Sun, a documentary following presenter Stacey Dooley as she travels the world to see what effect the economic crisis is having on the young. My personal opinion is that it was shockingly bad taste to have such a sombre and serious subject approached in a lightweight “yoof” tone. What is not a matter of opinion was how the scene broke the Samaritans guidelines on reporting suicide numerous times.

From the Samaritans guidelines: Avoid labeling places as suicide “hotspots”

Exercise caution in reporting suicide locations

The section starts with Dooley in a car on the way to a popular Japanese suicide spot, telling the audience: “Right now I’m heading to a forest where people go to end their lives. Over the past twenty years thousands have come here to die.”

Don’t romanticise suicide or make events surrounding it melodramatic

As Dooley is guided up to the suicide hotspot she tries to inject some drama into her journey by turning to the camera with a faux scared look saying “I feel a little bit uneasy!”

Discourage the use of permanent memorials

Dooley then ghoulishly observes that there are many ominous white lines in the ground, which turn out to be trails left by people who have come to end their lives.

Avoid simplistic explanations for suicide

Avoid brushing over the realities of suicide

Dooley then turns to camera and ponders “you’d have to think about the kinda place you’d have to be in to come somewhere like this and think ‘this is my only way out’.”

Discourage the use of permanent memorials (again)

She then deliberately stumbles onto an area where there have clearly been many deaths “we’ve come across an old camp, the trees surrounding it are covered in writing” which her translator tells us read “they’re all dead, we’re all dead”

Avoid simplistic explanations for suicide (again)

She then tells us that “since 1998, in the wake of the slump, suicides have risen to over 30,000 a year.”

Discourage the use of permanent memorials (again)

Around the corner Dooley finds a small shrine on the spot where someone took their life.

She then proffers an observation which she seems to think might have saved hundreds of lives: “These people obviously weren’t totally alone because people have come here to put flowers, so perhaps if they’d have just…” and she shrugs as though this single thought could have eradicated Japan’s suicide culture. She then hugs her translator in a blatantly-staged show of respect, running completely counter to the belligerent and offensive nature of her presence.

Dooley’s insights are now unstoppable: “I think this is really important to have a real think about, because at home we’re all moaning, and saying, you know, the government, the economy, X, Y and Z, you know, things aren’t great, but I don’t think we’re seriously seriously worried that it could affect a whole generation at this stage, but what if our economy is in a bad way for 20 years?” (cut to shot of interpreter praying at the spot where someone ended their life) “so… it’s a real worry isn’t it? It’s a big thing.” Fortunately this documentary isn’t available in Japan so the family of the suicide victim on whose grave she delivered this banal monologue is spared hearing such crass nonsense from the place a loved one died.

Mercifully at this point she moves on, but the whole style and tone of the section also breached:

Don’t romanticise suicide or make events surrounding it melodramatic

The Samaritans guidelines request that if you are going to cover suicide there are some positive things you can include:

Encourage public understanding around the complexity of suicide

Expose the common myths about suicide

Include details of further sources of information and advice

None were included in Dooley’s program.

Misreporting suicide is common in the news and broadcast media as a whole, but the guidelines are there for a reason. Let’s use them.

Chris Atkins is a London-based film-director. He was the director of Starsuckers. For advice about the issues raised in this post, you can read more on the Samaritans website.


Stacey Dooley's documentary broke many of the Samaritans guidelines on reporting suicide. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.