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
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.