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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder