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
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.