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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.