Reporting suicide: Journalists must resist the temptation to make it a "better story"

As the reporting of Paris Jackson and Stephen Fry's suicide attempts has shown, the media has a chronic problem with the quality of reporting around suicide.

Suicide has been in the news a lot recently. Paris Jackson and Stephen Fry are the most recent high profile individuals to have their suicide attempts splashed all over the front pages. The standard of reporting has been pretty appalling - but then again, that's not very surprising, as the media has a chronic problem with the quality of reporting around suicide.

Four years ago, my dad went to a park bench in Southampton with his service pistol, and shot himself. He was a decorated soldier, who'd lost his life savings in the Madoff investment fraud. It's fair to say, a suicide as a result of the biggest fraud in history was a big international story. I think about 500 papers worldwide ran it. My family got a huge amount of calls from journalists. As a journo myself, it was weird to see a media frenzy over suicide from the inside.

With this level of media attention, I came across some truly unbelievable bottom-feeders. In a totally counter-intuitive sense, these came not from international media outlets; in fact, everyone who I dealt with from the national and international media was absolutely lovely. The real feeding frenzy for scraps came from the local press and their affiliates in my father's home town. Aside from a level of desperation and callous rudeness that came with every contact with them, a litany of broken promises, a tendency to misinterpret or misrepresent basic facts, treatment of my family which bordered on illegal harassment, and a bag of adjectives that would make a 19th century horror writer blush, I think what shocked me the most was the basic level of idiocy they displayed.

I'll give you a couple of examples.

The phone rings. I answer. Instantly, the women on the other end blurts out,

"Hiya I'm from the local paper, we're all terribly-sorry-about-your-ummm-dad, wondered if you would mind giving us some quotes for a tribute piece? The first thing we need for the tribute will be...umm how much money did he lose?" To which I replied,

"Do you mean tribute in the Roman sense then?" Tragically, she didn't get it. She then went on to ask a series of increasingly bizarre questions, including, my personal favourite, "Did your father have any enemies?" What? Sorry?! My dad was a soldier, not Batman.

When the story appeared, it started with "William Foxton's devastated son wept..." I remember being particularly offended because I'd been holding it together, dealing with all the media enquiries, and hadn't let myself cry yet. I called her, told her I appreciated she had a job to do, but would rather she didn't, you know, lie about it me in print.

"Oh, I thought it would make a better story..." was her reply.

Sigh. The other great moment was when a "PR guru" called to tell me that he could "make me a fortune from this story". I pointed out that I wasn't really interested in the money - and even if I was, I was aware that very few people pay for stories these days. He told me he could make the story "huge". I told him I'd already been in touch with the national and international broadcast media, and therefore the story couldn't get much bigger, to which he replied that he could make it "much, much bigger." I would like to know how. Once a story is on AP, BBC, Reuters, Fox and so on, the only way to make it bigger realistically is to beam it into space. Maybe he had great contacts at the Jodrell Bank observatory or in the Sh'iar empire or something. Needless to say, I turned down my opportunity to "make £££s!", but my refusal didn't stop him from bothering everyone else I'm related to in the middle of their private grief.

I wish I could say my experience didn't seem representative - but it absolutely is. Paris Jackson in particular has been the victim of a huge amount of negative coverage - the dominant media narrative has been that she's a "spoilt child", "acting out" - that the suicide was a "Cry for help". If you think the UK reaction was distasteful (including several front pages I suspect editors will live to regret), then the response in the US has been completely insane. According to Google news, there have been over a million pieces written, run, aggregated, re-aggregated. It's been liveblogged, blogged, discussed, dissected. Other celebs have rushed to comment. Her family have been bombarded with requests for comment. Hospitals have been besieged.

God knows what it feels like to be inside that bubble. The most common question is "Why?", but that's a question often that can't be answered, even by the person who has made a suicide attempt.

One thing I've been profoundly disturbed by in this whole situation, is the way there's been a huge gulf between how the narrative around Paris Jackson has developed and the way Fry's confession on stage of a recent suicide attempt has been reported. Fry has been lionised for his bravery in coming forward and talking publicly about the issue.  The reporting around Fry - national treasure that he is - is characterised by careful discussion of the issues, unpacking the complexity of the issues surrounding suicide, factors that contribute to the problem and challenging the stigma associated with emotional and mental health issues. That's the kind of reporting that we need  - but it's still strange to hold the two figures side by side and see how the media has dealt with both, often in the same publication..

Of course, the prime risk isn't upsetting the relatives, or what the individual might read about themselves, it's what the wider impact of reporting on suicide can do. It's been known for decades that sensationalist reporting on suicides or attempted suicides can cause more vulnerable people to see it - or particular methods of doing it - as an option. For example, a newspaper report in Hong Kong included a detailed description of a person who died by suicide involving the method of burning charcoal in a confined space. Within three years there was a dramatic increase in suicides using this method, with the number of deaths rising from 0 per cent to 10 per cent.

It's not as though the media in this country hasn't got a wealth of information on how to report suicide well - the Samaritans' guidelines are excellent. Yet we still see irresponsible reporting from publications which should know better - Ellie Mae O'Hagan's piece in the Guardian is a great deconstruction of the way benefit cut suicides have been sensationalised and irresponsibly reported. The audience wants closure, wants to fit the suicide into a broader narrative, to make it "make sense". Of course, suicides rarely make sense. They are almost always much more complex than they seem. Four years on from my Father's death, I still don't really know why he killed himself - and I never will.

As the Samaritans say, "People don’t decide to take their own life in response to a single event, however painful that event may be, and social conditions alone cannot explain suicide either. The reasons an individual takes their own life are manifold, and suicide should not be portrayed as the inevitable outcome of serious personal problems."

Narratively, that's not very satisfying, but it is responsible and true. To paraphrase the local journalist who spoke to me, there is always a temptation to make a suicide a "better story". It's a temptation that we as journalists should resist.

If any of the content of this story affects you, the Samaritans are available to talk 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Stephen Fry at the premiere of the latest Star Trek film in May 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?