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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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.