An MP has accused the media of taking ‘the easy route’ when covering the Bridgend suicides and reporting ‘an internet death cult that didn’t exist’.
Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon spoke at a Press Complaints Commission debate on reporting suicide at the London School of Economics yesterday, after the Welsh town became the focus of press attention earlier this year following a series of youth deaths.
Yesterday, the PCC rejected a complaint made by Moon on behalf of some of the affected families over a Sunday Times Magazine article featuring a large picture of a noose.
Moon said journalists covering the suicides in the region were too preoccupied with gathering information from individuals’ Facebook and MySpace pages and had failed to carry out a deeper analysis of the issues behind the deaths.
‘The big issue for me was always that the easy route was taken. The really anger-making issue was the media went after the individuals rather than going after the bigger story,’she said.
‘If that [analysis] had actually been what the reporting had done, rather than publishing details of what people had written on their Facebook accounts and starting an ‘internet death cult’ that didn’t exist, then I think it would have been far more constructive.”
Moon added: ‘The taking of photographs from the social networking sites and the using of those in press coverage was quite a distress for the family, who often hadn’t seen the photographs ever before.
‘One newspaper had a ‘click here for slideshow’ and you could see the photographs of all those who died. When I talked to a senior editor at that newspaper, he was so horrified he had it taken down.”
Samaritans public affairs manager Anthony Langan agreed that there seemed to be a lack of sensitivity and understanding in some of the media’s Bridgend coverage.
‘While there is a genuine desire to report on a public interest story, I think there is a lack of knowledge about the potential for these actions to promote suicide,’he said.
‘I think what we saw in Bridgend is that there was probably a lack of understanding that some of the reporting was going to prolong the suffering of families.”
News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis argued that journalists were right to challenge the assumptions made by local police that the suicides were not linked.
‘Part of the problem with Bridgend was that the police tried to bury their head in the sand about it. They insisted that they were not linked in anyway,’he told the audience.
‘There is a public interest issue about sudden deaths – the day we stop these being examined is going to be a poor day for the media.”
He also responded to a comment by Madeleine Moon that the Welsh police were unaware of the Press Complaints Commission mechanism and how they could have used it.
“It’s a serious issue, the fact that they don’t know how to do something so widely publicised and well-known as that,” he said.
London School of Economics professor Sonia Livingstone said the media often ‘over-dramatised’stories about suicide without looking at the broader psychological issues.
‘Suicide is never simple and the explanation is never simple, and yet reporting of suicide can be very simplistic,’she added.
PCC director Tim Toulmin – who is preparing to send a briefing note to journalists with further details on ‘best practice’– said there was no clear consensus on how freely the press should report on suicide.
‘Some people think there should be no reporting of suicides at all,’he said.
‘Others think it should be more strictly regulated than other stories about death. Others will say that there should be no restriction because any restriction amounts to censorship.”