One of the biggest stories in Britain over the past few weeks has been raging on our patch and every day seems to be filled with phone calls over the spate of suicides in Bridgend.
Monday is the first day in more than a month where we haven’t written the words ‘suicide’and ‘Bridgend’in the same copy.
We started reporting the story when Natasha Randall – the 13th victim in the chain – took her own life.
Since then we have reported on four more and spoken to other young people in the town who have attempted to end their lives. It has been very draining for all our staff here – even though every journo naturally wants to work on a big story.
On Tuesday, however, the Bridgend suicide story is back with us. Fortunately not another tragedy, just a crazy act of insensitivity at a school close to Bridgend. Pupils as young as 13 have been asked by their teacher to write suicide notes in their English class.
I am left scratching my head in disbelief when the local authority says the teacher didn’t make a connection with what has been going on just a few miles away.
Mind you, any journalist will tell you that insensitivity also operates in each newsroom. In the wake of all our suicides one so-called wag on one of the nationals has started calling us ‘Wales Noose…”
On Wednesday The Sun splashed in our edition with the story of the children asked to write suicide notes – then they get a ring-in from a reader about another outbreak of school madness.
This time pupils as young as 12 have been asked to plan their own funerals. Just two months after a 13-year-old at the school hanged herself. We speak to a mum who is fuming about it – especially after her daughter refused to do the funeral exercise and was given detention.
On Thursday we begin work on specials for the News of the World and the Sunday Express on different lines on the Bridgend suicides (yes, we are writing those words again).
It means speaking to many of the families of the 17 young victims. We get on well with many of them and treat them with as much respect and sensitivity as we can.
Throughout the events of the past month, South Wales Police has consistently maintained the suicides are not linked. Our work tells us very differently – we find links between 10 of the young victims.
We are and always have been big supporters of the police. But this situation in Bridgend has been an eye-opener. In my opinion, the police handling of the press has been the most inept and incompetent I’ve experienced in more than 20 years in the job.
The Assistant Chief Constable even blamed the media for the suicides – even though 13 had already died by the time we were involved. No doubt he meant it and intended it to dampen press coverage.
But he was very poorly advised, and rather than stopping the coverage it just poured fuel on the flames.
The story broke just after 4pm that Prince Harry is fighting in the front line. Trying to get anything much in the papers on wipe-out day is a big ask – so everyone goes to the pub early instead.
On Friday, as predicted, Prince Harry wipes out the first nine to 11 pages of the nationals and it’s back to Bridgend for three of our staff, I’m afraid.
The funeral is taking place of one of the victims today, and the inquest is being held on another. It’s on Zach Barnes, the youngster that troubles me the most because he looks a lot like my own son.
The inquest is told that Zach – at 17, an under-age drinker – had downed cans of cheap lager with his friends before he was found hanged.
As journalists covering this story have said all along, each of these 17 young people had their own, very different, reasons for taking their own lives. Very often a number of reasons.
As an agency, all we can do is report the suicides as they happened. The police asked us not to speculate in our reporting but when there are no apparent answers as to why this series of tragedies has descended on Bridgend, inevitably there will be speculation.
That’s part of a newspaper’s role. The police were speculating when they blamed the media.
Next week will be the 18th anniversary of me setting up Wales News Service with fellow hack Paul Horton. The Bridgend suicides have been one of our biggest stories in the past few years. But we just hope it’s over.