The coverage of Robin Williams’s death in some national newspapers shows not only that editors treat the PCC Code of Practice with contempt – there is nothing new about that – but also that they seem unable to learn from their mistakes, no matter what is at stake.
No editor can claim to be unaware that human lives are at risk here. Again and again in the past decade they have been told by the leading charities and campaigns in this field, including the Samaritans and MIND, that suicides can prompt copycat events and that the suicide of a celebrity is especially prone to doing so.
This means that, unless editors want to be responsible for the deaths of readers, they should take great care to report suicides with sensitivity and without dwelling on detail.
The history looks like this:
2006: The experts persuaded the industry to include a clause on this in the PCC Code of Practice in 2006 – but only after a particularly shocking instance of graphic portrayal of suicide.
2008: There was further alarm after the Bridgend ‘cluster’ affair and the message was driven home to editors again.
2010: The matter was revisited by the Commons media select committee, which concluded: ‘The PCC Code provides suitable guidance on suicide reporting, but in our view the PCC should be tougher in ensuring that journalists abide by it.’
2012: The importance of compliance with the code on this point was raised yet again at the Leveson Inquiry.
Yesterday: After the news broke of Robin Williams’s death, MIND says it sent not one but two reminders to newsdesks just in case all of those earlier messages had been forgotten or overlooked.
Yet still, after all of this, a number of national newspaper editors insisted on treating the death in a way that, in the judgement of MIND and the Samaritans, contravenes good practice.
MIND intends to complain to the PCC, presumably in relation to clause 5 of the Code, which states:
‘In cases involving grief or shock, enquiries must be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion. Publication must be handled sensitively at such times, but this should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings. When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.’
It would be wrong to repeat the content of the reports, notably those in the Mirror and the Star, but there can be very few people who would regard what they published as showing discretion and sensitivity. Nor did they show restraint in reporting details of the methods used.
Suicides should be reported, but as several papers were able to show today they can be reported with sympathy, sensitivity and discretion. And when the experts say that publishing crude details risks prompting further suicides there is no excuse whatever for editors who do so.
The Press Complaints Commission has failed on this as on so many other fronts. IPSO, designed and delivered by the same people with the same ends in mind, will be no different. What is needed is effective, independent self-regulation that will hold editors accountable when they behave in this irresponsible and crass way.