November 6, 2009

THE BRITISH Press Complaints Commission has received 70 complaints about the publication of a large picture of a man who took his own life by hanging on the front of Northern Irish editions of this weekend’s Sunday World. 

The newspaper’s Northern Ireland editor, Jim McDowell, has defended his decision to publish the photo but apologised if it caused any distress. He said yesterday it was in the “public interest” to publish it. The body of the man was discovered at about 8am on Saturday suspended by a rope from a bridge at the Springhill flyover in Bangor, Co Down.

The area was closed to traffic for a number of hours although the man’s body was visible for some three hours before it was cut down and taken away.

The PSNI said it did not believe there were suspicious circumstances to the man’s death.

Mr McDowell’s decision to publish the image under the heading “Grotesque” in the Northern edition of the Sunday World dominated radio and television reports and chat shows in Northern Ireland yesterday. Some callers suggested the publication of the picture helped highlight the problem of suicide, although most expressed revulsion.

Mr McDowell justified publication of the picture on the basis that it took three hours for the body to be removed.

“I took the decision to run this picture because this poor man had been left hanging in public view for such a long time. It wasn’t meant to be voyeurism,” he told BBC Radio Ulster presenter Stephen Nolan’s programme.

The report was in the “public interest”, he said, adding that the man was not identifiable from the picture. “That is what newspapers do. They lift stones and they look underneath the stones and they publish the stories,” he said.

“I apologise if relatives of deceased people who took their lives are hurt or distressed by this,” he added.

Mr McDowell later said that if he had the choice again, he would not publish the picture.

The police said the victim’s body was removed as soon as it was possible to do so. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott said he was “deeply shocked” by the publication. “I believe our watchwords, both in the media and as the police service, should be compassion and kindness and I would not support the publication of photographs of that distressing nature,” he said.

The British Press Complaints Commission code on publishing stories about suicides states that editors “must both publish with sensitivity and avoid excessive detail”. It also refers to the danger of “social contagion” or “copycat” suicide cases.

“Research has demonstrated that media portrayals of suicide – as in news reports or fictional TV or films – can influence suicidal behaviour and lead to multiple imitative acts, particularly among the young,” the commission states.