Press Council makes historic ruling on suicide article

Áine O’Meara, Headline Programme Leader

The Press Council has upheld a complaint made by Headline against The Sunday Times on the detailed description of a Mountjoy prisoner’s suicide. This is the first time a complaint, under Principle 5.4 of the Press Council’s Code of Practice, has been deliberated by the Council. 


The complaint

In June 2018, The Sunday Times published an article on failings within the Irish prison service which contributed to the completed suicide of Prisoner J. At the time, Prisoner J was under special observation, having previously made several attempts at suicide. He later died by hanging in his cell. The Inspector of Prisons issued a report on Prisoner J’s suicide highlighting the poor level of supervision by prison officers and identified an error in allowing someone under special observation any item of clothing which could be used as a ligature.

Any failing of the state where a person’s life is unnecessarily lost due to negligence is a matter of public interest. Just two national newspapers covered this story, both well respected publications staffed by excellent journalists. Both newspapers quoted from the Inspector of Prison’s report and both highlighted the state’s failings already mentioned above. Just one, however, printed the exact method Prison J used to suspend the ligature. These were not conditions that could only be replicated in a prison cell. The elements included in the description could be found in any room in any house or building.

Eight words were all it took to describe in detail how Prisoner J killed himself and these were the eight words to which Headline objected. The other publication chose not to include this detail.   


What is Principle 5.4?

In 2015, Headline and Samaritans Ireland presented to the Press Council on the growing body of evidence on suicide contagion via the media, with 6% of completed suicides attributed to media contagion. Media contagion, also referred to as copycatting, is the imitation of a particular method of suicide or attempting suicide in a similar location to one highlighted in the media. Historical examples of this include the increase in suicides following coverage of Marilyn Monroe’s death, the 81% increase of railway suicides following German footballer Robert Enke’s death in 2009, and the 32% increase in suicides of a similar method following Robin Williams’ death in 2014[1].

In the summer of 2015 The Press Council adapted their Code of Practice to include guidance on avoiding excessive detail on suicide methodology. From the Press Council’s website, they say, “Freedom of the press carries responsibilities. Members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards. This Code sets the benchmark for those standards.”

There have been many complaints made to the Press Council over the years relating to suicide, generally on issues of sensitivity and privacy. Unlike other principles within the Press Council’s Code of Practice, the suicide methodology principle has little to do with causing offence or impinging on personal privacy, or even the truthfulness of a report. This principle is intended to safeguard against unintentional harm coming to vulnerable audiences. This can mean the difference between life and death.


National context

The National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) plays a pivotal role in driving the implementation of Connecting for Life, Ireland’s National Strategy to Reduce Suicide 2015-2020. Of this decision, NOSP says it “welcomes the ruling of the Press Council on this complaint. Reporting cases of suicide (or suspected suicide) within broadcast, print and online media presents unique challenges and always requires careful consideration of privacy and safety.” They also highlighted the “extensive evidence linking inappropriate media reporting with increased suicide rates. The NOSP actively supports the efforts of many partner agencies in this area, in particular the proactive work of Headline and Samaritans.”

Samaritans Ireland also welcomed the decision of the Press Council of Ireland to uphold Headline’s complaint. “Research has consistently shown links between certain types of media coverage of suicide and increases in suicidal behaviour among vulnerable people. Care should be taken when giving any detail of a suicide method,” it added.

John Saunders, CEO of Shine, a national organisation providing services to people affected by mental ill health, welcomed the decision by the Press Council. He added, “As a society, Ireland’s attitude toward mental ill health and suicide has come a long way over the last half century. Policies and practices that may have been seen as harmless in the past, are now being challenged by evidence-based approaches. Change can be difficult for some organisations and industries, and the media is not immune to those challenges. We are very glad the Press Council adopted this policy in 2015 and reaffirmed the media’s commitment to limiting harm to vulnerable people in 2019.”


Final word from Headline

The decision to make this complaint against The Sunday Times was not taken lightly.

The initial challenge to Principle 5.4 was always going to be difficult to navigate, for all parties involved. Between publication, mediation, and repeated appeals by the editor, we have spent eight months challenging the use of eight words.

We have every respect for the staff of The Sunday Times and for the invaluable work they do in bringing to light important issues affecting our society. We regret even more having to draw added attention to an article that we, and our national suicide prevention partners, know to be potentially harmful. We have no doubt that Principle 5.4 will continue to throw up difficult conversations in many newsrooms, and ultimately lead to difficult editorial calls. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people, and vulnerable communities in Ireland. It is therefore imperative that the press continue to report on any societal, infrastructural or governmental issue that may exacerbate unnecessary deaths. Our decision to proceed with this complaint was borne out of a respect for and belief in an industry that has the potential to save lives and impact society in a positive way.

You can read the full text of the Press Council’s decision here.

February 2019.

[1] Stack, 2003; Ladwig, et al., 2012; Fink, 2018