The Australian media has a long established protocol which suppresses the reporting of suicide. The rationale is to limit so called ‘copy cat’ suicides by vulnerable people. From a Christian perspective this resonates with our ethic of safeguarding the members of our community who are at risk for whatever reason.
Recently this protocol has come under question due to increased community concern to address depression and suicide. The aim of reporting suicides in our community would be to hopefully reduce suicide by raising awareness and support for depressed people. My observation, however, is that the protocol is still in place.
The decision by the BBC to broadcast the assisted suicide of a prominent hotelier along with the accompanying advocacy of prominent author Terry Pratchett promoting euthanasia/ medical killing / assisted suicide, takes the reporting of suicide to another dangerous level. It is one thing is to consider reporting suicides in order to engender healthy conversation and support of people at risk. It is another altogether to document someone committing suicide with someone else promoting it. This is not just a bad idea, it is deadly practice!
The term mental health professionals use to describe this ‘copy cat’ suicide syndrome is -“suicide ideation; the broadcast images creating in impressionable minds thoughts about death and dying to the point where a person is drawn to act upon such thoughts”.
Paul Russell’s insightful and worrying analysis, Death in Prime Time,
Award winning British author, Terry Pratchett’s macabre fascination with death will soon bring the assisted suicide of hotelier, Peter Smedley in the Swiss Dignitas facility into living rooms across the UK on BBC 2.
Make no mistake; the broadcast of this so-called documentary will put lives at risk. Every mental health professional knows it as do, for the most part, every editor in the broadcast media. It’s called suicide ideation; the broadcast images creating in impressionable minds thoughts about death and dying to the point where a person is drawn to act upon such thoughts.
The World Health Organisation says, ‘there is strong support for the contention that media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative behaviours, as evidenced by statistically significant increases in completed and attempted suicide rates. These increases cannot be explained by suicides that might have occurred anyway being ‘brought forward’, because they are not followed by commensurate decreases in rates.’ WHO concludes that, ‘Photographs or video footage of the scene of a given suicide should not be used, particularly if doing so makes the location or method clear to the reader or viewer. In addition, pictures of an individual who has died by suicide should not be used.’
We should not be drawn to thinking that the neither the BBC nor Pratchett himself are simply ignorant of this reality. One rather expects that they have simply determined that the ends they seek are justified and that the risk itself is of a lesser concern. This is at best callous indifference to harm.
One imagines that the documentary will carry the usual viewer warnings and possibly even the usual publicising of a suicide helpline in the closing credits, but that hardly absolves the national broadcaster or Pratchett from culpability.
It occurs to me that there’s an interesting parallel here between the actions of Pratchett and the BBC and those who push a legislative agenda to the same end. Ultimately they are both prioritizing their agendas ahead of the risks. The broadcaster’s viewer warnings are akin to the so-called ‘safeguards’ within the legislative framework: they give the appearance of ‘doing-the-right-thing’ but, in reality, protect no-one.
Read the full article, Death in Prime Time. Also Mental illness and euthanasia? and Ethical Social Policy? Euthanasia and People at the Margins of Society, with Particular Attention to People with Disabilities.