Address by Professor John Horgan to Annual General Meeting of Samaritans

Sunday, 15th March 2009
Filed under:
Suicide and the Press

There is a growing realization of the signifi cance, and seeming intractability, of suicide as a social problem in the Ireland of today. Just before Christmas, the Press Council of Ireland published, as a discussion document, the outcome of a public consultation it had held, with the cooperation of all its member publications, on the topic of Suicide and the Press. It is a calm and measured document, with many good ideas both for journalists and for those affected by suicide or working in the field of suicide prevention, and is available on our website.

These are a good and positive developments None of us is too young to remember a time when it was a
problem that simply wasn’t spoken of at all. This, of course, often had two effects, both of them negative.

One was that the existence and scale of the problem was ignored or misunderstood, so that society’s response to the problem was slow or even non-existent. The second was that the bereaved families all too often had to experience a kind of constrained bereavement, in which the flow of emotion and the flow of sympathy were awkwardly channeled, because people did not know, or were supposed not to know, how the human tragedy had taken place.

Now that things are much more out in the open, grief and sympathy alike can be given full rein. But that does not mean that all the rough places have been smoothed out, or that we can deal with these most difficult of situations easily or with the sense of routine that so often acts as a sort of comfort to those bereaved in the ordinary way.

I know that you have asked me to address you today because the phenomenon of suicide is also one that
can attract considerable press coverage, and because press coverage can have a powerful effect on public
perceptions, on public discourse, and indeed on public policy. With that in mind, I would like to offer a few
thoughts as a way of promoting an informed discussion among those most closely involved.

• Journalists are human beings with their own experiences of bereavement and loss. There are more than
4,000 professional journalists working in Ireland at the moment. Given the incidence of suicide in our
society, it is almost inconceivable that many of them have not had a very personal experience of the
trauma it causes. As this experience and this knowledge becomes more widespread in their ranks, so will
an understanding of suicide and the issues it raises grow among this infl uential group of professionals.

• Some journalists are apprehensive that public commentary on the reporting of suicide in the press is the
fi rst step in a campaign to ban reporting of suicide altogether. They are naturally resistant to suggestions
of this kind, and with good reason: it would simply bring us back to the bad old days when problems like
these were swept under the carpet. It is part of the task of organizations such as yours to help persuade
people to accept that this major social problem needs to be discussed, needs examination, if public opinion
is to be mobilized around effective responses to it.

• Reporting of suicide by the press can play a crucial role in many ways. Reporting that respects the human dignity of those who have died and of those who have been bereaved can not only echo but validate the grief of those who have suffered loss. Reporting that avoids hurtful speculation or unnecessary detail can still be truthful and accurate. At a remove from actual incidents of suicide, thoughtful and well-researched journalism can open up and explore the many issues that have a bearing on suicide – mental health, social supports for people under stress, public policy and resource allocation, to name only a few.

• Because every suicide is different, it is impossible – even if it were advisable – to devise a sort of policy
strait-jacket to be donned by reporters every time they are called out to a suicide tragedy. The basic tools
for reporting suicide are the same basic tools as for everything else: accuracy, timeliness, and respect for
human dignity. In cases of personal grief or shock, however, there are two other gold standards: sympathy
and discretion.

The Code of Practice under which most Irish journalists now operate has a lengthy section entitled Principle 5 – Privacy. The operational part of this principle insofar as it will concern you and the people you help is Principle 5.3. This states:
Sympathy and discretion must be shown at all times in seeking information in situations of personal grief or shock. In publishing such information, the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account. This should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings.

Perhaps I can parse and analyse this a bit for you. The first thing to note is that journalists should exercise
sympathy and discretion both in “seeking” information and in “publishing” that information. This is a Principle that governs, not only what may be published, but journalists’ conduct.

The second thing is that this Principle, and the others in the Code, amount to a sea-change in the norms
of accountability governing the Irish print media generally. Before the creation and adoption of the Code
– some newspapers are already making it part of the conditions of employment of their journalistic staff –
accountability was a crude, blunt, and often ineffective instrument. Basically, people who were unhappy with what they saw in the newspapers and periodicals, for whatever reason, could put up or shut up – in other words, they could take the legal route, and the horrendous fi nancial risks that this implied, or simply stop buying the offending publication.

You could, of course, always complain directly to the publication concerned, and each publication dealt with complaints in its own way. It was precisely because the print media themselves realized that this was not always an adequate response, or a publicly acceptable standard of accountability, that they agreed to set up and fund a regulatory structure which would be entirely independent of themselves – the Press Council of Ireland and my Office.

What has changed is that, in the past, the decision about what was or was not an appropriate level of sympathy and discretion was one that was always made within a newspaper, sometimes by an editor, sometimes by an individual journalist out on a story. There is now an independent system that can decide, if complaints are made, whether that boundary has been crossed.

Although the Code of Practice has been devised by editors, its application and interpretation are in the hands of the Press Ombudsman, whose independence is written into the Press Council’s Articles of Association, or on appeal in the hands of the members of the Press Council – on which representatives of the public interest are in a majority. It is a simple but powerful and effective system of checks and balances that has been created to ensure that the agreed standards are publicly and independently applied.

The final part of this Principle I would like to draw to your attention is the saver at the end:
“This should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings.”
Coroner’s courts are judicial proceedings. Some elements of these proceedings may cause distress for reasons quite unconnected with the press – the fact that they are public and that they often take place a considerable time after death by suicide has occurred may re-awaken the sense of bereavement in all its original intensity.

They are not only instruments of public policy, but are also for the benefit of the families involved, to help
bring closure and certainty, and coroners do everything in their power to assist families in this regard and to mitigate any inevitable distress on such occasions.

They may on occasion request or suggest that the press voluntarily adopt a certain approach in respect of some elements of the evidence that may be given, but they do not have, and would not seek, the power of censorship.

In these circumstances, the “sympathy and discretion” enjoined by the Code of Practice is plainly as applicable to the reporting of the coroner’s court as it is to seeking or publishing information about tragic deaths of this kind.

Although it is, for obvious reasons, impossible to discover what sort of discretion is exercised by journalists
on such occasions, I think I can say with some assurance that discretion is generally part of the stock in trade of journalists, not only when dealing with coroner’s courts, but also on occasion when dealing with matters in the ordinary criminal courts where they are equally free to report any evidence given or statements made.

In some cases involving rape or sexual assault, for example, press reports often avoid the gratuitous publication of graphic material given in evidence, even though this would be legally permissible. The same can be true of murder cases, the precise details of which, if published widely, might in some cases turn even the strongest stomachs. The requirement that justice must be done in public is one of the vital foundation stones of our Constitution; but that is not the same thing as a requirement that everything that is said in a court must be published.

Because every case is different, as in the case in deaths by suicide, there is no handy vade-mecum available which will deal with questions that have to be answered, often in haste, by individual reporters or by editors.

But discretion remains part of every journalist’s toolkit, and just because it is occasionally scant or mis-applied does not mean that journalists are not aware of the need to employ it and to refine it where necessary. It is an instrument that is always honed by experience; and it is now formally enshrined in the Code of Practice as a core value.

Not only journalists, but the Press Council and myself, look forward to a continuing dialogue with organizations such as yours in the never-ending quest for high standards in media coverage of this most distressing of phenomena – coverage that will, with luck, help with other agencies to ensure that the incidence of suicide in our society is rolled back, even if, like many other distressing aspects of human existence, it can never be entirely eliminated.