Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Care Not Killing warns of dangers of 'copycat suicide' following screening of BBC programme

Care Not Killing, an alliance of over 40 organisations, has today called on the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, to carry out an urgent investigation into the way assisted suicide is covered by the BBC and its link to English suicide rates.

The press release reads as follows:

A programme featuring celebrity author Terry Pratchett was shown on BBC2 on Monday night following a huge amount of advance media publicity. It breaches international guidelines on suicide portrayal and, as such, poses a significant risk to vulnerable people. There is a real risk that copycat suicides will follow the screening.

The WHO international guidelines on suicide portrayal refer to over 50 published studies, systematic reviews of which have consistently drawn the same conclusion, that media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours. This phenomenon is variably termed suicide contagion, copycat suicide, suicide cluster or the Werther effect.

Its recommendations to media professionals include the following:

· Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
· Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
· Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
· Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
· Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
· Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides'

Since 2008 the BBC has screened no less than five docudramas and documentaries portraying assisted suicide in a positive light and none giving the opposite perspective. The above recommendations have been repeatedly and consistently breached.

The programme which the BBC intends to screen on Monday constitutes a major risk to vulnerable people and may also be in breach of the Suicide Act 1961 which was amended in 2010 by the Coroners and Justice Act, making it illegal to 'encourage or assist' the suicide of another person. This new wording was adopted specifically to counter the encouragement of suicide by media or internet amidst concerns following the Bridgend cluster of suicides in 2007.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that suicides in England rose from 3,993 in 2007 to 4,390 in 2009 – an overall increase of 10% and the greatest two year rise in over a decade. Amongst males aged 45-74, the age group of Terry Pratchett and Peter Smedley, the rise has been 16% from 1,174 to 1370. The latter figure is the highest in over 20 years.

It is noteworthy that the national suicide prevention strategy for England, launched in 2002, is failing dismally to reach its targets and, perhaps tellingly, no annual reports are available since 2008.

We are therefore calling on the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to carry out an urgent investigation into the way assisted suicide is covered by the BBC and its link to English suicide rates.

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