116.The Government’s 2012 suicide prevention strategy outlined support for the media in delivering sensitive approaches to suicide and suicidal behaviour as a key area for action. The strategy set out two key aspects to that support:
a)Promoting the responsible reporting and portrayal of suicide and suicidal behaviour in the media; and
b)Continuing to support the internet industry to remove content that encourages suicide and provide ready access to suicide prevention services.
117.Samaritans explained the danger of irresponsible media reporting:
Significant worldwide research shows links between certain types of media reporting of suicide and increases in suicide rates. Reports which include detailed descriptions of a suicide method can lead to more deaths using the same method, and dramatic or romanticised coverage of a death by suicide can lead to vulnerable people over-identifying with particular characteristics of the person who has died and this may influence their decision to take their own life.
118.In our interim report, we made clear that there are already clear and coherent guidelines for the media, most notably Samaritans’ Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide. However, as we noted in our interim report,
119.We again note with concern the widespread continued use of the term “commit suicide”, which reinforces stigmatising attitudes from a time when suicide was a criminal offence. This is of significant concern because stigma around suicide leads to vulnerable individuals not seeking the help they need.
120.We remain concerned about the level of non-adherence to the guidelines on media reporting of suicide. While recognising the excellent work that Samaritans do in this area, we are concerned that there appears to be no accountability or responsibility for monitoring adherence to the guidelines. As we noted in our interim report,
When we questioned Public Health England, they did not believe that they were responsible for taking action to counter irresponsible reporting, nor could they identify whose responsibility it was to do so.
121.We found it unacceptable that it has been unclear who is responsible and accountable for media reporting of suicide. We are concerned that Public Health England told the Committee that the accountability and follow-up was not part of Public Health England’s role but was left wholly for Samaritans to deal with. Moreover the progress report on the strategy, rather than outlining in detail any specific action that the Government is taking in this area, just sets out the excellent work done by Samaritans. To be clear, we are not undermining the work of Samaritans in this area, nor are we suggesting that their work is inadequate. But it should not be the role of a charity, whose work is funded by donation, to be ultimately accountable and responsible for promoting and monitoring adherence to the guidelines.
122.We are pleased that, as Professor Fenton told us in written evidence,
PHE and Samaritans remain in regular contact on media reporting of suicides. If there is a concern from the Samaritans on media reporting of suicides, Samaritans has the ability and option to escalate these concerns to PHE and also to the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Advisory Group and its Chair Professor Appleby.
123.We are also pleased that, prompted by our discussions with PHE on this point, these current arrangements will become formalised through a partnership agreement by the end of March 2017. We note the lack of detail on the action that may be taken if concerns are escalated to PHE and we recommend that PHE should include options for action in its partnership agreement with Samaritans.
124.We urge the Department of Health and Public Health England to be vocal and proactive in their support for the work ensuring responsible reporting of suicide. We recommend that there should be a nominated person within the Government/Public Health England who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the Government has a firm grasp of the current media situation and for supporting Samaritans and other organisations and individuals in their work with the media.
126.Work with local media on responsible reporting of suicide is likely to be highly variable, and irresponsible reporting at local level results in a risk of regional clusters of suicide. We recognise that work with local media is likely to be most effective when done at a local level, and note that this is being done already in some local authorities, including in Kent, Devon and Bristol.
127.We recommend that when producing and updating suicide prevention plans, local authorities should include work with local media to ensure good practice in local media sources and to ensure timely follow-up discussions when a guideline has not been followed.
128.In 2006 a new sub-clause on the reporting of suicide was added into the Editors’ Code of Practice. The current version states that:
When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media’s right to report legal proceedings.
129.Samaritans, whose work precipitated the addition of the sub-clause, contend that the current clause in the Editors’ Code of Practice does not go far enough:
The IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice clause on suicide does not sufficiently protect against the introduction of new methods in England, due to the inclusion of the term “excessive detail”. Any mention of the method carries the risk of increasing public awareness.
130.Samaritans argue that the word “excessive” should be replaced with “unnecessary”, noting the particular importance of not including detail where a new and emerging method of suicide is concerned. We agree. Witnesses throughout our inquiry have told us of the dangers of making readily available information new and emerging methods of suicide.
132.We are also concerned about Ofcom’s regulation of broadcast media. We have been made aware of inappropriate and graphic detail of suicide on television programmes. We recognise the need for programme makers to portray dramatic situations but we contend that this can be done without unnecessary and exact detail about a suicide method which could influence imitative behaviour. This is of particular concern where the method depicted is relatively uncommon and where scenes show suicide as being quick, easy and painless.
133.We recommend that the Ofcom Broadcasting Code should be strengthened to ensure that detailed description or portrayal of suicide methods, including particular locations where suicide could be easily imitated, are not permissible.
134.We note the important work done by Samaritans and others relating to the online environment. The internet can provide the means for vulnerable individuals easily to access information about suicide methods; online content about suicide methods “can make suicide more accessible and more lethal by allowing rapid, uncensored dissemination of information about methods”.
135.However, the internet can also be beneficial for vulnerable people, both because they come across help sites and support from online communities and because exposure to suicide content has been shown to discourage individuals from attempting certain methods, where information online portrayed them as unpleasant or unfeasible.
136.The third progress report on the strategy sets out that
The Government expects social media companies, and others, to have robust processes in place and to act promptly when abuse is reported, including acting quickly to assess the report, removing content which does not comply with the acceptable use policies or terms and conditions in place and, where appropriate, suspending or terminating the accounts of those breaching the rules in place.
137.This is promising. However it is unclear whether this expectation has been sufficiently communicated to social media companies and other relevant stakeholders. If the Government expects companies to have robust processes in place, then there must be monitoring of these processes to ensure adherence.
138.We recommend that the Government should clearly set out its expectations of social media companies and relevant stakeholders relating to processes for dealing with harmful content on social media. There should be responsibility within Government for ensuring that these organisations have robust processes in place and for monitoring adherence to the processes.
139.Given that the internet can be a beneficial and timely source of help for vulnerable individuals, action to reduce the danger of the internet for vulnerable and potentially suicidal individuals should not completely repress the opportunities for support, but should increase the chances of vulnerable individuals being confronted with support and help online. Dr Lucy Biddle, who recently led a study exploring the impact of the internet on suicidal behaviour, explained in written evidence that:
Age-appropriate help material should be made available for young adults who commonly access the Internet for advice about emotional distress, self-harm and suicide.
Individuals appear most likely to seek and browse online help when experiencing lower levels of suicidal intent, while those in suicidal crisis tend to actively avoid help sites, links and ‘pop ups’. It is critical to develop novel online help approaches that can reach and engage those in active suicidal crisis.
140.We are pleased that there is research being done in this area. The progress report sets out that
Samaritans is involved in two research projects relating to the online environment, with Bristol and Edinburgh Universities, which seek to increase the understanding of why people look online for help and support, how trust and empathy can be developed in online settings, how people who are suicidal use the internet and the impact this has on their suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
141.We note the research projects relating to the online environment, in which Samaritans are involved. We urge the Government to closely examine the findings of that research and to report back to us on the action that it proposes to take as a result.
99 , paragraph 5.1
100 Samaritans (SPR0072), paragraph 36
101 Samaritans, Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide, 5th edition (September 2013)
102 Fourth Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 300, paragraph 34
103 Fourth Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 300, paragraph 34
104 Public Health England (SPR0166)
105 Public Health England (SPR0166)
106 Kent County Council (SPR0095); Devon Suicide Prevention Alliance (SPR0094); Southwest Zero Suicides Collaborative (SPR0122); Public Health England (SPR0166)
107 ISPO Editor’s Code of Practice
108 Samaritans (SPR0072), paragraph 39
109 See, for example, National Suicide Prevention Alliance (SPR0124); Professor David Gunnell (SPR0032); Samaritans (SPR0072).
110 Dr Lucy Biddle, (SPR0093), paragraph 3.2
111 Dr Lucy Biddle, (SPR0093), paragraph 3.5
112 paragraph 124
113 Dr Lucy Biddle (SPR0093), paragraphs 4.3–4.4
114 paragraph 125