Press coverage of the Bridgend suicides has caused offence and alarm, but a news blackout is not the answer


It was the death of 17-year-old Natasha Randall that made Bridgend a national story. There had been concern about a cluster of suicides by young people there for months, and just ten days earlier the South Wales Echo had run the headline: "Why are so many of our youngsters killing themselves?"

With the discovery in late January of yet another body, Natasha Randall's, the Echo's question also became a question for the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Mail and the rest of the press to address. Two more apparent suicides since then have kept the spotlight on the town.

The attention is unwelcome. Madeleine Moon, the Bridgend MP, told the Today programme: "Absolutely everything I've seen, from the description of Bridgend as a 'death town', 'suicide town', talking about 'suicide cults', is absolutely disgraceful and has actually created additional risk for young people." She went on: "I've got no problem with the media reporting something. What I have a problem with is the breaching of all the guidelines."

And it wasn't just locals who were unhappy. Anne Parry, the head of Papyrus, a charity that works on preventing youth suicides, called (in vain) for an end to the coverage, which she said could have disastrous results. "We are asking media, please do not draw further attention to this situation," she said.

It is impossible not to feel sympathy, but I'm sure Moon and Parry are mistaken. The real problem here is not the reporting, but the suicide toll, and while it is true that some coverage has been clumsy and speculative the story is an unfolding one that has to be told. What is more, it can't be told without talking to people in the town, intrusive as that may seem.

Moon alluded to guidelines, and chief among these is the relatively new clause 5(ii) of the Press Complaints Commission's code, dating from 2006, which warns reporters that when they write about suicides, "care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used".

The clause was introduced because we have learned that publishing such details can instigate further suicides. In one notorious case in 1999, a report of a suicide gave too much detail of the chemical cocktail that was used, and in the ensuing month nine people tried to kill themselves by drinking similar mixtures.

Journalists are not wilfully cavalier about these things, and despite what Moon says I think that by and large those reporting the Bridgend story have conformed to the PCC's requirements (though it is true that "excessive" is an elastic word).

At the same time, however, they must do their job. A number of young people are dead and there was alarm in Bridgend long before the national press became involved. This was not just something made up by the media.

There is a tendency in the expert literature (the Samaritans, the ethics group MediaWise and others have written about this) towards the view that the less said the better; that where there is any risk of copycat deaths the news media should exercise restraint to the point, if not of silence, then of a vagueness that might as well be silence. This is what Parry appears to want, and perhaps also Moon.

But would we really be better off if our newspapers were silent, or almost silent, about such things? Though I can see it is a difficult call, I'm pretty sure the answer is no, because there is not just one risk here; there are several. Remember, for example, that we can't always trust our public institutions to handle such matters properly on their own - the inquiry into the death of four soldiers at Deepcut is a case in point, where public scrutiny made a difference.

Most reporters will tell you that almost everybody who is associated in any way with a suicide never wants the story to be reported. It is horrible, and reading about it through the inevitably distorting lens of journalism only makes it worse. From that angle it can be hard to believe that anything is gained.

Partly for that reason, very few suicides are reported these days, even in the local press; papers deliberately ignore them. That in itself carries the worrying sense of a society sweeping something under the carpet. But single, isolated deaths are one thing; the cluster of seven, or nine, or possibly more, now being discussed in Bridgend is something on a different scale. We need to be told about it, and not just in generalities.

False promise

It was a fine headline: "Did cross-dressing City fraudster fake his clifftop death?" Only the word "Britney" in there could have broadened its appeal. Alas the Mirror's "exclusive" about a missing accountant could not live up to its billing, the absence of any real story betrayed by the weary police comment at the very end: "All lines of inquiry have been exhausted."

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University