The Press Council has considered a complaint about a series of three articles on suicide that were published in The Age in April 2013. Two of the articles, “Rational Suicide: Why Beverley Broadbent chose to die” and “Beverley’s Choice”, presented the story of Beverley Broadbent who had been interviewed by the journalist several times shortly before she used a lethal drug to take her own life in February 2013.
The first of these articles occupied almost all of the front page of the newspaper, including a large photograph, while the second occupied three pages later in the same edition. The third article (“Suicide a calm and beautiful ending, says witness”) was a follow-up report, providing comments from neighbours of Ms Broadbent and from a friend who was a nurse and had been present at her death. It was accompanied by a story about a suggestion by the Victorian Coroner’s office that, while the term “rational suicide” was close to an appropriate term to describe suicide which had been planned over time and not assisted by others, it had “attracted considerable ideological baggage” and a preferable term needed to be found.
Paul Russell complained that the articles were unbalanced because they presented an extensive and mostly positive treatment of the type of suicide in question, giving it significant prominence and at times glamorising it. He cited the use of the term “rational” in a front page heading and an editorial, which implied agreement with the appropriateness of this kind of suicide. He also said that references to the brand name of the drug used by Ms Broadbent provided a reference point for vulnerable people and while he did not object to it being named, he did object to the naming of an organisation which provides information to help people take their life and of a type of tablet which can assist with the process.
The Age said the articles did not glamorise the issue and particular care had been taken to ensure they were published with special sensitivity and prominent contact details for support services. An “editor’s note” about the reasons for publication had been published on the first day, as had extensive comment from Right to Life Australia. An editorial had canvassed the public policy questions; many letters had been published, including some critical of the publication; and there had been a separate news report of the Right to Life criticisms. The publication said the brand name of the lethal drug and the name of an organisation which could assist suicide did not go beyond what would be well-known by people contemplating suicide, nor did mention of a type of tablet which could also be of assistance.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require a publication to take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. Its Specific Standards relating to Suicide state that reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides; should not give them undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images; and should not describe methods and locations in detail unless the public interest in doing so clearly outweighs the risk, if any, of causing further suicides.
The Council has concluded that the articles themselves did not breach its Standards relating to accuracy, fairness and balance, noting the inclusion of lengthy comment from Right to Life Australia and prominent publication of other views in letters to the editor. The articles also handled the issues in a serious and restrained manner rather than sensationalising or trivialising the issue.
Use of the term “rational suicide” could reasonably be interpreted as approving not only the kind of suicide described in the articles but perhaps a much wider and more vaguely defined range of suicides than was intended by the publication or people whom it quoted. As the Coroner’s office recognised, on an issue of such importance and sensitivity it might well be preferable to use another term. An alternative is to put the term in inverted commas or, at least in a headline, to follow it with a question mark. This applies especially when used, as in this case, in a very prominent front page headline. On balance, however, the Council has concluded that the usage in this instance did not constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards relating to accuracy, fairness and balance.
The Council considers that mentioning the brand name of the lethal drug and of an organisation which could assist with the process may not have been necessary in this context. But it does not amount to a breach of the Standards Relating to Suicide, especially as the information is already widely available to people contemplating this kind of suicide. The mentions of a type of tablet which could also assist were unnecessary and arguably inappropriate but, on balance, were not sufficiently detailed or dangerous to constitute a breach of the Standards.
Accordingly, the complaints about the three articles are not upheld. This conclusion has been heavily influenced by the Council’s belief that, in this instance, extensive and measured discussion was provided by the articles and other material in the newspaper on an issue of major public importance. The Council also commends the complainant for expressing his understandable concerns in a thoughtful and public-spirited manner.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”. It also applies the following Specific Standards relating to Suicide: Standard (5) “The method and location of a suicide should not be described in detail (eg, a particular drug or cliff) unless the public interest in doing so clearly outweighs the risk, if any, of causing further suicides. This applies especially to methods or locations which may not be well known by people contemplating suicide”; part of Standard (6): “Reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides”; and part of Standard (7): “Reports should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images”.