MINISTRY OF HEALTH AGAINST CRACCUMFive complaints were lodged with the New Zealand Press Council against the Auckland University Students' magazine Craccum, Issue Two, 2000, over an article concerning suicide and an opinion piece on the same topic.
The complaints were from the Mental Health Foundation, the Ministry of Health, Dr Annette Beautrais of the Canterbury Suicide Project, the Hamilton Mental Health project team for Community Health, Health Waikato and Mrs S J Nicol. The issue of the magazine was published in early March.
The Council has decided not to uphold a complaint against the major article but it has upheld complaints about the misleading nature of the headline. It has upheld complaints against a companion opinion piece by Tim Selwyn.
Normally the Press Council does not consider complaints against publications such as student magazines, but in this particular case because of the widespread public notice the magazine reached through the mainstream press and television, the Council made an exception to its general rule and accepted the complaints. The editors of the magazine were advised of the situation and offered the opportunity of responding to the Council. They did not take up that offer and finally advised the Press Council that the Auckland University Students’ Association did not recognise the Council.
The Press Council's approach has been to deal separately with the first article which is the editorial feature under Craccum's name, and to separate out the second article, an opinion piece by Tim Selwyn. Many complainants did not make these sharp distinctions between the Craccum article and the opinion piece which the Press Council did.
The first article of three pages “Suicide is Painless?” was preceded by a full-page with large heading “SUICIDE And how to do it” and a panel. In the panel were the sentences in large type:
“This is a warning. The content of this article may shock you. The content of this article may offend you. The content of this article may disgust you. If you have a problem with this, we recommend that you don't read it. Don't say we didn't warn you.”
The article began “Craccum Magazine makes no apologies for this article. We know that suicide is one of the few taboo subjects still left in society. We know that New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the world. We don't know why this is, and we don't know guaranteed solutions to the problem... All we do know is that support helps and silence doesn't...”
The article continued: “Our prime reason for printing this article is to provide information ... this guide is not intended to advocate or promote suicide. This guide is designed to explode the myth that suicide is a 'painless, easy way out'.”
The magazine said that the human body has natural instincts of self preservation, that for those troubled by suicidal thoughts there were people who provide genuinely helpful support networks in the community, and “there are always people to discuss your feelings with. What follows has been printed in order to ensure that you know the full consequences of any such decision you make to end your life...”
The article then mentioned under ten sub-headings, which referred to methods of suicide, the painful consequences of either maiming or death by these methods. The article was accompanied by two graphic pictures of bodies, one with half its head blown away by a shot, the other of a hanging victim.
The second article of four pages was entitled “Last Call” by Tim Selwyn, and is also the subject of the complaints. It was not clearly labelled an opinion column, and followed on from the first article. “Last Call” was an opinion piece discussing suicide. Selwyn opened with the sentence “It is time we had a real debate about the nature of suicide” but then proceeded with emotive and sometimes vituperative language to attack what he calls “the suicide industry”, arguing for people's right to commit suicide and even that some people "deserve to kill themselves" while labelling those who attempt suicide and the counsellors who aid their recovery as “fakes”. His concluding sentence expressed the belief that society could not do anything about suicide and “it's time we stopped acting as if we could.”
The four complaints from mental health professionals had common threads. They were especially concerned that “how to” descriptions of suicide should never be used in this way, that presenting information on methods of suicide could be seen as normalising it and that public communication of methods of suicide might lead to copycat effects in vulnerable individuals, especially among the magazine's target readership (15-24) associated with New Zealand's high suicide rates.
Collapsing the two articles into one complaint, the Mental Health Foundation said: “With its graphic detailing of methods of suicide, distorted essay on the individual's right to choose suicide and its ridicule of counselling as being in any way helpful, the article shows itself to be irresponsible, offensive and unethical.” The foundation added that it was also not too strong to suggest that the essay by Tim Selwyn actually incited individuals to consider suicide as a positive act.
The Ministry of Health's complaint was also based on the premise that suggests that certain reporting of suicide can lead to increases in suicidal behaviour. It was concerned about
“how to” descriptions of suicide, the use of gratuitous photographs and the impact of the depiction of suicide on vulnerable people.
The Ministry said “Last Call” “unfairly criticises counselling services, implicitly discriminates against those with mental health problems, has the potential to cause considerable grief to survivors of suicide attempts and their families, and the families of those who have died by suicide, and can be perceived as encouraging vulnerable people to attempt to kill themselves.”
Dr Annette Beautrais of the Canterbury Suicide Project also complained on the grounds that the articles were “ill-advised and ill-considered” and needed to be evaluated in the context of growing concern and information about suicide that suggests that media publicity may encourage suicidal behaviour. She outlined recommended guidelines for publicity about suicide.
The Hamilton Mental Health project team for Community Health, Health Waikato, was also concerned about “lack of a balanced perspective, with no input from services involved with this issue, the general 'putting down' of those who have attempted or are contemplating suicide and a very limited attempt at promoting help services available.”
Mrs Nicol expressed her concern about the article which she found distressing, having lost a son to suicide last year. Because of the high number of suicides in New Zealand, she agreed there should be awareness of the problem but “not the way these young men have chosen to do it.”
The two editors of Craccum, Ben Thomas and James Cardno, did not respond to the comments, as is usual Press Council procedure, on the grounds that Craccum's publisher the Auckland University Students' Association does not recognise the jurisdiction of the Press Council over its publications.. In undertaking this adjudication, the Press Council agreed to make an exception to its policy of not accepting complaints about publications such as student magazines with a specialised readership “in view of the special circumstances surrounding the Craccum article, and in particular that it had received widespread coverage in the mainstream press and other media.”
On the editors' behalf, the Council notes that in the following issue of Craccum, the editors ran eight pages of letters in response to the suicide articles, and several new articles, one specifically attacking Tim Selwyn's piece. In Issue 3, Thomas reinforced his view of the message in the first issue by beginning his editorial “If you read Craccum and commit suicide, you're a bloody idiot,” echoing the strong anti-drink-drive TV campaign slogan designed to prevent deaths.
He wrote that “contrary to what some of our detractors said, evidence suggests [Craccum] has helped people to talk about the difficulties they are having.” He cites mainstream media coverage, and how the “whole campus has been talking about suicide, why it happens, and how to prevent it, and that can only be positive.”
Thomas apologises for the fact Tim Selwyn's piece was not separated by design sufficiently to distinguish it as not Craccum's editorial view while defending the magazine's right to publish it. Thomas also writes that he was very sorry “to those who had recent experience with suicide whom the article upset. It is a sensitive topic, but too often that is used as an excuse by media to throw a veil of silence over it.”
In issue 3, Cardno says he knows that more students were reading the responses in the following issue of Craccum than ever would have normally, and for this reason, if no other, the previous issue with the suicide articles was a success. “This issue  is the serious response. It airs views that always should have been mentioned; unfortunately, had this issue been the one that was run first, the sad truth is that very, VERY few people would have read it.” The unifying thing about the letter responses was that “like us, they all believe that suicide is a terrible thing.”
The editors reveal in this issue 3 the sobering statistic that five of the six working at Craccum have suffered or do suffer from clinical depression and two have attempted suicide.
It's clear that the editors knew the first article would create outrage. By describing the grim details and pain of suicide methods they clearly hoped to provoke controversy and to shock the age group they represent and write for into being more aware that “suicide is a terrible thing.”
Part of the initial shock wave was the jolt caused by the introductory page with its provocative heading “SUICIDE And how to do it.” The warnings that followed in the panel do not diminish the impact of this formula common to manuals. Here is a guide with instructions, the heading says.
But a “how to” set of instructions is apparently not what the editors or anonymous authors intended. The descriptions of painful deaths in the article are anything but a guide, yet the headline, as can happen in the mainstream press, grabs the attention but leads the reader astray. It was this shorthand which was picked up the by the general media and population and even a coroner, who referred to Craccum's “guide to suicide.”
The complainants' criticisms of the publication as “ill-considered”, “ill-advised”, “irresponsible” or “offensive” all apply to this particular aspect of the magazine's journalism. This part of the complaint is upheld.
The article “Suicide is Painless?” which follows the headline is of major concern to the mental health professionals who complained because of their concern about the potential for copycat suicide. This is central to the gravity with which suicide reporting is examined academically, and needs to be looked at briefly because the research often quoted is not always clear-cut. Two examples will suffice as a pointer.
The Ministry of Health booklet “Suicide and the media” says “a further report by Barraclough et al in 1977 showed a significant rise in male suicide in Portsmouth after newspaper reports of suicide.” However, the academic paper “Do newspaper reports of coroners' inquests incite people to commit suicide?” (Barraclough, Shepherd, Jennings, Brit J. Psychiat. (1977) 131, 528-32) notes that in tests [of newspaper reports causing suicide] on men and women suicides over 45, the relationship was the reverse of that predicted. Also, the degree of correspondence between each suicide in the male under-45 group and the report or reports which preceded it in the previous four days were such that “none of these findings significantly exceed what would be expected by chance.” In the short term influences studied, where a newspaper report might hasten or provoke a suicide “there is no confirming evidence from our study to prove that reports do have this effect.” The paper concludes: “Our findings cannot provide the evidence for banning suicide reports on the grounds that reports cause suicide; but they do suggest that this measure is worth further consideration.”
A paper the Ministry of Health booklet also cites is Professor Riaz Hassan's “Effects of newspaper stories on the incidence of suicide in Australia” (Aus and NZ Journ Psychiat 1995 29: 480-83) in which he finds that “in Australia exposure to the print media is probably an important factor in elevating the incidence of male suicide. High impact suicide newspaper stories raise the suicide risk of vulnerable persons, although it is difficult to say precisely how this happens.” However, speaking at a 1996 Australian Press Council seminar on “The Reporting of Suicide, particularly youth suicide,” Professor Hassan was recorded as saying: “I think it is very difficult scientifically to say that suicide stories cause more suicides. The causal link is something that I don't think anybody can really establish. I certainly can't establish that and my study is the most recent on the subject.”
Mental health professionals believe the weight of evidence is on their side, and the responsible mainstream press certainly pays attention to provisions of the Coroners Act in reporting on suicides, while examining the issue in other articles with some care.
The Press Council does not criticise the editors of Craccum for attempting to tackle the vexed issue of suicide, given its prevalence among the young. Nor is the style or approach of young people talking to young people in this forum exceptional. University student magazines are on the fringe, publishing in a well-recognised student tradition of reportage that can range from the merely provoking to the deliberately tasteless.
In this Craccum, the content is at first shocking, then informative and finally has many references to justify and convey the serious intent of the article: “this guide is not intended to advocate or promote suicide,” “all we do know is that support helps and silence doesn't,” “this guide is designed to explode the myth that suicide is a 'painless, easy way out' (mirroring the Ministry of Health concern, in its media booklet, that the myth has to be removed that suicide is painless -- Myth 5).”
Against this admirable intention must be placed the gory content. But “Suicide is painless?” – and this heading poses a question, rather than states a fact --appears to be in the tradition of the officially approved anti-drink-drive television campaign, where the gruesome and graphic presentation is intended to deter by its shock value. Those who have suffered from terrible car accidents may want the gruesome TV campaign stopped because it rouses memories that are too painful, but what if it can prevent more accidents?
The hurt and embarrassment caused to those who have been closely associated with suicide is acknowledged by Thomas, but equally he feels it is the price for sticking to his editor's mission to lift a veil from a topic of frightening concern to all his age group -- not only suicide, but the ghastly and usually unreported consequences of it.
While the mental health professionals' have concern about the “how to” effect, the grisly details in this article of the effects and results of well-known suicide methods are scarcely the neutral descriptions of a “how to” guide, and if ropes, guns, car exhausts or needles are mentioned it is in the context of the awful aftermath.
The magazine ran a clear and large pointer panel to the Student Health and Counselling Service across the bottom of each page of the article, presumably as a measure of their awareness that the topic is not simply dealt with. It is a practice recommended to the mainstream press, although not always followed in the case of suicide stories.
“Suicide is painless?” is an unvarnished and ugly story about a subject distasteful to many, but it is informative on more than one level and, because of its grim revelations, may well be a deterrent. The Press Council has previously commented on the greater need for openness in discussing the issues of suicide (ADJUDICATION No 758): "Blaming the messenger for causing or worsening the problem, whose basic causes must be sought elsewhere, fails to recognise the important and cleansing nature of the blaze of publicity being focused on the darker side of New Zealand life.”
The complaint in respect of the article “Suicide is painless?” is not upheld. The only part of the complaint about the article which is upheld concerns the headline on the introductory page.
The second article, Tim Selwyn's long opinion piece “Last Call” is a nastier piece of writing. The fallacious reasoning (“ ... the act [suicide] is like their birth: it just happens”), insulting attacks on individuals and sections of society (“Counsellors typically mirror their clientele: losers.”) and the extreme polemic (“It is a cry for help that ought to be answered by a bullet.”) are the hallmarks of an opinion piece whose tone goes far beyond the measured arguments about the right to die. Selwyn's calculated shock attack on social taboos and his obnoxious conclusions leave a repellent taste.
The theoretical purity which his argument pursues takes no account of the human price or emotional pain in this topic and falls short of being convincing. Selwyn's belittling of the role of counselling and the health services is distastefully done and in more temperate language may well have had some point, given the complexity of the topic and the difficulty of stretching the mental health resources available.
Maintenance of the press in accordance with the highest professional standards is an important objective for the Press Council, and ranks equally with that of the objective to promote freedom of the press. In condemning the approach and nature of Selwyn's column, the Press Council notes that the same article has also been roundly attacked in letters to the editor and in other publications.
The Council understands there is no bright line between what is allowable by way of free expression of opinion, and what should call for formal disapprobation by the Council. Examining the opinion article as a whole the Council finds a consistently irresponsible and malicious purpose. The intention seems to be to inflict hurt and scorn on those personally affected by suicide and those performing social work in this tragic field.
One complainant had suffered grief through suicide of a son. She claimed, and the Council accepts, she was speaking on behalf of several families similarly affected. The piece is not redeemed on the grounds of thought-provoking examination of the issues. The Council upholds the complaints against the Tim Selwyn article.
Editor Ben Thomas himself has set Selwyn's column apart from Craccum's own editorial purpose (as he acknowledges he should have done by the design of the magazine) and he may like to examine the standard of such contributions more critically in the future.