Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Not reporting a rise in deaths at Beachy Head

The story seemed a straightforward one. The number of people committing suicide by jumping off Beachy Head in East Sussex was on the rise. There had been 604 searches on the cliff up to the end of August. Some 252 people were saved. This compares with 428 and 423 searches for the comparable period in 2012 and 2011. Despite the rise in numbers, the story I was seeking to tell was a positive one, concerning the excellent work being done by the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team (BHCT), which has saved 2,088 people since it began operations back in 2004. The chaplaincy run teams of people who patrol the cliffs looking for likely jumpers. They are also tipped off if police, coastguards, staff at the local pub and cafe and members of the public see someone they think might be about to commit suicide. It was a good news story. Naively, I thought the BHCT would welcome the opportunity to tell what they did. I could have a meeting, go out with them and ideally meet one or two people who had been saved and put their lives back together. I was looking to do the story for the Church press, initially the Catholic weekly the Universe, then the Church Times and Tablet. It came as something of a shock having explained what I wanted to do, as well as providing examples of previous work, to be told they did not speak to the media. The journalistic hackles went up: the routine response that these people don’t want this story out – what have they to hide did not really apply. It was quite clear what they wanted to hide which was the fact that people wanted to jump off Beachy Head. The argument of the director of the BHCT Mark Pybus was that the media ban applied because they got a rise in people coming up to Beachy Head to attempt suicide whenever there was significant coverage in the media. He highlighted the case of the Puttick family, who died on 1 June 2009. The case, where parents Neil and Kazumi, killed themselves at Beachy Head after five year old son Sam died of meningitis, drew international media attention. In the month that followed there was a surge in the number of people coming to the beauty spot seeking to end their lives. The week that followed the BHCT conducted 33 searches, saving 15 despondent people. Similar patterns have been noted with other high profile cases. The point seemed a fair one, he was also right that I did not want to be responsible for someone jumping off. I tried to explain though that it was a positive article promoting their work and there was a big difference between the more niche like confines of the church press and the Daily Mail, Sun or BBC. I also said that these operations would do the story anyway, whether the chaplaincy spoke to them or not. The chaplaincy could get a constructive sensitive side into the story by co-operating. Nor would they stop the story getting out, as the nationals would likely receive tip offs from the emergency services, some of whom were less than happy anyway at having to pick up the remains of jumpers. The seeming piecemeal nature of the media ban was also irritating. They did seem willing to talk to local papers like the Brighton Argus but not a Church paper, which probably had a smaller circulation. In the end, I could see I was not going to get the full co-operation sought at the start but would settle for an updated version of what the BHCT team had told the Brighton Argus last December, namely that there could be a link between the economic recession and the rising number of people seeking to jump. The intervening months had simply proved the point. The reality of the story was that most of the material required in terms of statistics were all on the BHCT’s website. Beyond that, a simply google search brings up all anyone could want to know about committing suicide at Beachy Head. It was possible to do the story, with virtually no input from the BHCT. This though was slightly bizarre, as the point of the story was to highlight the good work that the BHCT were doing. The story though took on more bizarre twists. Pybus shifted his ground, agreeing that the Church press were not the same as the national media. He was the newly appointed director and could see the need for some good publicity. So he would co-operate but he wanted to see the copy. The Universe had already sent over the feature. I sent him the news story for the Church Times. He then helpfully came back with more up to date statistics. The quote provided was a slight variation on that provided to the Brighton Argus in December. All seemed fine and ready to go. However, then came the question as to how the Church Times was sold, if too many went through the newsagents then Pybus would not agree to the article. Paul Handley, editor at the Church Times confirmed that only 2 per cent of sales went through the newsagent, the rest being via subscription and the churches. This was acceptable. The Universe, however, told Pybus that 15 per cent of their sale went through newsagents. This was too much so the BHCT would not agree to publication. The Universe fell in line, spiking the article. It was surprising that the Universe did not point out to Pybus that there was a thing called the internet. The BHCT seemed to be suggesting that people tempted to jump off Beachy Head were all hard copy readers of newspapers, who bought their copies of these small circulation publications from the newsagents? Given also that any would-be jumper could find all they needed to know about Beachy Head from a google search the argument seemed all the more absurd. In the end, the news piece did get published in the Church Times and the feature went to the Tablet, who did not even enter into this tortuous process of dealing with BHCT. The arguments of BHCT while well intentioned showed a lack of understanding of the journalistic process and how media works in the 21st century. They cannot just control the information flow and by refusing to speak they just limited their own impact.

* British Journalism Review - December 

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