Cross-Examination: Law Commission recommends clarification for suicide reporting

Cross-Examination: Law Commission recommends clarification for suicide reporting

 

Cross-Examination is a blog series about current legal issues in New Zealand produced by EJP Communications volunteers.

ELIZABETH MURRAY

With more than 400 instances of suicide in New Zealand each year, the laws surrounding its reporting in the media have caused considerable debate. In July 2013 the Law Commission was asked by the Government to review the media reporting of suicides to clarify this ambiguity.[1] The purpose of the Law Commission’s report indicated whether the current legislation catered for freedom of expression in reporting of self-inflicted deaths, as well as ensuring the public health objective of discouraging copycat suicides.[2] It was thought that the current legislative restrictions on this subject were stopping open, positive discussions about suicide in New Zealand.[3] The need for these discussions is no shock given the high suicide rate in New Zealand currently, especially amongst young people. Currently the Coroners Act 2006 sets out the restrictions around media reporting of suicides. Although it sets out restrictions as to what the media cannot report, it is left unclear which details can be included in the average media reporting.[4] The main recommendation is the repeal of sections 71-73 of the Coroners Act and replacement of restrictions that make it clearer about what the media can and cannot report.[5] Due to current restrictions, the media have taken to talking in code, using terms such as “no suspicious circumstances” surrounded a death, rather than being able to say that it was a suspected suicide. The new recommendations by the Law Commission change this. The report, compiling the recommendations, was tabled to Parliament on the 31 March 2014. Recommendations from the Law Commission on the Media Reporting of suicides include:[6]

  • Current restrictions repealed and replaced;
  • New restrictions only limit reporting the method and fact that it was a suicide;
  • The media is able to use the term “suspected suicide” where the facts support that conclusion;
  • Restrictions will apply to anyone reporting details of suicide including both mainstream and social media;
  • Restrictions apply only to deaths in New Zealand;
  • Exemptions can be issued by the Chief Coroner, but these will be rare and only occur when the risk of copycat behaviour is outweighed by public interest concerns; and
  • The Minister of Health should be required to prepare a new set of standards for reporting suicides, ensuring he/she consults with the media and mental health interest representatives.

The new recommendations clarify the position of non-traditional and social media in terms of reporting suicide. These restrictions around suicide reporting would apply to everyone, not merely the mainstream media. Individuals could face a $5,000 fine for breaching the rules through sites such as Twitter or Facebook, and companies a fine of $20,000.[7] This is likely to be a hard matter to police. However, as Judge McLean has indicated, although it’s hard, it must apply on all platforms.[8] This is presumably to ensure more consistent law in this area and to uphold all citizens to the same standard. This is especially important, given the influence that all types of media have on young people (who are over-represented in suicide statistics).[9] The only area that has not been impeded by these recommendations is restrictions around suicides, which occur in other countries but are still reported. It does not appear that these recommendations would include deaths overseas (an example given in the report is being able to report on the manner of Marilyn Monroe’s death but not that of Wellington barrister, the late Mr Greg King).[10] This seems uneven with the rest of the restrictions. The concern with copycat behaviour is still relevant to international deaths and should perhaps be an area the Commission or the Government should look into in more detail as it still gives rise to concerns of public health issues. However, the report has indicated that there should be a voluntary set of reporting standards for media to be decided upon by the Minister of Health in conjunction with media representatives and mental health experts. This could address this problem but relies on the media being their own judge. These recommendations give rise to public interest about dealing with suicide prevention in New Zealand. Balancing public health issues and freedom of expression is extremely difficult. The ultimate goal is to prevent the number of suicides in New Zealand, but there are differing opinions on the best way to do this. Some groups have said that these proposed changes do not go far enough.[11] These arguments seem to be around full disclosure on suicides to ensure full and frank discussions can be had about the topic through New Zealand media. However, the growing concern that publicising suicides will lead to copycat behaviour must be taken into account. It would be irresponsible for the Law Commission to suggest that reporting the method of suicides should be necessary, as this is shown to have a causal link to the number of copycat suicides.[12] Explicit detail in method is not required to give space to discussions around suicide in our society. New Zealand has the 15th highest rate of suicide in the world and young people are overrepresented in that statistic.[13] Our current regulations are not doing anything to combat this pervasive problem, and with the influence that the media has over our youth, it seems prudent to update media regulations. These new provisions, as recommended by the Law Commission, indicate a positive step forward in informing the public about suicide risks while still being careful to recognise the (sometimes) detrimental impact media reports can have to suicide numbers. On May 22 the government accepted the Law Commission’s recommendations.[14] They will be introduced in a Coroners Amendment Bill in the coming months.[15]

Helplines for Suicide in New Zealand[16]

  • Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Healthline – 0800 611 116
  • Samaritans – 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or  (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
  • Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz
  • What’s Up (for 5-18 year olds; 1 pm to 11 pm) – 0800 942 8787
  • Kidsline (aimed at children up to 14 years of age; 4 pm to 6 pm weekdays) – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline)
  • Child Helpline – (for 5-18 year olds; 9am – 7pm daily) – 0800 366 694 or emailhelp@childhelpline.org.nz
  • www.depression.org.nz – includes The Journal online help service
  • www.thelowdown.co.nz – visit the website, email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626 (emails and text messages will be responded to between 12 noon and 12 midnight).
  • OUTLine NZ – 0800 688 5463 (OUTLINE) (provides confidential telephone support for sexuality or gender identity issues).
  • SPARX.org.nz – SPARX is an online e-therapy tool provided by the University of Auckland, as an initiative of the Prime Minister’s Youth Mental Health Project. SPARX helps young people learn skills to deal with feeling down, depressed or stressed.

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.


[1] Law Commission “Media Reporting of Suicide” (2 April 2014) <www.lawcom.govt.nz>.

[2] Law Commission “Law Commission Recommends Revised Limits on the Current Restrictions for Suicide Reporting” (media release, 31 March 2014).

[3] Law Commission “Law Commission Recommends Revised Limits on the Current Restrictions for Suicide Reporting (media release, 31 March 2014).

[4] Coroners Act 2006, s 71.

[5] Law Commission “Media Reporting of Suicide” (2 April 2014) <www.lawcom.govt.nz>.

[6] Law Commission Suicide Reporting (NZLC R131, 2014) at 7-9.

[7] Law Commission Suicide Reporting (NZLC R131, 2014) at 9.

[8] Dylan Moran “Law Commission recommends changing suicide reporting rules” (1 April 2014) 3News <www.3news.co.nz>.

[9] Ministry of Health “Suicide Facts: Deaths and intentional self-harm hospitalisations 2011” (27 January 2014) <http://www.health.govt.nz/publication/suicide-facts-deaths-and-intentional-self-harm-hospitalisations-2011>.

[10] Law Commission Suicide Reporting (NZLC R131, 2014) at 5.

[11] Dylan Moran “Law Commission recommends changing suicide reporting rules” (1 April 2014) 3News <www.3news.co.nz>.

[12] Jane E. Pirkis et al. “The relationship between media reporting of suicide and actual suicide in Australia” (2006) 62 Social Science & Medicine 2874 at 2875.

[13] Statistics New Zealand “Suicide” (January 2014) <www.stats.govt.nz>.

[14] New Zealand Government “Government accepts Law Commission’s suicide reporting recommendations” (press release, 22 May 2014).

[15] New Zealand Government “Government accepts Law Commission’s suicide reporting recommendations” (press release, 22 May 2014).

[16]Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand “Helplines and Support Services” (15 May 2014) <http://www.spinz.org.nz/page/114-helplines-and-support-services>

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