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Shame on the Hearse-Chasers Who Are Exploiting Hannah Smith's Suicide for Political Gain

12/08/2013 23:27 BST | Updated 12/10/2013 10:12 BST
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Usually the month of August is referred to as the silly season. The political exploitation of 14-year-old schoolgirl Hannah Smith's suicide by both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers suggests we might have to rechristen it the sinister season. Even for a press like ours, with its many well-known moral lapses, the shroud-waving over Hannah's death marks a new low.

Leicestershire girl Hannah killed herself two weeks ago, allegedly in response to cyberbullying on the social-networking site Ask.fm. Even before the full facts surrounding her suicide are known, both tabloid sensationalism-seekers and broadsheet warriors against online trolls have transformed her life and death into convenient symbols, into simplistic evidence that the internet is out-of-control or that girl-bashing trolls need to be reined in.

The grief-invaders at the Daily Mirrorsplashed Hannah's death across their front pages, under the headline: "Stop trolls killing our kids, Mr Cameron." The casual assumption behind that headline is that Hannah was directly killed by trolls - when, in truth, suicide is always an unbearably complicated event - and that the prime minister has a duty to clamp down on social networking online. In one fell swoop, or perhaps foul swoop, the Mirror exploited a teenage girl's death to scaremonger about the internet and demanded authoritarian meddling from on high.

The Daily Mail used Hannah's death to thunder on about the scariness of the internet. Next to a photograph of a smiling Hannah, its hack said parts of the internet had become a "dark cyber playground" where young people are "unleashing the worst kind of mental cruelty upon each other". Apparently Hannah and other youngsters have been "bullied to death" and it is time for the authorities to get more involved in the internet and to control what can and can't be said there.

It wasn't only the tabloids chasing after Hannah's hearse to turn her death into a symbol. In the Guardian, columnist Hadley Freeman, who has spoken out against trolls who attack female journalists and personalities, used Hannah's death as the explosive pay-off in an article on trolling, holding it up as a "tragic reminder that online abuse is a serious problem".

In the Independent, Grace Dent, another campaigner against the online trolling of female journalists, even likened her own experience of trolling to Hannah's cyberbullying. Next to a massive photo of tragic Hannah's face, Ms Dent declared "These trolls won't be stopped, but neither will I". She cited Hannah's suicide as evidence that trolling is indeed a big problem that needs external attention.

Now, the NSPCC has got in on the act, also milking of Hannah's suicide for political gain. It has rushed out a press release for its report on cyberbullying, which is not due out until November, in order to make waves on the back of Hannah's death and the media's obsession with it, and exploitation of it.

There is something grotesque in all this - the deeply cynical use and abuse of a teenager's suicide to promote one's own petty campaigns, whether against the trolling of journalists or in favour of more clampdowns on so-called cyberbullies. The ghost of poor Hannah is effectively being marshalled by these ghoulish death-exploiters, recruited to their campaigns in an effort to give them a bit more oomph and media-friendliness.

Yet it seems possible that the circumstances surrounding Hannah's death are more complicated than these hearse-chasers allowed. The bosses at Ask.fm now claim that Hannah sent the majority of the abusive messages to herself - or at least that they came from accounts set up by someone using the same IP address as Hannah. It remains to be seen how accurate these claims are. But if they are true then they only tell us something we should already have known - that suicide, especially among the young, is a deeply complicated thing, caused by many problematic experiences and emotions rather than just one life event.

The exploiters of Hannah's death are playing a dangerous game - they are implicitly saying that suicide is a reasonable response to bullying, which is a terrible message to send to impressionable young people.

In a sense, Hannah Smith suffered a double tragedy. There was the tragedy of her feeling that, for some reason, she could no longer go on living. And then there was the tragic fact that almost as soon as she was laid to rest both red-top and respectable journalists were propelling her to the forefront of their petty campaigning, turning her from a complex individual with very difficult problems into the simplistic face of their efforts to rush through new laws or overhaul how the internet works. Ultimately, no one can be held responsible for Hannah's death. But many people can be held responsible for the cynical use of her death to score cheap political points.

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