14/08/2014 13:35 BST | Updated 14/10/2014 06:12 BST

Press Coverage of Robin Williams' Suicide Shows Editors Won't Learn


The coverage of Robin Williams's death in UK national newspapers reveals not only that some editors treat their own industry Code of Practice with contempt - there is nothing new about that - but also that they seem unable to learn responsible practice no matter how often they are told and no matter what is at stake.

No British editor can claim to be unaware that human lives are at risk here. Again and again in the past decade they have been told by leading charities and campaigns in this field, including the Samaritans and MIND, that suicides can prompt copycat events and that the suicide of a celebrity is especially likely to do this.

This means that, unless editors want to be responsible for the deaths of readers, they should take great care to report suicides with sensitivity and without dwelling on detail.

The history looks like this:

2006: The experts persuaded the industry to include a clause on this in the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practice - but only after a particularly shocking instance of graphic portrayal of suicide.

2008: There was further alarm after the Bridgend 'cluster' affair, when several papers again went over the top, and so the message was driven home to editors again.

2010: The matter was revisited by MPs on the Commons media select committee, who concluded: 'The PCC Code provides suitable guidance on suicide reporting, but in our view the PCC should be tougher in ensuring that journalists abide by it.'

2012: The importance of compliance with the code on this point was raised several times at the Leveson Inquiry.

This week: Immediately after the news broke of Robin Williams's death, MIND says it sent not one but two reminders to newsdesks just in case all of those earlier messages had been forgotten or overlooked.

A further dimension of this history is that editors, the PCC and the Editors' Code Committee and the industry have all held it up as evidence of how responsible and responsive they are. The industry's response to the concerns of MIND and the Samaritans, we were told, proved that it was able to do the right thing.

But talk is one thing and action another, and when it came to reporting the death of Robin Williams this week a number of big national newspaper editors could not resist indulging in reckless and thoughtless behaviour of the kind that MIND and the Samaritans have characterised, with some restraint, as contravening good practice. And the editors did this on their front pages.

In other words, when it came to a big story, front-page impact took precedence over concern for human lives. Some editors simply ignored all the advice of the past eight years.

MIND intends to complain to the PCC, presumably in relation to clause five of the Code, which states:

'In cases involving grief or shock, enquiries must be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion. Publication must be handled sensitively at such times, but this should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings. When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.'

It would be wrong to repeat the content of the newspaper reports, notably those in the Mirror and the Star, but there can be very few people who would regard what they published as showing discretion and sensitivity. Nor did they show restraint in reporting details of the methods used.

So what can be done? Even if the MIND complaint is upheld by the PCC - and the record shows that there is only a one-in-1,000 chance of that - there will be no consequences for the editors who ignored the guidelines and the Code. The PCC is toothless.

And the industry-designed successor, IPSO, will be no better. Its chair, Sir Alan Moses, who has been in post for a month or more, has so far failed to comment on the Williams reporting. But IPSO itself is designed to be as weak as the PCC. In principle it could investigate, but it would not have the money or the clout to investigate the Mirror and the Star on this issue. And we are told it could impose a fine, but its articles of association make a fine about as likely as a flying pig.

IPSO is a creature and a captive of the industry, just as the discredited PCC was, and the discredited Press Council before that. As Lord Justice Leveson concluded in his report, the PCC put the interests of the industry before those of the public.

It is not good enough. In the reporting of suicides, vulnerable people are put at risk. But it does not stop there. The reporting of transgender issues is often just as reckless and thuggish, even though editors have been repeatedly warned.Intrusion into private grief is rife .

So long as editors and journalists remain unaccountable for reckless actions, this kind of cruelty will continue. And there is a strong connection between this behaviour and the lawlessness exposed by the phone hacking trial - ordinary people are seen is insignificant and worthless by some people at these papers. Worse, as a senior journalist was once recorded saying: 'This is what we do, we go out and destroy other people's lives.'

Lord Justice Leveson, after a formal, year-long public inquiry, recommended a solution that makes editors and journalists more accountable without in any way inhibiting freedom of expression. Every party in Parliament endorsed his plan in the form of the Royal Charter on press self-regulation. Past victims support it, and so do hundreds of prominent people require freedom of expression to work. And so does the public, in poll after poll .

Only the big newspaper companies are holding out against this. A dozen or so powerful, wealthy men - among them Rupert Murdoch, who owned the News of the World, and Paul Dacre, the editor of the paper that breaches the PCC Code more than any other - are defying what is a remarkable national consensus. Why? It seems they believe they have the right to monster ordinary people with impunity.

IPSO, to be launched this autumn after many delays, will fail because it can't command public trust. After the scandals of the past few years - from hacking, data theft and the abuse of the McCanns and of Christopher Jefferies through to the mistreatment of a long line of grieving families and of transgender people and to the callous, careless coverage of the Williams suicide, the public will not fall for a son-of-PCC sham.

It is high time the big companies did what the public - their readers - want them to do. It is time they did what their journalists would insist any other industry did, if it had caused so much needless harm and misery. It is time they accepted the very generous deal that Leveson proposed, and agreed that their self-regulator will meet the basic standards set out in the Royal Charter.