Case Number: 910

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Suicide Reports

Annette Beautrais, Principal Investigator, Canterbury Suicide Project, complained to the Press Council about two articles in The Dominion Post relating to an Australian euthanasia campaigner and his wish to introduce plastic “suicide bags” to New Zealand.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

Following the appearance of a front-page single-column article headlined “Doctor Death’s suicide bags on way” on August 7, the newspaper ran a follow-up article “Suicide bags ‘not against the law’” on Page 8 the following day. Both stories referred to Dr Philip Nitschke who founded the voluntary euthanasia group Exit Australia, and the newspaper reported his hope to visit New Zealand, bringing controversial plastic bags developed for use in euthanasia.

The first story said Dr Nitschke has been dubbed Dr Death by his critics, and quoted him discussing how the bags worked. The second story quoted Customs and police officials saying there was no provision to stop the bags being brought into New Zealand, and that it was unlikely anyone would be charged unless someone actually used one to kill themselves and a formal complaint was lodged.

Annette Beautrais complained to the editor and to the Press Council that recommendations in the Ministry of Health resource Suicide And The Media (1999) were ignored and that the articles "clearly breach the widely available recommended guidelines for the portrayal of suicide in the media”. The guidelines include: never report “how-to” descriptions of suicide; avoid the word “suicide” in the headline; avoid placing the story on the front page.

This complaint fails on two fundamental grounds.

First, these are not articles which illustrate "the portrayal of suicide in the media" but are about matters surrounding the contentious topic of euthanasia, which is distinct although it overlaps where death is deliberately induced and premature.

New Zealand society's concern about suicide usually focuses on the tragedy of the high incidence of local youth suicide, and there is general agreement on the need to search for understanding and preventive measures to stop this distressing phenomenon.

The discussion about euthanasia almost invariably concerns the plight of chronically ill and elderly people or those suffering painful and incurable illness, and is more focused on whether euthanasia should be permitted by law. Far from being unanimous, the schools of argument are divided on the desirability of euthanasia. Given this active debate on euthanasia - Grey Power surveying its members, an MP's private bill, the existence of voluntary euthanasia societies - it would be unconscionable for the press to be timid about reporting this issue in all its vigour and variety.

That gives rise to the second ground. Even if this story was about suicide in itself, it should be pointed out that recommendations to the news media in a Ministry of Health booklet have no force as prescriptive rules for running stories. The guidelines are essentially thoughtful suggestions which are presented as strongly worded advisories from the Ministry. But if a publication fails to observe them, that cannot be grounds on which the Press Council upholds a complaint, as Annette Beautrais has suggested.

In its 2001 annual report, under the section "What is news?", the Press Council noted: "Headline news is not what the political leadership or the guardians of special interests determine. It is what experienced newspaper people assess as most likely to impact on the widest number of readers."

Even if these articles were about suicide as such and not euthanasia, there appears to be no breach of the Press Council's Statement of Principles. They are not reports of an individual suicide and subject to the Coroners Act 1988, nor do they touch on the privacy of individuals. They are general news stories about a controversial topic of public interest. There is no criticism of the accuracy, fairness or balance in the stories. There appear to be no grounds for the complaint to be upheld on the normal ethical or professional grounds.

In any story, and this includes stories about suicide or euthanasia, publications should be guided by the general professional and ethical standards required of journalists and as embodied, for example, in the Press Council's Statement of Principles. While supporting the benefits of publicity and greater openness in the reporting of suicide and attendant issues, the Press Council reminds editors of the utmost responsibility to readers for recognising that such issues are complex.