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BBC erred with its suicide insensitivity

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 22/11/2016

Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan
Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan

The depiction or reporting of suicide has to be handled sympathetically and the guidelines covering how newspapers cover the death of anyone by their own hand are quite specific. Under the editors' code of practice from the Independent Press Standards Organisation newspapers are urged not to go into excessive detail to prevent copycat acts.

As this newspaper commented at the time of the broadcast, the last episode of the drama series, The Fall, contained a graphic suicide scene in which the main character, serial killer, Paul Spector took his own life.

The BBC defended the scene by saying it complied with its own guidelines and that few if any people would identify with the character portrayed. The broadcaster further argued that the drama was broadcast after the watershed, but that is a fairly meaningless defence given that those most likely to commit suicide are in an age group unaffected by the watershed limit which is pointless in today's multi-device viewing platforms.

This was a graphic portrayal of a death scene and, while it can be argued that a drama dealing with the dark issues raised in The Fall may make for uncomfortable viewing at times, that is not an excuse for screening Spector's self inflicted death at quite such length.

Again the defence that viewers were warned that the episode would contain strong and violent scenes which some viewers could find upsetting is of little value. This device could be used to cover a multitude of harrowing plot lines but, in any case, is usually disregarded by viewers.

However, it must be said that the three series of The Fall produced a lot of good publicity for Northern Ireland. It showed the depth of film-making talent and the high production values here and the drama was of such a standard as to attract Hollywood star Gillian Anderson as well as our own Jamie Dornan.

It is unfortunate that this episode should result in two complaints to Ofcom, the broadcasting standards body, but that demonstrates that this newspaper was not alone in feeling that the drama overstepped the mark.

We have to remember that suicide is a huge problem in Northern Ireland with a record 318 people taking their own lives last year. It is important that the media in all its forms does nothing which might, inadvertently, lead to any loss of life and the strict guidelines in place on reporting suicide should also apply to broadcasters.

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